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Monday
May082017

Animal Profile -  Elephants

It must be said, few animals hold a warmer position in people’s hearts than the elephant. Maybe only dogs, cats and dolphins are on the same pedestal. That being said, where did they come from, what are they really and what is going to become of them?

Origins

All elephants belong to the taxonomic order Proboscidea, in reference to the evolutionary line of prehensile noses. This began around 60million years ago with the emergence of the first proboscid, Phosphatherium; a pig-sized herbivore exhibiting a rudimentary trunk. This was later refined in other ancestors such as Phiomia, a heavy terrestrial herbivore, and Moeritherium, a swamp-dweller known to have developed the first signs of tusks.  

flickr | William HartmanThe typical elephant shape however, otherwise known as pachyderm (rooted from “pachy” meaning thick, and “derm” meaning skin) wasn’t present until 35million years ago with the arrival of Palaeomastadon. Jump forward 20million years of evolution to the gomphotheres, such as Gomphotherium, which in turn are the evolutionary root of the ancient Mastadons, the younger but more widespread Mammoths, and Primelephas.

Prehistoric elephants like Mammoths and Mastadons used to roam most of the Earth’s surface, but were both dwindled into extinction through climactic change and human hunting. Their cousins however survived, giving rise to the modern African and Eurasian elephants we see today.

There are plans to rekindle this primordial heritage through splicing preserved mammoth genes with modern elephant DNA. 

African Elephant

flickr | Megan CoughlinThe African Elephant is in fact two extant species, the Savannah Elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis). Both types are classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN. The Great Elephant Census, conducted in 18 African countries over 3 years and published in 2016, revealed the scale of the decline of the Savannah Elephant.

144,000 savannah elephants have been lost to habitat loss and ivory poaching over the past decade with the current annual loss of 27,000 individuals. The steepest declines were seen in Chad, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania. Mozambique and Tanzania saw a combined loss of 73,000 elephants over 5 years.

Populations in South Africa, Kenya, Malawi and Uganda however were found to be stable or increasing but, if poaching continues at its current rate, 50% of the remaining elephants could be lost in the next 10 years. 

Asian Elephant

flickr | Thangaraj KumaravelThe Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) is distributed across Southeast Asia consisting of 3 subspecies; E. m. indicus across the mainland; E. m. maximus in Sri Lanka; and E. m. sumatranus in Sumatra.

Much like their African cousins, the Asian Elephant is mainly threatened by poaching and habitat loss in the form of deforestation and fragmentation. Unfortunately, they are more susceptible to these factors with an estimated 50% decline of the overall population over the past 60-75 years.

Asian Elephants are considered to be one of the most intelligent animals on Earth, with traits in brain structure similar to that of Great Apes, Humans and some Dolphins. They are highly emotional and self-aware, having the ability to use tools, puzzle solve, grieve, play, cooperate, learn, share and show compassion towards other. They have the greatest volume of cerebral cortex for cognitive processing of any land animal.

Future

Wikipedia Commons | Mwangi KirubiElephants, both African and Asian, are still among the most poached animals in the world but, to protect them we must look beyond just anti-poaching efforts, as even legal ivory markets provide a front for the launder of illegally acquired ivory.

The impoverished are often forced into poaching to feed their families, risking their lives and freedom for not even a fraction made by the criminals facilitating the illegal ivory trade. Shutting down all ivory trades will put a stranglehold on this global illegal activity and flush those who continue out, making it easier to hold them accountable for their crimes.

Rising pressure on poaching has also successfully turned would-be poachers into conservationists, recognising they are worth more alive and gaining from the benefits of ecotourism to their local communities. Some are even employed by conservation groups, being paid to protect the local elephants they once stalked.

China’s landmark ban on their domestic ivory trade will hopefully inspire other nations with domestic ivory trades to follow suit, giving these ecosystem engineers the respect they deserve and close in on launderers.

By Thomas Phillips - Online Journalism Intern

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