Winning the Battle for Elephants


Anna Pivovarchuk, Fair Observer

Date Published


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In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Rob Brandford, executive director of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, one of the world’s leading conservation charities.

The world is a finite resource, with all living organisms competing for space and sustenance. Nature’s grand design has kept the delicate balance of animal populations and ecosystems in place for millennia, before man intervened. The thinking animal possesses an unnatural drive for expansion and destruction and, with over 7 billion people alive today—a nearly 5-billion increase over the past century—the animal and plant kingdoms are losing the battle for habitat.

Because we don’t know the exact number of species that exist in the world, extinction rates are notoriously hard to model. Yet, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), we may be losing species as fast as 1,000 to 10,000 the natural rate. Poaching, industrial fishing, pollution, oil spills, deforestation and effects of climate change are all contributing to the numbers of wild animals declining sharply.

There are currently just under 2,000 giant pandas left in the wild, 880 mountain gorillas, 540 Amur tigers, 5,000 black rhinos, with the West African black rhino subspecies announced extinct in 2011. The African elephant population has declined from between 3 and 5 million to under half a million in the course of a century, with 30,000 lost each year to poaching alone.

In 2012, scientists estimated that to fully protect the world’s endangered species would cost $76 billion annually. Considering that in the US over $100 billion was spent on beer alone in 2010, this intimidating sum seems to be a small price to pay for saving our planet.

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Rob Brandford, the executive director of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT), which, having pioneered the orphaned elephants project, has been at the forefront of conservation efforts for nearly 40 years.

Anna Pivovarchuk: For those of our readers unfamiliar with the history of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, could you tell us how it all began? It is quite a romantic story.

Rob Brandford: It certainly is. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was founded in 1977 in memory of David Sheldrick, by his wife Daphne—who is now Dame Daphe Sheldrick DBE. They had lived together in Tsavo National Park for some 30 plus years, where David was the warden. He was there undertaking all the anti-poaching efforts and essentially making it a wildlife safe haven. And when he passed away, Daphne wanted to continue aspects of his work—together they had been raising orphaned animals—and she wanted to carry that on in his memory.

And that is what it is essentially founded on—the principles of David Sheldrick, who was an aspiring naturalist and very much focused on insuring there was always viable space for animals, now and in the future. That is very much the ethos of the charity today and some 40 years later—it’ll be our anniversary next year—we have grown from strength to strength based on that principle that animals matter and that they got a right to life just as much as we have.

Pivovarchuk: So what does the trust focus on specifically?

Brandford: When we were first founded, it was very much based around elephants. Dame Daphne Sheldrick, through 28 years of trial and error, pioneered the necessary milk formula and husbandry needed to raise an orphaned infant baby elephant. A lot of people don’t know, but baby elephants can’t be given cow’s milk—they need a very specialist milk formula—and, as it happens, human breast milk formula works pretty well for elephants. It’s not ideal—it’s obviously not as good as having their mother’s milk—but it’s the best alternative that we have at the moment. We use those breast milk formulas with various supplements that we have to raise these orphans. So that is how we started out in 1977.

Rescuing and raising elephants so that they can return to the wild, which is the focus of that project, is almost futile if we are not doing other work to protect the species. So outside of that we built other operations, which include anti-poaching efforts in partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service, aerial surveillance efforts, we’ve got mobile veterinary teams, we’ve got a project very much focused on securing wildlife habitat—so we protect very specific areas of land so that the elephants have the space to roam.

And around all of that, of course, is the community. The future of all wildlife rests in the fact that those living alongside animals need to understand the value of the animals and to want to protect them themselves. Because, of course, everywhere in the world we’re facing a competition for resources. It doesn’t matter where you are, there are more and more humans every single day—they need housing, they need space. And of course animals need space, and they are being pushed into smaller areas. So a big focus of the DSWT is securing wildlife habitat so that there will always be space for animals to roam.

Pivovarchuk: So what do you do in terms of educating the local population?

Brandford: There are lots of issues when it comes to local populations. Kenya is an impoverished country in parts. It is very wealthy by African standards, but there are a lot of people living below the poverty line who look for ways to feed their family, sometimes through bushmeat poaching, where they will lay various snares and traps that might capture antelopes and other animals, but unfortunately often capture elephants or predators like lions. The concern is that bushmeat poaching is now a commercial activity, stealing prey from other animals, decimating local populations and trapping unfortunate wild passers-by.

We reach out to schools, focusing on the youth, talking to children about the importance of their wildlife. We’ll take schools on free fieldtrips into the national parks, because without us doing that they would never get to actually go and see their wildlife, because you need a vehicle to go to a national park. We’ll take schools on our minibus with a guide so they can engage and learn about elephants, rhinos, antelopes, giraffes and see the beauty of these animals up close and want to protect them. And we’ll support local communities with equipment for their schools, improving their learning facilities so that they can see that an organization that is helping wildlife also cares about the people.

