Our critical allies for elephants

© Levi S. Norton

Editor’s note: On April 20, Conservation International will premiere its new virtual reality film, “My Africa,” at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, with a world release on April 30. The film tells the story of a young Samburu woman in Kenya whose community is working to save elephants and re-knit an ancient coexistence between people and wildlife. Ahead of the premiere, Human Nature is highlighting stories about the people, places and wildlife of “My Africa.”

Here, Dr. M. Sanjayan, CEO of Conservation International, discusses the complicated relationship between elephants and humans.

In the Samburu pastoralist communities of Kenya, herders sing to their cattle at the watering holes they dig into dry river beds. Each herder has his own song, and the cattle learn to recognize their owner’s melody to find the correct well.

These days, this musical tradition has a conservation twist: Each morning, before delivering water to their cattle, these herders spend a couple of hours in the hot morning sun digging out the same watering holes they dug the day before. The reason: an understanding with elephants.

The coexistence didn’t come easily. For years, herders and elephants clashed. The clumsy pachyderms collapsed sandy water wells each night while trying to steal a drink, while desperate herders did all they could to protect their meager livelihoods, sometimes resorting to lethal methods to discourage the six-ton pests.

Today, these herders are champions for elephants. In a far-reaching partnership, the community now benefits directly from wildlife tourism. The revenue generated from healthy elephant populations means they can improve their homes, expand their businesses and send their children to school.

It’s no wonder the herders now happily re-dig their watering holes every day.

The story illustrates a core truth about conservation work: It must be done alongside local communities. To do otherwise is both unjust and ineffective.

When it comes to elephants, that means understanding and addressing the very real concerns of local people. Elephants destroy crops, damage infrastructure and can even trample people. Their presence can also place residents in the crossfire between poachers and law enforcement.

Those of us in Europe and North America shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss these views. After all, we hold them too.

In Britain, a new plan to reintroduce lynx — a relatively harmless creature compared to a bull elephant — has attracted stiff opposition. In the United States, the protection of wolves has long divided conservationists and ranching communities.

To benefit both people and elephants, Conservation International works to ensure that local people see benefits from their wildlife.

In Northern Kenya, we partner with Northern Rangelands Trust and the local Samburu community on the Sarara Initiative, a new effort to increase wildlife tourism and enhance security for residents. We’ve joined forces with three leading brands to save Sarara’s elephants: Life is Good, glassybaby and Osom Brand.

Across the continent, we’re working alongside Stop Ivory to support the African-led Elephant Protection Initiative, a joint commitment by African nations to close domestic ivory markets and forego international sales until elephant populations rebound. As part of the initiative, African governments are also forging plans to protect their elephants from poaching and illegal trade. We’re working to support those plans.

Our work isn’t limited to Africa. In Cambodia, our scientists have captured camera-trap footage of Asian elephant herds returning to protected forests. Working with the Cambodian government, Conservation International has helped to establish and manage protected areas, supporting ranger patrols and providing alternative livelihoods for communities that once depended on logging to survive.

What can you do? You can start by taking our pledge to never forget the elephants. That means agreeing to avoid products made from elephant ivory, reminding policymakers to act against illegal trade and sharing your pledge with others. Next, learn more about the many organizations, including CI, that are working to protect elephants on the ground, and become a supporter.

With your help, we can ensure that future generations get to see these magnificent creatures in the wild.

“My Africa” was produced with the support of The Tiffany & Co. Foundation and in conjunction with Passion Pictures and Vision3. Additional support for distribution was provided by glassybaby.

M. Sanjayan is the chief executive officer of Conservation International.


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