The African Elephant-Majestic Giants in Real Danger

The African elephant is truly an icon of the Dark Continent. These majestic giants embody the spirit of Africa, and of the world’s last truly wild spaces. These animals are among the most amazing to behold in their natural habitat and while they can be found in most parts of Africa, Zambia’s Luangwa valley is one of the best places to view them; as well as being among the most beautiful.

Although landlocked, rivers such as the Zambezi and the Luangwa make Zambia a haven for elephants as well as a host of other wildlife. The fact that these lush, river ecosystems are attractive to elephants, unfortunately means that they are also attractive to elephant poachers.

Prior to the early 1960’s, Zambia’s elephant population was among the largest found below the Sahara Desert with around 250,000 animals. Many areas of Zambia had already been set aside as game reserves, including South Luangwa National Park which was founded in 1938 as a game reserve. At that time, there were very few resources to prevent poaching and over the next several decade poachers decimated the elephant population not only in Zambia, but throughout all of Africa. In fact, by 1989, there were only an estimated 18,000 elephants left in Zambia. Between the mid 1970’s and the late 1980’s, the North Luangwa National Park alone lost 93% of its elephants to ivory poachers. In 1989, restrictions were placed on international trade under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to prevent local extinction of the elephant. From the 1990’s on, Zambia’s government increased their investments in anit-poaching law enforcement. NORAD has been investing significant financial resources from the mid 80’s to the present and with that consistent support, the population of elephants stabilized and showed signs of increasing.

elephants on the way home
The recent Pan-African elephant survey, which was launched in 2013, showed the elephant population in Zambia to be stable, and perhaps even increasing. The aerial survey covered around 21 million acres, including game management areas and national parks and counted 21,000 elephants, a better than anticipated number. Although there were areas of concern, such as near the Angola border, other areas were doing better than expected. In the Kafue National Park, elephant numbers were higher than anticipated and those results were accredited to diligent anti-poaching efforts. Game Rangers International, a group that works in cooperation with government efforts, has be very successful in their anti-poaching efforts. They hire village game scouts and are doing a wonderful job of controlling the park, but efforts are not uniform throughout the country.

One innovative program being used in Zambia, as well as other parts of Africa, to prevent poaching is WD4C, Working Dogs For Conservation. In this program, the South Luangwa canine unit uses dogs to root not only the poachers themselves, but illegal guns, ammunition, ivory, and even illegal fishing tools. WD4C comes from the state of Montana in the U.S. where conservation biologist and director of the program, Megan Parker, scours animal shelters for troubled dogs that aren’t suitable as pets, but make perfect detection dogs. One canine, a Labrador/German Shepherd mix named Ruger, lives near South Luangwa National Park and has already stopped 150 poachers. Although Ruger is going blind, his sense of smell is better than ever and he continues his anti-poaching efforts in Zambia.

While poaching is an ongoing concern in South Luangwa National Park, in one area, elephants and humans have formed a unique bond of mutual trust and respect; at least when the mangos are ripe.

The Mfuwe Lodge was unknowingly built across an elephant path that led to a mango grove. One particular family of elephants visited the grove annually when the fruit ripened and the fact that a lodge had been built in their way did nothing to deter them. They now simply stroll through the reception area every November to get to the ripe mangos.

Headed by a matriarch called Wonky Tusk, the family group remains around the lodge for a month to six weeks each year while they gorge on juicy mangos. There are many other wild mango trees in the area, but they like the ones at Mfuwe Lodge best. In 2015, the herd astounded staff and visitor alike with an amazing show of trust. A new family member accompanied the group in the form of a two week old calf and even stopped for a short while in the reception area while the baby, called Wellington, took a nap. Such a show of trust from one of Africa’s most powerful animals is a unique gift that is immeasurable by any standards.

During their six week stay, the herd comes and goes through the lodge as they please and while special precautions are taken with guests, there have been no incidents.

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