Besides their size, elephants are extraordinarily intelligent animals known for their memories. Their brains have an especially large hippocampus, which means they have highly developed emotion processing abilities and strong memories. Elephants also have specialized neurons, present in human brains, that give them the ability to feel empathy and even develop social awareness.
Elephant poaching has long been a serious problem, but it seems that in recent years it has worsened. In 1989, CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) banned international ivory trade. This did help bring about a decline in poaching. However, a one-off sale of ivory in 2008 by the governments of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe sparked new demand.
Today, poachers are slaughtering entire families of elephants using technology such as sub-machine guns, night vision goggles, even helicopters. And the ivory trade has not only impacted elephant populations. It has also spawned large amounts of organized crime in Africa. 1,000 rangers have been killed over the past 10 years trying to protect these elephants.
In Sierra Leone and Senegal, elephants have already gone extinct. At the current rate of one elephant being killed every 15 minutes, there will be none left in the wild by 2025. This would be extremely damaging to the ecosystems elephants are a part of because they are a keystone species – meaning they play a critical role in keeping an ecosystem healthy relative to their biomass or abundance.
When David Sheldrick, founding warden of Tsavo East National Park and prominent naturalist, died, his wife Daphne created the David Shedrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT), a group that is now working to push elephants back from the brink. The organization boasts over 150 successful releases. Young elephants orphaned by poaching come in sick, tired, and malnourished. The caring keepers at the DSWT “nursery” care for and rehab them for eventual release back into the wild. Sometimes the calves are so traumatized that they refuse to eat and cannot sleep because of nightmares.
Raising these calves is made more difficult by the fact that in the wild, calves drink their mother’s milk until they reach 2 years of age, and are not fully weaned until 4-5 years of age. Sheldrick herself had to craft a milk that the calves could stomach (they are unable to digest the fat in cow’s milk). Her secret formula, discovered after years of trial and error, includes coconut milk and human baby formula.
The calves also need emotional support and are with their keepers 24 hours a day. Keepers sleep with the young ones to feed them throughout the night. After being released into the wild, one elephant, Eleanor, recognized her keeper 37 years later. The love the elephants have for their caretakers is further evidenced by the fact that former nursery elephants bring their own calves back to show them off to the keepers. Clearly, the DSWT is doing something right.