Section superficial as ivory is disheartening, as poachers

Section I. What I know,
Assume, or Imagine
            I’ve always found elephants
fascinating, but only recently did this turn into a passion. A love and
enjoyment for baby elephant videos on Facebook turned into a slow obsession
with these animals and their families. I even went so far as to get a tattoo of
one to represent the importance of my family. They are incredibly social and
complex animals that, from my understanding, will even mourn for the death of
their family or associated elephants. I’ve known about the ivory trade in
Africa for a while, but have only heard politicians on news stations discuss
how it is an ongoing problem. I’ve also read articles proclaiming the extremity
of the issue in my occasional National Geographic read. The slaughter of
elephants for something as superficial as ivory is disheartening, as poachers
disregard the emotional capacity and intelligence of these complex animals.
 I assume that the ongoing killing of these animals has had some profound
effect on how they perform day to day functions as well as their social lives,
as when an animal is distressed, they cannot live or function efficiently.
 However, I cannot begin to fix or even just help this issue while being
willfully unknowledgable of the fact. I plan to use this research as a means of
finding out more about the ivory trade in Africa, specifically on how it came
about, and how it truly affects the social structure of these beautiful
creatures. I currently have access to the University of California Davis
library databases as I live close to campus and plan to use their online tools
to help me find journal articles relating to the social structure of African
elephants, the ivory trade and its history, and try to discover any articles
that discuss the effects of the illegal trade on the social structure. I will
also contact professionals in the field to help me understand the complexity of
this issue so that I can help end the problem these elephants are facing in any
way possible.

 

Section II. The Search

            Starting
to research a topic is always overwhelming for me as I struggle to find where
to begin. I began researching my topic thinking that I would simply write my
essay on the social structure of elephants. However, as I began my research, I
found that I could only write so much about the topic as a non-scientist
without feeling like it lacked specificity, as the topic was too broad. I then
had a mid-essay crisis and thought about reworking my entire essay because my
topic was lacking a focus. I googled “African elephants” and came across a
couple of links discussing the ivory trade and illegal poaching. I thought back
to information I had commonly heard of elephants mourning over the death of
their family members and came to the realization that I could bridge the two
topics and still be able to use research I had previously discovered. This
mid-essay crisis gave me a different perspective on the complexity of research
and how defining a topic too broad or too narrow can harm an analysis.

 

            I
used some of the same resources I had used prior to the evolution of my topic,
and stumbled across a couple of names who I believed would be able to provide
expertise on the questions I had. The first expert I reached out to was
stationed in the United Kingdom and I was interested in her because of her
research regarding matriarch elephants. After some sleuthing, I was able to
find her email on a university page and shot her an email. I unfortunately
never received a response from her, so I then was able to find a faculty member
at UC Davis who had years of experience with elephant behavior and sent him a
few sets of questions through email in which he responded within 24 hours. Dr.
Greco was able to suggest a few books and articles for me to look at to further
aid my research which I took advantage of further along. He also answered my
questions in great depth and I was thrilled to have connected with him. I
couldn’t have imagined a better source, and he was right in my backyard, almost
literally.  

Section III. What I Discovered

Illegal elephant poaching in Africa has been known to devastate
the previously vast population of elephants in the continent. However, what
many don’t realize is that the killing of an elephant is not an isolated event,
and in turn can disrupt the complex social and familial structures of these
beings. During my research, I discovered the history of the ivory trade in
Africa as well as its effects on the social and familial structures of African
elephant herds.

 

            Ivory,
according to the (uniclctica site), is the material that makes up the teeth of
animals, plant structure, and most commonly known, the tusks of elephants. In
contrast, what many consider to be “true” ivory is the material that comes only
from the tusks of elephants and mammoths. True ivory is desirable because of
its beauty and durability, as well as its absence of splintering compared to
other building materials such as wood. Ivory most similarly resembles bone and
antler, except ivory lacks a blood vessel system which makes it more dense and
durable (uniclctica), making it more desirable as a material for jewelry,
tools, and decorative ivory.

 

            In
the early 1800s, populations of African elephants were estimated to have
reached around 26 million. Unfortunately, as the demand for ivory increased,
populations of elephants slowly dwindled due to mass hunting of the animals for
their tusks. Since one third of the tusk is contained inside the elephant’s
cranial cavity, poachers and hunters resorted to killing the animal as it is
the most efficient way of extracting the greatest amount of ivory. Between
Asian and African elephants, poachers are drawn to the African breed because
those elephants produce what is referred to as “true tusks.” This implies they
are more durable and less prone to yellowing than Asian tusks. “These
biological differences, along with the ease of access, put African elephants at
a higher risk of ivory poaching than their Asian counterparts.” (AnimalLaw)

 

The early 1900s marked one of the peaks for the demand of ivory
around the world. According to the National Geographic (Nat geo video), the
mass production of combs, piano keys, pool balls, and brush handles fueled this
ivory frenzy. Additionally, by 1913, the United States consumed upwards of 200
tons of ivory per year. Even with this high usage, the United States was not
the largest consumer in the world behind the high demand for ivory. An
estimated 70% of all ivory had been imported to China due to its regard as a
status symbol for China’s middle class. Once imported, it was then used and
made for statues, ornaments and jewelry. (that long one)

Previously mentioned, African elephants were heavily targeted over
their Asian elephant counterparts mainly because of the lack of yellowing over
time of their tusks. These African elephant populations suffered because of
their high demand, and their populations dwindled to 10 million during this
ivory rush. Almost 61.5% of their population was eradicated within a century
due to human expansion. In 1979, their numbers dwindled to 1.3 million: 95% of
their original population in the 1900s and approximately 90% in the previous
decades. By 1989, their numbers reached a low of 600,000, and therefore an
ivory ban was put in place in an attempt to replenish the population numbers.

