Ensuring the survival of the elephant in today's Africa is an increasingly complex problem. The ivory trade (both legal and illegal) and the tremendous increase in human population in Africa have taken a serious toll.
In 1979, there were estimated to be 1.3 million elephants in Africa; 10 years later, there were only about 600,000. In Kenya alone, the elephant population plummeted from 130,000 in 1973 to less than 20,000 in 1989, a loss of 85%. The reason for this catastrophic decline -- the ivory trade. The combination of growing human populations and resulting loss of wildlife habitat has exacerbated wildlife-human conflict that has created yet another threat to the future of the elephant. Realistic solutions to the problems facing Africa's elephants can be developed only with the help of comprehensive long-term research studies. These studies provide such critical information as elephant birth rates, death rates, ranging patterns and nutritional needs. Studies have revealed that elephants communicate at a very sophisticated level; that they celebrate birth, have lifelong friendships and appear to mourn the death of family members. Research has shown them to be highly intelligent with the ability to reason and problem solve and has detailed the elephants' complex social structure.
These discoveries have altered the way in which conservationists approach the management of elephant populations. What was once viewed as just a herd must now be respected as a family. What was once seen as ivory on the hoof must be recognized as a matriarch whose accumulated knowledge can keep her family alive in times of drought or famine. The magnificent bull with 100-pound tusks is a prime breeder who should be passing on his genes for health and longevity not gracing the trophy room of a sport hunter.
However, there are still many unanswered questions about elephants, such as the extent of their intelligence, the dynamics of their social relationships, the determinants of their ranging patterns, and the differences in their ecology and behavior across Africa.
Of equal (if less obvious) importance is the fact that the presence of a researcher in an area can be a significant factor in reducing the incidence of poaching. Having someone in the field, observing and recording elephants' movement and behavior, as well as causes of death, is crucial to their protection.
"If the elephant vanished the loss to human laughter, wonder and tenderness would be a calamity." -- VS.. Pritchett