And, alongside that, we organize radio interviews where our elephant keepers—we employ them from various tribes from across the country—talk in their local mother tongue, so that communities in very remote locations hear a Kenyan talking about the importance of elephants, why we need to protect them. And that educational message is key and it’s had great success for us in terms of just helping people on the ground to realize, We need to save these animals.

And so when you look at them and they are playing like kids would play in a playground or kindergarten—because they all have unique characters, there’s naughty elephants, there’s playful ones, there’s one that will steal bottles of milk from the other ones—you see that and it’s beautiful, and they look so fun and cute, but of course behind that is often the most tragic story.

And the reality is—we don’t look at it like this—but if you looked at elephants in terms of their financial value, an elephant is worth 76 times more alive than it is dead. So if it’s killed for its ivory, that ivory might bring in perhaps $20,000. Over his lifetime, that elephant will bring in more than $1.5 million through tourism, through people coming to Africa to see those animals. So that money helps the country, so of course it’s sharing as well with the people that actually you benefit in the long term from these animals being alive.

Pivovarchuk: So that is what you are trying to educate the young kids about?

Brandford: With the kids we use less the financial side—that’s more if we’re on the radio in Kenya, or if we’re hosting events in Kenya. Or talking to politicians, because of course with politicians it’s all about money. So with them, we’ll make the point of, Actually, there are financial reasons we need to save these animals. Let alone the environmental reasons, which are massive, and the moral reasons—the fact that these animals have the right to roam, that they’ve been on this earth for millennia and they are important.

They bring so much to our ecosystems, and if we lose elephants, we lose various other species who are completely reliant on them. Because elephants clear routes through forested areas so that grazing animals can access grasslands; they dig for water in the dry season, so where riverbeds have dried up, elephants will actually dig water holes in those so that other animals can also benefit. And there are certain trees that we will lose forever because they only germinate when they’ve passed through the digestive tract of an elephant.

These are incredible animals, they shape ecosystems, bring huge wealth to the countries where they exist and have an aura about them—they bring a goodness and they can read your heart, which is something I found. And, as Dame Daphne Sheldrick always says, anyone who has that moment with a wild elephant will get a sense of majesty and awe and that just does make you want to—quite rightly—want to protect them.

Pivovarchuk: What does make elephants so special? There are certain animals that people feel more impassioned about protecting, like the panda. When I went to the orphanage in Nairobi, you see these baby elephants who are incredibly cute and cheeky, it is heart-breaking to think that someone might kill them for their tusks.

Brandford: Well that is the sad thing you’ve just identified it kind of perfectly there, for example, when we look at the orphanage, right now in the nursery alone we’ve got 26 baby elephants that have lost their mothers. And many of those have lost their mothers through poaching, purely so that the tusk can be sold, predominantly in China, which is the biggest market for ivory. And those babies without our intervention would die.

There are so many studies out there that demonstrate elephants’ intelligence, but because they are so like humans, as a species they really capture our hearts. And so when you look at them and they are playing like kids would play in a playground or kindergarten—because they all have unique characters, there’s naughty elephants, there’s playful ones, there’s one that will steal bottles of milk from the other ones—you see that and it’s beautiful, and they look so fun and cute, but of course behind that is often the most tragic story. Because they shouldn’t need us—they shouldn’t need us playing the role of their mothers.

And that is what our keepers have to do: They are with the orphaned elephants 24 hours a day, they sleep in the stables with them, they feed them specialist milk every three hours, they put blankets to protect the from the sun or to keep them warm on colder days, they hold umbrellas over them because elephants have sensitive ears—and of course in the wild they would stand under their mother’s body, but of course their mother has been taken away by a poacher.

What we’re doing is demonstrating a long-term commitment and holistic approach to protecting elephants. And that’s why I say it is not just about the orphans for us because that’s a 10-year process. That’s how long it can take to carefully re-integrate back into the wild, so that it starts mixing with wild elephants and ultimately one day completely goes wild, and has its own wild-born young. There are 18 calves born to ex-orphans that we know of, which is incredible and that’s testament to the hard work of all our field teams at the Sheldrick Trust that they’ve had those calves and they are starting their own elephant populations.

