By Mary-Katherine Ream
“I would say it’s 70 percent terror and 30 percent thrill. The terror comes from realizing you’re a small, insignificant, defenseless creature, but there’s also this thrill, this unadulterated joy.”
These are the words of Matt Lewis, a senior program officer for World Wildlife Fund (WWF), describing the unique and exhilarating experience of encountering an African elephant — the world’s largest land animal — in the wild.
Few people ever get to meet an African elephant in the wild and — with the increasing threat of their extinction — there’s a possibility that no one will encounter one of these magnificent mammals in its natural habitat in just a few decades.
African elephants face a slew of survival challenges, but wildlife trafficking is the most urgent. Every day, elephants are killed for their ivory tusks, which are then illegally traded and used to make items such as piano keys, trinkets and hair combs.
Poachers have killed elephants for their ivory for centuries, but the situation is rapidly deteriorating. Last year, authorities seized the most illegal ivory since they began keeping records of such seizures in 1989.
“The interest in wildlife trafficking is a self-interest. It’s making money quickly by exploiting — in this case — elephants,” Lewis said.
And there’s a lot of money to be made. Global Financial Integrity, a nonprofit that reports on transnational crime, estimates illegal wildlife trade’s global annual value to be between $7.8 billion and $10 billion. WWF is working to stop this illegal trade by attacking every stage of the vicious cycle.
“Trafficking elephant tusks is a chain,” Lewis said. “We need to interdict the poachers, go after the middleman and stop the chain all the way to the end user.”
WWF also advocates for a sustained international effort with strict laws, harsh penalties and highly publicized crackdowns.
In addition to breaking the chain of wildlife trafficking, WWF works to slow habitat loss and mitigate human-elephant conflict.
“Elephants and humans don’t make good neighbors,” Lewis said. African elephants have been known to raid farmers’ crops or kill ranchers’ cattle near watering points. In response, the affected farmers and ranchers will sometimes kill nearby elephants.
To minimize this conflict, WWF provides people with incentives to co-exist with their elephant neighbors through programs such as the Living in a Finite Environment (LIFE) project in Namibia.
Started in 1993 as a partnership between WWF and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), LIFE shifts communal rights of land and animals from the national government to the local people. But not all this newly acquired land is being used for farming.
One way many communities are profiting from their land is by entertaining foreign travelers with their unique natural environment, an industry known as ecotourism. This shift helps local communities understand the economic benefit of their natural resources and encourages them to become stewards of their local wildlife.
“The guides attract more tourists with more elephants, [more tourists] provide more money to the community, and in turn, the community sees the benefit of having more elephants around,” Lewis said. USAID’s efforts in Namibia have been “the most successful community-based initiative in the world,” according to Lewis.
A Future for Conservation, A Future for Elephants
Building capacity within the community is a pillar of WWF’s conservation efforts. In addition to its community-based conservation programs, WWF trains a future generation of conservationists.
“I believe the most important thing we can do for conservation worldwide is to invest in the training of men and women to manage their own natural resources,” said the late Russell E. Train, WWF’s founding trustee.
WWF builds this local capacity in part through its Education for Nature program. Launched in 1994, the conservation fellowship program has invested more than $12.5 million to support conservation leaders who in turn train their local communities.
But you don’t have to share your living space with elephants to get involved in the global conservation effort. WWF encourages individuals to kill the trade that kills the elephant: reduce demand for trafficked ivory goods by not buying them in the first place.
Imploring youth to take action, Lewis asks “Do you want to be the generation that sees the extinction of this animal in your lifetime?”
For more information, visit WWF's website.