Sunday 18 July 2021 16:56
In 1800, there may have been up to 26 million elephants in Africa alone. Today, there are just 415,000
The English countryside is not the first place you expect to find a herd of African elephants. However, since 1975, Howletts Wildlife Park, just outside Canterbury in Kent, has been the home to 13 elephants, allowing the British public to get up close to the world’s largest land mammal. Their enclosure is spacious and well kept, with a deep pond. Nonetheless, Kent is not their native home and for all the elephants bar one, they have only known a life of captivity.
Fortunately, the elephants will not be there much longer. In the largest rewilding project of its kind, the Aspinall Foundation has announced plans to fly the herd of elephants almost 4,500 miles to the Kenyan savannah. While some have expressed concerns that relocating and rehabilitating the animals will not be easy, the Aspinall Foundation maintains that the risks will be worthwhile, for in time, the elephants’ descendants will number in the thousands. As the world’s population of elephants nears a critical point, creative initiatives such as this are to be encouraged, provided they can be catered for.
In 1800, there may have been up to 26 million elephants in Africa alone. Today, there are just 415,000. A key reason for this significant decline is poaching, with as many as 20,000 elephants killed each year for their ivory. However, the poachers’ gun is not the only threat to elephants. Habitat loss caused by human encroachment acts as an additional threat to their survival.
Historically, elephants would roam across the continent of Africa, from the Cape of Good Hope to the shores of the Mediterranean. Today, however, their range is far more limited. Elephants have disappeared from approximately 85 per cent of the areas they could previously be found. This trend is unfortunately set to continue. Only a few weeks ago, news broke of plans for an oilfield stretching across Namibia and Botswana that will devastate the regional ecosystem and threaten the lives of 130,000 elephants.
Considering the severity of the threat to elephants today, the need for bold action is clear – like that undertaken by the Aspinall Foundation this week.
To be most effective, our solutions must be two-fold. First, to protect elephants threatened by poaching, intervention is necessary at every stage of the illegal wildlife trade: from anti-poaching patrols to prevent elephants from being killed, to tight border controls to prevent ivory trafficking, to awareness campaigns to reduce demand in the destination countries.
As a donor to Tusk, a charity that seeks to advance conservation across Africa, I have seen first-hand the importance of implementing these measures. Tusk provides specialist training to tackle poaching across 15 protected areas, with its work contributing to the effective prevention of poaching in Malawi’s Liwonde National Park. Tusk has also found success in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, wherein the month immediately after the training, there were an unprecedented 48 poacher arrests. Continuing to keep the pressure high on poachers with similar initiatives will be vital to ensuring future generations can continue to share the planet with elephants.
Secondly, we must develop innovative solutions to protect elephants threatened by habitat loss. One method is to pay countries to preserve their rainforests, with Gabon recently becoming the first country to receive payment for its conservation efforts via the UN-backed Central African Forest Initiative (Cafi). In a historic 10-year deal, Gabon will be rewarded $150m (£109m) to maintain up to 98 per cent of its rainforest. While the initial payment represents just 0.1 per cent of Gabon’s annual GDP, this a significant first step towards protecting the habitats vital to elephant survival.
Technology can also be an important asset in the fight to conserve elephant habitats. For instance, the UK-based company Bicocarbon Engineering has developed a drone that will fly two to three meters above the surface to shoot biodegradable seedpods into the soil. Utilising this technology, Bicocarbon Engineering claims reforesting will be 10 times faster and cost 85 per cent less.
Success has also been found in using tech to combat illegal logging. For example, the company Rainforest Connection has developed a way to transform recycled smartphones into autonomous, solar-powered listening devices that can pinpoint signs of destructive activity and alert rangers in real time.
At the Nick Maughan Foundation (NMF), we seek to build on this work by continuing to donate to organisations such as Tusk and others who are effective at conservation projects, as well as fund campaigns for policy change. This work is becoming increasingly crucial – as failing to act now will have grave effects in the years to come.
Personally, I cannot imagine a world without elephants, but we will have to fight for that future. To ensure their survival, we need to prioritise tackling elephants’ two biggest threats: poaching and habitat loss. To achieve this, we need commitment as well as creativity.
Nick Maughan is an investor and philanthropist and founder of the Nick Maughan Foundation