We can’t stress enough the need for boots on the ground—our anti-poaching teams patrol with the Kenya Wildlife Service to arrest poachers, remove deadly snares and capture those with poison arrows because that’s probably the biggest poaching threat in Kenya—poison-arrow poaching. An elephant hit with a poison arrow might take a week for that poison to take effect, and for that week that elephant is suffering until it ultimately dies. And then it will have its face hacked off so that ivory can be taken out, smuggled out of the country and sold. As I said, predominantly in China, but not just China—Hong Kong is a big hub as well. And even the United States, which remains the second largest market for ivory in the world.

Pivovarchuk: In the 1980s, some 100,000 elephants were being killed every year, and now the numbers have come down to around 30,000. What is being done to protect the elephants? What more needs to happen to stop them from going extinct in the next decade, as some predict?

Brandford: There’s a few steps that need to happen. Poaching is falling. There are certain parts of Africa, central Africa particularly, where it isn’t and in fact there are some places where it’s on the rise. But in East Africa, which is where our operations are based, poaching levels have fallen. They’re still too high: We are still losing more elephants that our birth rates allow, so we would slowly lose the species if more wasn’t done.

The ivory trade involves organized crime: There are kingpins involved in the ivory trade—beyond the poacher, there is a whole series of people above making huge money off trafficking and trade. This trade—illegal wildlife trade—is worth up to $20 billion a year, so there’s money to be made.

But we are seeing the kind fruits of our labors in a sense that we were losing 35,000 elephants a year between 2010 and 2012; that figure is probably below 30,000 now—it’s probably closer to 25,000. That is significantly too many. Really, we should be losing zero elephants to poaching. But that number has fallen, and in Tsavo where we operate we’ve seen poaching fall by 50% over the last three years, which is testament the work that we do there with the Kenya Wildlife Service. And that’s where we see the success so we know that what we’re doing works.

But beyond that, conservationists need to educate the buyers through campaign efforts in China, Hong Kong, even in the US, making people aware of what’s happening. A lot of people have no idea that an elephant has to be killed for its ivory to be removed. For many many years—and it’s still the case for many people in China—it was believed that the tusks (which translates as teeth) just fall out. But of course they don’t just fall out; 25% of that tusk is inside the elephant’s head, and this is why we see these horrific images of elephants with their faces hacked off, because the poacher wants all of the ivory.

What’s happening is going in the right direction. In the US there’s a ban on ivory sales—there’s an international ban on ivory sales, but there are certain domestic markets that have been allowed to happen. President Obama has changed that in the US, and in even in China it was announced in September, and they re-affirmed it this year—they are putting in place a timeline to ban their domestic ivory trade, which will be significant for protecting the species and saving elephants in the future.

Pivovarchuk: So what can people do, aside from donating to the charity and not buying ivory, to protect the elephants?

Brandford: There’s a lot people can do. Obviously, charities can’t function without donations, so of course those who can give, it’s fantastic. And we have our elephant orphans fostering program, where for $50 someone can actually become a part of an elephant’s life. It’s an incredible way for people to get to know the orphans in our care better and the species as a whole—how human they are with some of their characteristics, which makes you want to protect them more. Fostering or giving a fostering gift is an incredible thing.

But beyond that, there’s really simple things we can do that cost nothing. Social media is alive and well. At the DSWT, we are on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. If people start sharing our stories in their feeds, they are going to help reach new audiences for us. It’s an incredible thing that costs nothing that everyone can do, just share the stories about elephants from those reputable charities and NGOs doing the work.

Beyond that we run a campaign called iworry, which is focused around banning the ivory trade completely—we have petitions and specific actions people can take. It’s about getting the world to take note of what is happening and to get government leaders to ban ivory trades domestically.

We’re also pressing very hard as CITES, which is the Conventional International Trade in Endangered Species, meets in September and they will be discussing any trade in ivory and trade in rhino horn, because rhinos are also being decimated. We want to push those leaders, because the decisions they make have global implications, to make sure that no legal trade in ivory is allowed, that any proposals for ivory trade are blocked and to try and move elephants from what’s called Appendix 2 to Appendix 1.

In three south African nations elephants are classed as Appendix 2, which means that those countries can basically sell their elephants. This year, we’ve seen Zimbabwe selling tens of elephants to safari parks in China, capturing them from the wild where they are living happy lives and moving them to a lifetime of confinement.

This wouldn’t happen if those animals were Appendix 1. Such sales give a mixed message to the world: If you’ve got organizations like ours saying that we’ve got to save the elephants, they’re being decimated for their ivory, and at the same time you’ve got other African nations selling elephants because they are saying they’ve got too many, which isn’t true—there aren’t too many elephants in Africa, it’s just the routes where elephants would roam are blocked by humans.

People can write letters to their politicians, depending on where they are, about the fact that they want ivory banned. A quick search on any search engine will tell you what your country’s stance is on the ivory trade. France has a ban, which is amazing, but the United Kingdom doesn’t. If it’s considered antique ivory, it can be sold. But any ivory trade acts as a smokescreen for the illegal ivory trade, which is why we need a complete blanket ban on all ivory so there is no risk of illegal ivory being pushed into that system.

