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Impact of Elephants 
   in Tsavo, Kenya Trunk Full of Tales

[Opening The Mind] [The Impact of Elephants in Tsavo] [Elephant Emotion]

The Impact of Elephants in Tsavo
By Daphne Sheldrick
1992 Gobal 500 Laureate

Note: This article was taken from The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Home Page at I strongly suggest you visit their home page and learn about the amazing work they have been doing for elephants.

In Tsavo, man has not interfered with natural processes, but stood by and observed and learned from the long-term vegetational cycles and patterns that are Nature's hallmark. During the tenureship of my  late husband, who was Warden of Tsavo East for almost thirty years, we accepted the constant fluctuation of different species triggered by these cycles as natural events, understanding that we still had a lot to learn,  mindful of the fact that most life forms in that arid environment are dependent upon the activities of Elephants.

Many people see a broken branch and cry "destruction" or are alarmed by a tree  ringbarked and felled. They have not had the time to observe the emergence of a new generation of trees, shrubs and legumes planted by the Elephants in their dung seeds of which have been dispersed far and wide in the  long range wanderings of these great creatures. Perhaps they do not understand that 100 miles is a little stroll for an elephant and that Nature never hustles; that the lifetime of a man is but a flicker of an eyelid in  terms of geological time. They overlook in ignorance the part Elephants play in creating waterholes that serve many other life forms, sealing them by the puddling action of their great feet, and carrying away copious  quantities of earth on their huge bodies every time they bathe. It is the elephant trails that are the conduits that lead runoff rain water into these depressions and fill them, thereby benefiting all life forms. By  tunnelling into dry sandy water-courses with their trunks, Elephants have the ability to expose subsurface water that would otherwise be unavailable to others whilst their sheer weight compresses the sands and brings  the underground water closer to the surface. They open up the thickets; create grasslands, and blaze the trails over difficult terrain. In fact, most of the road systems in Tsavo follow elephant trails. Elephants are  essential to the survival of many other less well equipped animals. The branches they break become accessible to smaller creatures and the enormous quantity of dung they produce in a day fertilises the soil.

As Naturalists, attuned by exposure to Nature and a deep love of all things natural, we also came to understand that Nature is never static; that changes are dynamic, complex and often necessary in the long-term; and  that Nature is also amazingly resilient and powerful. Evolution is in progress all the time through natural selection and adaptation to changing situations. Natural selection, Nature's most powerful tool, distils and  hones the genetic base of all living things. We in Tsavo were humble lay folk, conscious of our limitations, and people who accepted that man, no matter how sophisticated, cannot better Nature. The natural world was our  classroom every day for three decades and we attended class avidly and with an open mind.

Contrary to popular belief, the Elephants of Tsavo did not irrevocably damage their habitat; nor did their  activities jeopardise the survival of other indigenous species. They have unquestionably improved the biodiversity of the Park, changing it from desolate sterile scrub thicket where viewing was difficult and the tourist  appeal so low that the Colonial Government almost abandoned the Park in the sixties, to a beautiful mosaic of grassland and Acacia open woodland that now boasts more tourists and revenue that any of the other Parks,  Nairobi, Nakuru and Amboseli included. The Elephants did not destroy the vegetation; they modified it and today it supports a greater variety of wild animals than any other Park in the world. Not only is it here that  the Northern and Southern races of fauna meet but species that were absent when the Park was first created have again appeared. I speak of Topi, Oribi, Sable, Abbots duiker and even Brown Hyaena, never before reported  in East Africa.

When the elephants' work was done, we waited anxiously to see what would happen. It was then that we witnessed Nature's way of controlling numbers in a one off event that only need ever  happen once in an elephant's lifetime, and which by removing specific female age groups from the entire population, puts the population into the long-term decline necessary to relieve the pressure on the vegetation, and  allow regeneration, regrowth and renewal.

Many people feel that to allow elephants to die of malnutrition is cruel and inhumane. But we must remember that malnutrition is a natural end for an elephant -  the way it would die in old age once the last set of molars is worn. Malnutrition is not the same as starvation, because the stomach is not empty. What it contains simply does not provide the many nutrients vital to  Elephant health and so the elephants gradually become weak and comatose, spending lengthy periods near permanent water asleep under trees. When they are too weak to get up, they die surrounded by their loved ones, just  as we humans would choose to die. Surely this is preferable to dying in mindless terror amidst a hail of gunfire, calves getting trampled in the ensuing mayhem, remembering also that elephants communicate long range  with infrasound, so the trauma is transmitted to others many miles away. Culled populations are psychotic populations, and stress takes its own toll on health, as we humans well know.

It is for a very good  reason that Nature has made the elephant a greedy and "wasteful" feeder. Despite its great size and awe-inspiring strength, it is essentially a very fragile animal; fragile in infancy and the first to feel the  affects of food deprivation. When an Elephant has overtaken its food resource, it loses strength rapidly and the end comes quickly and cleanly; always near permanent sources of water, because Elephants are so water  dependent. (Hence the myth of the Elephants' graveyard).

Nor is it an accident that Nature has determined that female elephants are bonded strongly into female family units for life, led by the oldest cow  in the family, who is the Matriarch responsible for making all the decisions. This is by design in order to target the females, who are the breeders. When the time has come, the Matriarch will be the first to feel the  affects of malnutrition and will take her female unit to permanent water. There they will die en masse, removing female generations from the entire population, a process that is necessary to create the gaps that inhibit  recruitment and put a population into decline, thereby relieving the pressure on the land. This is also when Nature imposes its most powerful tool Natural Selection - so that only the fittest will survive and the  population will be the better for it.

