Monday, April 06, 2015

A-Z Blogging Challenge: Elephants - Casualties of War

The African Elephant is an extraordinary creature but even it has problems - and some are unexpected, at least by me.

I don't know why I hadn't realised before just how much damage our wars inflict on the animal world. I'd heard about - and been shocked by - the threat to the lowland gorilla by the civil wars in equatorial Africa but I hadn't considered the obvious implications that this means to other creatures. I guess our focus is so much on human loss that we tend to not see the other losses.

This was really brought home to me, though, when I saw a documentary recently on the elephants in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. When the country was torn first by the war for independence starting in 1964 and then by the civil war, which followed it between 1977 and 1992, both soldiers and rebels slaughtered wild animals for food but elephants suffered even more with the rebels also killing them for their tusks. (Sadly, poaching is still endemic in much of Africa despite the world wide ban on the sale of ivory.) Given that elephants are long lived, have excellent memories and live in close knit family groups, this has left a serious on-going problem of elephant aggression.

For the most part adult elephants are protected from predators by their size and while they may give threat displays they rarely do more. They don't have to. If you are faced by a tusked, 4 metre tall bull elephant weighing 6,000-7,000 kgs or even a smaller mature adult cow elephant standing at 2.2 metres and weighing 3,000-3,500 kgs unless you are armed and/or in a vehicle, you are not likely to stay around to test how serious they are. But during war, armed soldiers in military vehicles are not so limited. Threat displays are useless and what follows is remembered.

Since the war ended the people of Mozambique have been trying to rebuild their country. Restocking and rebuilding Goronsoga National Park was part of this. The park was reopened to tourists some years ago but elephants have long memories and they have attacked people, particularly those in vehicles. This is not just bulls in musth - testosterone fuelled breeding mode - but mature cows as well. Many of these were orphaned or watched members of their families slaughtered during the war and their behaviour seems directly linked to their or their mothers' and grandmothers' experiences during that time.

Something had to be done and in 2011 Dr Joyce Poole, a world leading expert in elephant behaviour, was brought in to conduct a wide ranging study into the elephants of Gorongosa, including the effects of the war on their behaviour. Given their intelligence she believes she can rehabilitate the elephants so they understand that tourists don't represent a threat and there already seems to be a change. Let's hope she is successful because these are not the only elephants traumatised by war in Africa and aggression is occurring in a number of other places, too. Finding an answer to trauma caused aggression here could then be applied to other populations and, given the massive decline in their numbers, anything that lessens the conflict between these amazing creatures and people is to be encouraged.

You can read an interview with Dr Poole about her work here. She also works with Elephant Voices.

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