Pivovarchuk: You often see public destruction of illegal ivory. It obviously raises public awareness, but does it also raise demand for more ivory and drive the market?

Brandford: There is a lot of debate. There are those, predominantly from those countries that want to sell ivory, who think what we should do is flood the market with ivory, because they believe that if we do, it will bring the price down. All the evidence says that will not happen. We didn’t have a poaching crisis pre-2008. The reason we are in the situation we’re in is because in 2008 CITES decided to sell around 90 tons of ivory to China and Japan. All that did was re-awake a market that had been in steep decline. The minute that ivory was made available, demand went up, prices rocketed, and ivory went to being worth more than $2,000 a kilo.

You know, in South Africa we see rhino poachers with helicopter gunships, because there’s so much money involved. So that’s what makes it very hard—because we need our guys on the ground who are protecting them to have the same kind of assets, the same technologies, the same tools to be able to save those animals.

The ivory trade involves organized crime: There are kingpins involved in the ivory trade—beyond the poacher, there is a whole series of people above making huge money off trafficking and trade. This trade—illegal wildlife trade—is worth up to $20 billion a year, so there’s money to be made.

I was in Kenya at the end of April where the president set fire to 105 tons of stockpiled ivory. In our mind that ivory has no value; that ivory only has value on a living elephant. It’s why we use the phrase “worth more alive.” Elephants are worth more alive. Ivory is essentially worthless. And that’s why it was burned. Globally it sends a very powerful message. As you said, you get a lot of media coverage and it helps people realize there is a problem that they might not have been aware of. So it’s far better to destroy it than it is to ever consider releasing it into the market. Whenever that has happened, the consequences have been terrible for elephants.

Pivovarchuk: What about those photos that became so popular on the internet, where tusks are stained pink to deter poachers? Does that work?

Brandford: It doesn’t work, but it’s become a social media myth. While elephant numbers are terribly low compared to what they should be—there’s probably around 350,000 elephants roaming today—there’s many reasons that wouldn’t work. Not only the cost of locating all of those elephants and painting their tusks—you would probably have to sedate all of those elephants and there’ll be a risk of mortality in doing that.

But beyond that, there are two reasons why: One, an elephant’s tusk grows throughout its lifetime, so you’d have to keep repainting them, and two, we don’t know that painted tusks would be a deterrent. You could just shave off the painted outside and still have pure ivory. And of course, most importantly, 25% of the tusk is inside the head and that’s the thick, chunky part of the tusk, and you can’t paint that. So a poacher could still poach an elephant for a significant amount of clean ivory even if the tusks have been painted. So, as I say, it’s a social media myth that shot around, people thinking you could paint tusks pink. You cannot. It is not an option at all.

Similarly, people talk about poisoning rhino horn so that if a rhino is poached, the end consumer will die. That’s not a viable solution to solving this problem. We shouldn’t be looking at ways to alter the animal—we should be looking at ways to alter human behavior. That’s the key.

Pivovarchuk: How does elephant conservation differ from other species? Obviously, the biggest threat to animals is man-made, isn’t it?

Brandford: The biggest threat to all species is humans. Not just because of our strange, odd desire seemingly to harm the wildlife around us, but also there’s too many of us. And every day there are more and more people, and of course that means we need more and more space. But these animals need space too. What’s particularly difficult for elephants, unlike many other species, is elephants are roaming animals. They can travel 50 to 60 kilometers in a day, so they need huge areas of land to roam.

When it comes to elephants, it’s not just about saving them right now, today. It’s also about securing tracks of land, areas of land that aren’t really hospitable for humans, wouldn’t make good farmland and wouldn’t make good living areas. Whether it’s buying it outright, whether it’s leasing it from governments and then protecting those spaces so that elephants somewhere to roam today, it means that when we save them, which we will, they still have places to roam in 50, 60, 70 years.

And beyond that, it’s just they are a very well-targeted animal. Same as rhinos—which makes elephant and rhino conservation very difficult—because the money involved means the people trying to kill them have state-of-the-art equipment. You know, in South Africa we see rhino poachers with helicopter gunships, because there’s so much money involved. So that’s what makes it very hard—because we need our guys on the ground who are protecting them to have the same kind of assets, the same technologies, the same tools to be able to save those animals. And that means we need more funds and more support, whether it’s from governments or individuals around the world.

Pivovarchuk: Well, it definitely feels like it’s moving in the right direction.

Brandford: Oh yes, we’re winning. We are winning this battle for elephants.