 

A ban on ivory trade was put in place by the Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species (CITE), a United Nations body that
governs wildlife trade. The ban was placed in 1989 to prevent any further
diminishing of the elephant populations. For the following decades, elephant
populations slowly began to climb again. However, in 2008, China lobbied CITE
to authorize a one-time sale of ivory. The motion was passed and 62 tons of
ivory were sold to China from African stockpiles. However, although it was a
legal trade of ivory stockpiles and not new ivory being cultivated, the trade
opened up illegal ivory market trading once again. I would argue that this was
a pivotal moment that turned societies away from stopping the ivory trade, and
harmed positive progression. Experts determined that this deal caused an
increase in poaching levels of these elephants due to legal ivory and illegal
ivory having become indistinguishable. (long one)

 

  Following the 2008
trade of ivory, the steadily rising elephant population came to a halt as
poachers illegally hunted the African species. More than 100,000 elephants were
illegally poached until the killing leveled off after its peak. Although the
poaching of these animals had leveled off to a kill rate lower than the peak,
it was still an ongoing issue as the poaching rate exceed the natural growth
rate of elephant populations. From this point, the elephant populations in
Central Africa had fallen by 60% in the previous ten years alone due to the
large demand for ivory following the certified trade. (long one)

 

I observed the most obvious effect of the ivory trade which is the
declining elephant population as a result of poaching. However, I was curious
to know how else would it affect the highly social elephant group and its
surroundings.

 

Elephant familial structure is different depending on the gender
of each elephant in analysis. Males will diverge from a herd and stay by
themselves or in bachelor pods. Females will stay in herds of an average of
5-15 adults and younglings and are led by the oldest and largest female known
as the matriarch.(EFA) The matriarch is the most important elephant in the
herd, as she directs where they eat, when they spend time with other elephants,
when they leave a site, and instinctually prevent the herd from falling into
danger. A good matriarch will balance the needs of the individuals in her herd.
For example, when a mother of a young calf needs to drink more frequently to
maintain milk production, the matriarch will then lead the herd to more
watering sites and stay longer in order to foster those needs.

          

Elephant herds are tight knit; they will stick together and
rejoice for births, and mourn for deaths. The majority of female elephants will
remain with their families for their entire lives. However, splitting does
happen in times of stress and food scarcity. Fission-fusion is an ongoing trait
that is observed for elephant herds in which herds break apart into smaller
units in times of stress during fission, and reunite in fusion. I would love to
further research this in the future, as the topic was not specifically relevant
to my research question for this analysis. This has shown how personal research
is and that I am able to form my opinions based on different paths of analysis
I choose to take.

                      

Mentioned above, the matriarch is the most important elephant in a
herd; she is the glue and anchor in times of distress. When she dies, her death
ultimately leads to confusion within the herd. (IFA) Since the matriarch
directs the majority of the herd’s daily activities, her death can lead to a
halt in these activities and disrupt ranging patterns. Dr. Brian Greco, the
Principal Animal Welfare Scientist at the AWARE Institute who has worked with
elephants for over 13 years, told me how this social knowledge will be
eliminated from a herd alongside the death of the matriarch. He states
“…survivors are often left without knowledge of who they are related to or
affiliated with in other groups, or how to locate resources in times of need.”
This lack of social knowledge can then naturally lead to social isolation,
starvation, dehydration, and premature death of other elephants. Dr. Greco also
highlights the developmental delays, including social skills between elephants,
that occur as a result of young elephants losing their mothers, siblings, and
allomothers, or non-maternal parental figures.  (Cite)
            A National Geographic video
exemplifies the full effects of the passing of a matriarch not only on her
herd, but others from herds associated as well. Elephants in the video were
seen standing and exploring the body of the dead elephant, even as far as two
weeks after the matriarch’s initial passing. The narrator of the video noted
the significance of this as elephants are not the type to “stand around.” The
animals must feed about twenty hours a day in order to maintain their energy
levels, so they are not known to waste their time by stopping. The narrator
also noted the secreting of the elephants’ temporal glands, which only happens
during elevated periods of emotion. She made note to mention that she cannot
determine whether the elephants were in fact mourning, for she believes
mourning is a human trait that is not comparable to the way an elephant might
mourn. It was obvious, however, how this death disrupted their day to day
functions. (Nat video on mourning)

 

Following the matriarch’s passing, a new matriarch must be chosen.
This role is normally passed on to the next oldest female, but if there are
multiple females that are similar in age, a split can occur that splits up the
herds into two. Dr. Greco notes that when a matriarch dies, one of her
lieutenants will assume the role as matriarch in the meantime, whom consist of
older daughters and sisters. He added that the transition process is slow and
can lead to the herd’s fragmentation into smaller units as mentioned above. In
relation to the earlier mentioned concept of fission-fusion, after
fragmentation occurs, “There is some evidence that the survivors of poaching
events can integrate with non-related herds or form new, somewhat cohesive,
herds with other non-related poaching survivors,” according to Dr. Greco. This
sheds light on some hope for elephant herds that have been impacted by poaching
as I have learned that smaller herds can integrate into larger herds and not
struggle with a lack of social knowledge and awareness.

How does the ivory trade affect the social structure of these
elephants? African elephants are the most prone to poaching because of their
tusks. If that elephant being poached is a matriarch, it can not only hurt the
female, but disrupt the entire herd as well. “Old matriarch…were particularly
vulnerable. Their tusks are large and their groups were easier to find than
solitary adult males,” (Conservation Biology). In some cases, the death of the
matriarch also lead to the death of the youngest offspring alongside their
mother and many older offspring would be left orphaned.