Elephants on My Mind

Elephants are on my mind again these days because they are back in the news. Animal advocates in Seattle are still in an uproar over the transfer of their two elephants to the Oklahoma City Zoo. The vehicles hauling the animals encountered some bad weather along the way and had to detour to the San Diego zoo, which did nothing but add fuel to the firestorm of protest. To make matters worse, people who thought these elephants should go to a sanctuary received support from Jane Goodall, only to have her change her mind a week later after a more thorough review of the facts.

Jane Goodall and the Seattle Elephants
In an April 29th letter to the Mayor, the City Council, and the Zoo, she wrote:
I have reviewed the options for Chai and Bamboo to be relocated into a social herd of Indian Elephants. While PAWS maintains a wonderful sanctuary, the Oklahoma City Zoo would provide the optimal home for Chai and Bamboo. At Oklahoma City Zoo, Chai and Bamboo would join a family of elephants, including two young adults, a four year old and an infant. Elephants are highly intelligent animals with deep emotional connections and complex social structures. Chai and Bamboo will be able to live more fully within this more complete family herd.

Jane Goodall’s support of zoos is, I believe, encouraging because zoos are good for elephants. They are spending massive amounts of money both on conservation in the wild and on providing optimum habitats in captivity. Moreover, some zoos (like Seattle, Toronto, and Detroit) are recognizing that they do not have the climate, the necessary space, or the financial resources to adequately maintain elephants and they have made the courageous and compassionate decisions to close their exhibits. Other zoos have pooled their resources to create the 225 acre National Elephant Center to hold animals in the optimum climate of South Florida.

Elephants Facing Extinction
This is a critical time in elephant conservation. A widely reported May 1st scientific study reports that many of the world’s largest wild herbivores (which includes elephants) are generally facing dramatic population declines and range contractions, such that ~60% are threatened with extinction. Ever-larger swaths of the world will soon lack many of the vital ecological services these animals provide, resulting in enormous ecological and social costs.

As if to punctuate this discouraging report, there is this May 4th story out of Botswana. In January of 2014, Botswana imposed an almost complete ban on hunting wildlife, including elephants. While this might sound like good news for the elephants, is has created problems for the villagers. Farmers now regularly lose their crops to marauding elephants whose populations are booming and they have lost the supplemental income generated by hunting rights. The hunting ban does not appear to be working. An overpopulation of elephants can be a disaster for the local environment and for the people who share their habitat. Ultimately, it is the elephants who will be the losers.

As discouraging as the news from the wild may be, I am optimistic about their prospects in North America. Both zoos and circuses are changing the way they manage these intelligent beings as they continue to raise both awareness and money. With this kind of commitment, their extinction in the wild may be inevitable but their worldwide extermination is not.

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