To me, it seems almost incomprehensible that only six years after the international trade in Ivory was first banned by another CITES Convention, once again the world's  N.G.O.'s had to assemble in Harare to plead for the Elephants and to urge the International Community to uphold the ban in the interests of the survival of these majestic and marvellous animals. Unhappily, the forces of  greed and commercialism prevailed in a very unethical manner in Harare. It was a Conference marred by secret ballots, underhand deals, death threats and abuse but which resulted in the selfish decision to trade some of  the Southern African ivory stockpiles to Japan. This will undoubtedly, as before, result in an upsurge of poaching. Indeed, it already has. When the Hong Kong stockpile of Ivory was sold in the eighties, another 10,000  elephants died and now we face the same scenario again. How regrettable that the lessons of history are not heeded, and that the same old mistakes have to be repeated time and time again at great cost and suffering.

A cow elephant has just one calf every five years, so in Elephant terms, six years is just time enough to allow a second generation of babies soon to be born into this troubled world which in no way  compensates for the slaughter of two and a half decades, when literally hundreds of thousands of elephants perished to fuel the mindless demand for an ivory trinket. The poaching holocaust of the seventies and eighties  is very alive in my mind today, because it has fallen to me to hand-rear many orphaned babies. Our oldest orphan, Olmeg, who came to us as a tiny infant of 2 weeks old, in desperate straits, is now aged 12, and mingling  freely and at will with his wild friends. Through closely monitoring the progress of our orphans, we have seen how severely the poaching holocaust has disrupted Elephant society, plunging their social structure into  chaos. It has left them traumatised, rudderless and even more vulnerable and fragile.

The Elephant Matriarchs of today are young and inexperienced. Many are trailing a long line of orphans who have been  left with no living relatives of their own. The bonds between these groups are not as resilient as those of a real family. Some of the young Matriarchs snap under the pressure of responsibility forced upon them so  young, and they abandon their charges, opting out and causing further emotional stress with youngsters confused and at the mercy of predators. We have first hand knowledge of this, because one of the orphaned elephants  we reared during the three decades that my husband was the Warden of Kenya's Tsavo National Park, the famous elephant Eleanor, now a Matriarch of over 40 years of age, who has cared for the younger orphaned elephants  since the tender age of 5, has done just that. This would be unheard of in a normal elephant family that enjoyed the luxury of peace and stability.

Added to this, an expanding human population in many  countries in Africa has brought another set of problems, depriving the elephants of the space that is so crucial to their wellbeing. It has compressed them into areas that are too small to be viable for them, deprived  them of their ancestral migratory routes and separated families and friends from one another. In our country, what is termed "problem animal control" has taken almost as great a toll as the poachers in recent  years - well in excess of 100 elephants in 1996 whereas the number known to have been taken by poachers is 72. Furthermore, make no mistake, the illegal Ivory trade is alive and well. In fact, it is flourishing and can  be likened to the trade in drugs. Elephants continue to die daily and on a massive scale in troubled countries such as the Sudan and Zaire, in Southern Tanzania where poaching is rife, and also in Northern Kenya and  indeed, anywhere, where a man can get even a pittance for a tusk.

Elephants are a Flagship species vital to the tourist industry that is the arterial lifeblood of our East African economy. They mirror us  humans in many ways - in terms of longevity, in terms of development, in terms of family ties and lifelong bonds of friendship. They have all the emotions of us humans - all the good traits and few of the bad. I know  elephants intimately, having lived amongst them since the age of 21, and having hand-reared 30 of their orphaned young, 14 from brand newborns. When you raise an animal, and come to love it as you would your own child,  you begin to understand the mind. We must liken the emotional trauma of the Elephants to that of humans under similar circumstances of hardship and deprivation. To deny this is simply to display gross ignorance born of  human arrogance. I am convinced that what we humans lack today is a reverence for life, and that this is something we should try and engender. We should understand and accept that others that happen to share our planet  with us are not ours to manipulate and consume according to our whims but are here for a purpose., They, too, have rights because they are a vital to the well-being of the whole; an integral link in the complex chain of  life. They belong to, and are a part of the natural world, of which we humans are also just a part. They are not here simply to be utilised according to the dictates of human vanity and greed as a mindless commodity.

Finally I would like to quote the words of Sir Crispin Tickell whose credentials would be as long as this lecture - for example:

Warden of Green College Oxford: Chancellor of the University of  Kent in Canterbury: Chairman of the Climate Institute of Washingtron: Director of the Green College Centre for Environment Policy: Chairman of the Government's Advisory Committee on the Darwin Initiative:, Convenor of  the Government Panel on Sustainable Development: member of the Diplomatic Service: Chief' de Cabinet to the President of the European Commission, Ambassador to Mexico: permanent Secretary to O.D.A. and British Permanent  Representative to the United Nations for many years: President of the Royal Geographical Society etc., etc.,

... "as long as Nature is seen as something outside ourselves; frontiered and foreign,  separate, it is lost both to us and in us. It follows that to achieve a society in harmony with Nature, we must be guided by respect for it. We should direct and integrate our lives consistently with it rather than try  to subjugate and control it. This requires deeper understanding and acceptance of Natural processes, and an ability to cope with their inherent uncertainties. Thus in the area of conservation, we should move from the  static idea of conservation of places and things to the conservation of process, to allow natural processes to function, and to create conditions in which they can do so."

Copyright © 1992-1999 By Daphne Sheldrick

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