August 14, 2015

Elephants Without Borders

UMass ecologists help to save African elephants

What is the greatest threat to elephants in our world? If you guess habitat loss, you are out of date. Poaching is now the primary threat to African elephants, with some countries losing half of their wild populations in the last five years—a breathtakingly precipitous decline driven by an emerging economy in China with an insatiable appetite for ivory.

“There needs to be international exposure to understand the plight of elephants,” says wildlife ecologist Curtice Griffin, head of the UMass Amherst department of environmental conservation and researcher for Elephants Without Borders, a nonprofit founded by his former student, Mike Chase ’07PhD. Chase was recently honored with a medal for “Conservation in Action” by San Diego Zoo Global.

EWB uses satellite tracking collars to follow the movements of elephants across the international borders of five African countries in order to understand the animals’ habitat needs and behaviors as they navigate complex landscapes of protected wilderness and human settlements. EWB also conducts aerial surveys to gain critical information on their seasonal migration patterns, distribution, and abundance. Lamentably, carcass ratios are how researchers can tell where poachers are most active.

Griffin still collaborates with his former graduate student, helping EWB with its research in Botswana. And since EWB has joined forces with the Great Elephant Census, a 2-year, 18-nation aerial survey funded by Microsoft founder Paul Allen, Griffin is now lending his expertise to the census as well.

The Great Elephant Census will deliver its report in January 2016, with data gathered from governments and non-governmental organizations, 18 planes, 46 scientists, park biologists, rangers, game wardens, and over 19,000 transects. The short-term goal of the census is to form a consistent scientific baseline for ecologists to consolidate conservation efforts and for governments to guide law enforcement intervention.

The decline in elephant populations may be reversible. China has recently announced an official phase out of its ivory industry. But countering the international black market requires vigilance and commitment by multiple countries to conservation, especially since elephants are no respecters of human boundary lines.

Citizens can support protection organizations and encourage their elected officials to create economic incentives for other countries to protect wildlife and drive down poaching. Education, strong enforcement of international trade laws, and intensive anti-poaching efforts, says Griffin will reduce demand.

Griffin calls his work research with a mission: “Why should humans drive one of the most magnificent species ever to exist to extinction because of vanity?”