According to a Kenyan proverb that seeks to encourage the downhearted, “there is nothing elephant.” Taking into account the astounding size of the African elephant, the proverb means simply that no problem is insurmountable; that no setback looms so large that a solution cannot be found. An elephant, according to this ancient wisdom, is the only thing larger than life.
Ironically, one problem that has reached such proportions as to defy this proverb is the fate of the African elephant, which conservationists fear may well be extinct in 50 years. This is not a farfetched prospect, judging by recent reports of the killing of up to 300 elephants in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. Poachers killed the elephants by poisoning the animals’ drinking wells with cyanide, then harvested their tusks for sale, according to news reports. This method of poaching is particularly worrisome because it kills so many more elephants than the poachers could kill with snares and guns.
Sadly, the killing of African elephants is now beyond worrying. The population of African elephants declined from 1.3 million to 600,000 between 1979 and 1987, according to the Center for Conservation Biology. Since then it’s been a downhill trend for the majestic mammals. An estimated 36,000 elephants are killed every year, and many of the countries where the animals once roamed now have less than 1000 elephants left.
Truth be told, in Kenya, and probably in most of the other 37 countries where African elephants are to be found, most young people have never actually seen an elephant. And so it is only in theory, from reading the facts, that most Africans can get to know all the fascinating information – that the African elephant is the largest animal on land; that they move in herds of related females and their calves; that several herds sometimes come together to form a clan; that they mourn and bury their dead and visit the gravesites later, an amazing indication of the animals’ intelligence and self-awareness.
Elephant researcher Martin Meredith, in his book Elephant Destiny: Biography of an Endangered Species in Africa, recounts the story of a Turkana woman in Northern Kenya who awoke from a nap under a tree to the petrifying sight of an elephant gazing down at her. Her decision to play dead had the most unexpected result. The elephant and other members of its herd screamed in mourning, as elephants do when they bury their own dead, and covered the woman with branches in a premature burial ceremony.
It is this incredible species that now faces extinction as a result of the ivory trade. Shortly after the reports of the killing of hundreds of elephants through cyanide poisoning in Zimbabwe, another troubling story was published. This time, the victim was a park ranger, attacked and trampled to death by three elephants in the same national park while he worked on an anti-poaching campaign aimed at saving the animals.
This same species once mourned and buried a woman. It is a remarkably sad commentary on how humans have fared in our responsibility to conserve wildlife.
By: Carol Gachiengo