Tag Archives: elephant conservation

Saving elephants

With the upcoming talk at the RGS, given by wildlife film-maker and elephant expert Saba Douglas-Hamilton, in mind, one of our directors Robert talks about some of his elephant encounters over the years.

I love elephants. Whenever I’m in Africa checking camps and visiting suppliers I always make time to game-drive and a priority is to see some eles. To me it is Africa. If I’m in Amboseli it’s one of the most iconic images of the continent, elephants standing before a snow-capped Kilimanjaro. If I’m Tarangire, I love sitting watching a large herd slowly wend their way through the Park.

Its watching them interact that makes them so special. In the Mara last year with George, one of our most experienced and popular guides, we spent a very amusing 20 minutes watching a young baby, only a few weeks old, pester its mother for a drink of milk. She was having none of it but was finding it very hard to stop her offspring who was small enough to walk under her and between her legs. Eventually she gave in and he got his drink.

Over the years I’ve also been charged several times by elephants. Happily the oldest of these aggressors was probably about a year old and had they hit the vehicle they would have bounced off. Heads shaking and nodding, trunks waving, they’ve left the safety of mum and head at high speed towards us. After a few metres they usually stop, give us a good stare to check if there’s been any reaction. When they see none, they glance over their shoulders, realise mum is now quite a way away and beat a rapid retreat. All good practise for their adult years.

Sometimes you get lucky, although the better the guide the luckier you tend to get. You’re parked up, quietly watching a family herd and they slowly envelop the vehicle as they graze closer. It’s extraordinary to be so close that you can see the texture of their skin, almost count the bristles on their bodies and hear them gentle talk to each other through quiet rumbles. Watching them grasp grass with their trunks, sometimes using their toes nails as a scythe to cut through the tougher stems.

I was once with my family at Shamwari, a lovely private reserve in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. We were surrounded by a family and a young female stopped by our vehicle. You could see her looking at us and her gaze settling on my 7 year old daughter. Very slowly she raised and extended her trunk until it was only a few centimetres from her face. It gave a gentle sniff, moving gently up and down her body. It repeated this several times before moving on. My daughter, 10 years later, still talks about this, commenting that at no point was she scared or worried, just that she’d wanted to shake its trunk as a greeting.

The most interesting thing I’ve seen elephants do was also one of the most puzzling. Having got out of a marsh in Amboseli, an elephant spent several minutes getting a stick carefully positioned. It then stood on one end and used a pointed bit on the other end to clean mud from under its toenails.

Everybody loves elephants. Tragically this hasn’t stopped the greatest crisis that they have ever faced developing. Poaching for ivory is at the greatest level it has ever been, driven by the demand for ivory in Asia. Tanzania recently reported that it had lost over 40% of its elephant population between 2010 and 2013 and this is a country with designated National Parks, rangers and a strong conservation presence. In countries like the Congo it doesn’t bear thinking about what has happened to the elephant population where there is little anti-poaching infrastructure. Near annihilation is a realistic and sobering assessment.

That is why Real Africa has chosen the ‘Save the elephants’ charity as its partner charity for its 15th anniversary year. The work they do, increasing our understanding of elephants, is crucial if they are to survive. This research, mostly done in Samburu National Park in Kenya, is applicable to help the elephant population across the continent.

The talk by Saba on the 8th October at the Royal Geographical Society will raise funds with the proceeds of the ticket sales all going to the charity. We will also be promoting ‘Save the elephants’ at all the consumer shows we display at throughout the autumn and spring, raising awareness and funds. We are delighted to be working with such a dedicated and passionate group of people. Hopefully it will go a small way to ensuring that when my daughter takes her children out on safari in years to come, they too will have the chance to be sniffed by an elephant.

Kithaka comes of age

Kithaka, the spirited elephant orphan, who the Real Africa Trust adopted back in 2013,  has now moved to Tsavo East for the next phase of his rehabilitation back to the wilds of Africa.

