Wildly Successful: The African Bush Elephant

By: Jim Knox

Wildly Successful: The African Bush Elephant

Like so many of the world’s children, I came to learn the identity of the world’s largest land animal as an adornment of the alphabet above the chalkboard in my kindergarten classroom. While Mrs. Cully would engage us in colors, shapes, arithmetic, or story time, my gaze would swing past “A” for Ape and gallop toward “Z” for Zebra. Often though, I would settle on “E” for Elephant. The alphabet elephant was invariably gray and happy–smiling with trunk held aloft and two perfect rounded white tusks curving upward. Due to the elephant’s unique design, It was a pretty good likeness to the real beast.

Like all of the other kids, in all of the other classrooms, throughout North America and beyond, I took the elephant as a given, albeit an XXXL player among the planet’s fauna. As immovable as it was incomparable, the elephant was simply a measure of the earth’s immensely varied biodiversity. It was a creature commanding a full two pages of picture books, a mountain of a beast without equal, roaming the jungles and savannas of our young imaginations.

Attaining a towering 13 feet in height, a staggering 33 feet in length and an earth-tremoring 24,000 pounds in weight, the sheer scale of the African Bush Elephant, (Loxodonta africana) is hard to fathom. So far larger than even immense hippos and rhinos, the great beasts defy our senses. Having seen them in the wild–and having retreated from a rapidly advancing bull–please take my word for it. Unlike nearly every other creature, the elephant seemed somehow beyond the often damaging reach of humans. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth.

Along with their close cousins, the Asian Elephant and the African Forest Elephant, Bush or Savanna Elephants are unassailable mammals with no natural predators at adulthood. Yet their natural protected status, imbued by their colossal frames and muscle, cannot safeguard them from human activity. Their commensurate needs of vast habitat and food resources put them into direct competition with humans for space and sustenance. With such competition and survival hanging in the balance, the great beasts are very frequently relegated to national parks and other protected areas to ensure safety for all.

Notwithstanding contemporary threats such as food and water scarcity and poaching for their magnificent ivory tusks, elephants are now facing a new and mysterious killer. For the past several months, hundreds of Botswana’s elephants have been succumbing to an unknown pathogen or illness which does not discriminate between young or old, male or female. Bulls, cows and calves have all fallen. Veterinary pathologists are working around the clock to discover the invisible killer attacking the world’s largest population of the great beasts. To date, leading suspects include, toxins leaching into diminished water supplies and bacterial blooms which can fell these mighty mammals with terrifying swiftness.

While this may seem like a sad yet remote tragedy on a distant shore, it is not. Mysterious deaths and illnesses affect all living creatures and bind us together. In solving the mystery of what is felling the elephants, we are taking steps to further protect the animals as well as protect ourselves and heal our planet. Far more than the happy alphabet-teaching creatures of our youth, elephants are ecosystem engineers. Possessing the unique abilities to: unerringly detect and access hidden water reserves below ground, crack the world’s toughest seed pods to ensure fertilization of key tree species essential for the survival of innumerable wildlife species, and communicate over distances of more than ten miles through the use of low frequency sound waves, elephants are as indispensable as they are astounding. If ever there was a creature warranting study and protection, it is the elephant.

So what can we do? Thankfully, in this age of information, communication and connectedness, there is an organization, an initiative and an app for everything. There are numerous ways in which we can all contribute to a brighter future for these beasts and all the habitat-sharing species they unwittingly protect. For a start, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s 96 Elephants Initiative (www.wcs.org) is successfully protecting elephants in 12 African range countries and has the support of more than one million committed conservationists worldwide. With nearly 90% of contributions going directly toward field conservation for both African and Asian Elephants, The International Elephant Foundation (www.elephantconservation.org) has been leading the way with more than 120 projects supported since 1999. Lastly, AZA’s Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) Initiative (aza.org) contributes nearly $1,000,000 toward Asian Elephant field conservation annually. Additionally, SAFE offers innovative ways to directly support elephant conservation including the purchase of limited edition wines from The Wildlife Wine Club as well as through fun and educational visits to accredited member zoos, aquariums, museums and science centers.

Modern elephants have roamed our planet’s forests and savannas for more than 5 million years. To the present day, these terraforming wonders open game trails through their browsing, germinate, fertilize and disperse countless tree, shrub and grass species, and create water holes for other wildlife with their uncanny sense of smell. Simply, life flourishes where elephants roam. Our species can coexist and indeed benefit from one another. “E” is not only for Elephant. It is also for Earth and it is for Everyone.