Why We Must Save the Elephants... or Else
The filmmakers behind Apple TV+’s “The Elephant Queen” write about their stunning new film and why saving the elephants is crucial to the environment.
“Everyone loves elephants.” We hear it a lot, but do we love them enough to want to ensure their survival on this planet? Not as zoo inmates or residents of elephant sanctuaries, but as free-roaming keystone species in savannas and forests living in family groups? Elephants are waterhole-excavating, bulldozing, bark-stripping engineers and gardeners of their environments—and for that they need space. Their migration routes and deep-trodden paths, some of them probably hundreds of years old, once meandered across the African continent, connecting waterholes, rivers, food sources, salt licks. Elephants prefer not to climb, so where they could, rather than traverse ridges, their paths followed the contours of the land. It is no surprise that civil engineers often followed them to put in roads.
Today, migration routes are truncated—gradually becoming blocked by railways, embankments, roads, farms and fences. The more that elephants lose the ability to range, the more destructive their impact on the environment. Allowed to roam, their presence increases biodiversity. The trees they feed on, and the branches they break will recover once the elephants move on and in the meantime provide extra habitat for insects, amphibians and reptiles. If elephants are confined, then the vegetation doesn’t have time to recover before their next visit. As a result, biodiversity decreases and localized desertification follows. The same happens if elephants are attracted to areas by the provision of permanent water: the habitat suffers, the trees go first, then the bush, then the grass. You see it around almost every safari-lodge waterhole in Africa.
Elephants are intelligent—they can distinguish between human languages. In Amboseli in southern Kenya they know, by sound alone, which tribe to ignore and which they should flee from. Elephants prefer eating oranges and tomatoes to stripping the bark from trees. As agriculture expands into their home ranges, some turn to crop-raiding. Who can blame them? Elephants know where they are safe. Elephants fitted with GPS collars have been tracked leaving National Parks at night to raid crops. Just before dawn, they ran back to the park—only stopping once inside the park’s invisible boundary. As wildlife filmmakers, we found that an elephant’s behavior differed depending on whether it was inside or outside a National Park. Outside, where the threat of poaching was higher, they’d be far less approachable, move less and be more nocturnal. Once inside the park, the same elephants would allow us within filming distance, and be out in the day—and as they progressed further into the park, they became more confiding.
Raiding crops brings elephants into conflict with people—most often poor farmers who can least withstand their depredations. A herd of elephants can destroy an entire crop in a few hours; as a result, a subsistence farmer’s family might starve or be unable to send children to school. The same elephant that destroyed your crop might carry tusks worth $1,000 or more on the black market. It’s no surprise that poaching flourishes in the poorest areas. It is understandable if killing an elephant can mean the survival of your family. So how do we ensure people aren’t tempted to do that?
Alleviating poverty has been shown to reduce poaching, but it’s not easy in the face of expanding rural populations which puts increased pressure on agricultural land and encourages the expansion of farming into marginal areas that have traditionally been left for wildlife. Education helps. Educating girls through secondary school and beyond means they have children later in life and have smaller families.
The elephant in the room is climate change. Many of Africa’s National Parks were gazetted in the colonial era as they were areas where lack of rainfall or the disease-transmitting tsetse fly made them unsuitable for ranching cattle. Unfortunately, they are the first areas to feel the impact of climate change. As rains become less predictable and droughts become more prevalent, elephants will be increasingly pushed into conflict with people and their farms.
Spatial planning can help. We need to zone areas, to ensure elephant corridors persist and that farms don’t butt up against park boundaries. We need to create wildlife areas and buffer zones outside National Parks and compensate local communities for them—to lease areas for wildlife to roam and then make them pay through tourism.
In areas of high elephant-human conflict we need to mitigate for it, employing innovative schemes like those of the ‘Elephants and Bees Project.’ In the Sagalla area outside Kenya’s Tsavo National Park, small-scale farmers are encouraged to fence their land with strings of beehives. The wire fence, with suspended hives, uses the elephants’ fear of bees to protect crops. If the elephants try to push through the fence, it disturbs the hives, and they are chased off by swarms of angry bees. A bonus is a cash crop: a honey harvest for the farmers at the end of the season.
A REDD+ carbon credit scheme, pioneered by Wildlife Works on Rukinga Ranch, helps maintain and improve arid bushland habitat in Kenya’s Kasigau corridor, which is good news for elephants and local communities. Income generated by the purchase of carbon credits helps fund schools and dispensaries. A similar model for the Chyulu Hills, which will help protect 4000 square kilometers of elephant habitat is currently in the verification process.
Paradoxically, the presence of elephants can benefit pastoralists. In Kenya’s Ndoto Mountains, elephants were eliminated decades ago by hunting and poaching. The paths they had made up the mountains to dry season grazing, and which were used by Samburu pastoralists for their livestock, became overgrown and impassable. As a result, herders lit fires to gain access, and every year centuries of growth of ancient forest was destroyed. The Milgis Trust has worked alongside local communities to encourage elephants back into the area. Now, forty years later, elephants are once again opening paths up the mountains and fires are less frequent.
Our aim with The Elephant Queen was to tell an emotional story to a global audience that would showcase the elephants’ sentience, empathy and intelligence—to make a film that would inspire people to fall in love with them. For with love and understanding, collectively, we can help elephants and get behind the organizations that are working to ensure their continued existence on this planet.
Apple announced on Friday that for all views of the film in 2019 on Apple TV+, Apple will make a donation to support elephant conservation efforts in the region where The Elephant Queen was filmed. Apple has partnered with The Wildlife Conservation Network, Save the Elephants, and Conservation International for the initiative. To view the film and related content, go to http://www.theelephantqueen.com.