I first met Kithaka 2 years ago. The staff at the nursery warned me, “He’s very mischievous, ” and described him as a “handful” but I was smitten from the outset.

Kithaka was plucked from the Imenti Forest in November 2011 by the dedicated Sheldrick Wildlife Trust elephant rescue team after being found wandering alone and bewildered without his herd. With no happy reunion on the cards, due to the dense forest habitat, tiny Kithaka, just a week old, was transported to the nursery unit where he has been lovingly cared for ever since.

Kithaka is now a thriving 4 1/2 years old – he’s grown tusks, an even bigger and bolder attitude and remains firm friends with fellow elephant orphans, Lemoyian and Barsilinga, who have been at the nursery for a similar time wuth him.

At the end of May, the ‘three musketeers’ made a big journey – from the nursery in Nairobi to the Ithumba Unit in Kenya‘s Tsavo East where head keeper Benjamin was waiting for them. The Ithumba unit has three categories – dependant orphans who are still given around the clock care, partially dependent orphans, who still return regularly to the stockades and sometimes require supplementary milk and finally the ex-orphans who roam free in Tsavo East.

The ex-orphans may be entirely independent, but still remain extremely attached to their human family and visit regularly. This allows the team to keep an eye on them, ensuring they are healthy and safe. It also means that the orphans arriving from the nursery unit can enjoy interaction with their wild friends and their young, who have been born wild.

I thought you might like to watch this lovely short film about the re-location of Kithaka, Barsilinga and Lemoyian.


By Sara White










International “Tusk Force” aims to turn Africa blue

A leading body in the fight against the ivory trade has started a controversial pilot project in its efforts to stop the slaughter of African elephant.  The Lusaka Agreement Task Force (LATF), a cross-border agency supported by ten African countries, aims to make all living ivory worthless.

“We’ve tried protecting elephants, we’ve tried using the latest surveillance techniques and we’ve tried educating the destination markets,” explained Dr. Sammy Utani, of the LATF, speaking at a press conference at the Serena hotel in central Nairobi last week. “There is just too much land to patrol and watch. There isn’t enough time to change attitudes in Asia before the elephant is gone. The only solution left is to make the ivory worthless and remove the financial gain in smuggling.”

How they have decided to do this has caused great controversy since the announcement of the project that is being funded by the Canadian Government. “We cannot remove all tusks from living elephants. They need them in their everyday life to help find  food and for protection. The only option is to dye them.”

A special dye has been developed by LATF that achieves the aims of the project. “Firstly it stains the ivory, soaking in up to a centimetre from the surface. This makes it useless for the manufacture of trinkets and jewellery. If the ivory is ground up for the use in Chinese medicine, it gives off a strong, bitter taste and has an extreme laxative affect.” Dr. Utani explained.

The dye is also indelible and rubs off easily when the treated ivory is cut. This means any poacher who handles it will have stains on his skin that cannot be removed. It will give the enforcement agencies the opportunity to regularly check known poachers, who its believed are responsible for over 60% of all elephant deaths.

The colour chosen for the project is blue. “Elephant eye sight is different from humans,” Dr. Utani explained. “On their spectrum of colour, blue is the same as cream so they will not be at all upset by the colour change as they will not be aware of it.”

There has been fierce opposition to the project in the important tourism sector, many local safari agencies signing a petition, worried that tourists will be put off coming if all elephants have blue tusks. The LATF response has been strong and clear. “Better to see elephants with blue tusks than no elephants at all.”

The first herds have been successfully treated by a specially trained force in Amboseli National Park. The animals were sedated and the dye applied with a spray-on device. By the time the elephant woke, the dye had already dried. Dr. Utani concluded, “We believe that in 10 years seeing blue tusks will be completely normal and hardly commented upon. It’s a small price to pay if it saves the elephant from extinction.”

For full details on the project, and details of various anti-poaching initiatives, please click here.