The African elephant

The African elephant

It is very hard to know how many African elephants are left in the world, mostly due to their habitat. Often they occupy large woodlands and forests, but they also inhabit savannas and grasslands. There are only estimates as to how big is the threat they are facing in reality. Their situation appears to be getting better (in 1996 they were endangered), and their numbers are increasing today. However, they are still far from being safe. In some regions of Africa, such as Burundi or Gambia they are now extinct, and in some regions, conservationists are reintroducing the species (like Swaziland).

Although somewhere their numbers are declining, in other regions their numbers are increasing. A vast amount of effort, manpower and money is essential to assess their situation. An estimation from 2014 was a total population of 700,000, and the latest released report is from IUCN stating 415,000 individual. It might not seem that bad, what makes it dramatic is their total population not much more than 40 years ago, in 1976. 1.3 million African elephants were roaming over 7 million square km lands.

The largest land animal

Elephants are the largest animals on land. They are highly intelligent, and possess the ability to feel emotions, and live social lives. Their importance is undeniable. Many other species rely on their migration. As elephants migrate through vegetation and feed on plants they also create gaps in the forests. These paths are later used by other, mainly smaller animals to find water. Whilst creating paths they also overturn the soil allowing plant species to thrive.

Their valuable tusk allowing them in dry seasons to dig for water. This is vital for them, but also for the entire ecosystem around them. In many species, there are some features owned by either the male or the female. However, an elephant’s tusk is not one of these. Both males and females have these. An interesting fact about the tusk itself, that in reality, it is just a modified incisor tooth, that grows for life.

Elephants (just like gorillas) have a very ineffective digestive system, and barely absorbing half of what they eat. This also means that often their dung contains valuable seeds that will blossom once again. This is incredibly important, as they can grow to be up to 6 tonnes. To feed such a large body, but have a digestive system like theirs means that they have to eat more or less all day.

African elephants also have very large ears. This allows them to control their body temperature by emitting heat. It is also a feature that helps us differentiate the African and Asian elephants (apart from their very different head shape). As the temperature is milder where the Asian elephants live, they do not need such massive ears.

Emotional contagion

Due to the species emotional abilities, African elephants form very strong bonds within their families. The oldest and largest female leads the herd and ensures their safety at all times. They live in a beautiful matriarchal society. Living in tight groups offers them more security. Individuals can live up to 70 years, and their calves are born after a gestation period of 22 months. Some calf can be 100-120 kg when they come into this world. Wow!

Elephants have amazing long-term memories, and there are studies saying that a matriarch can remember a drought that happened decades ago. They also appear to feel a sort of empathy for injured, or ill elephants. They even mourn their dead. Their consciousness about their bonds and their feelings are absolutely amazing.

They are also one of those animals that can recognise themselves in a mirror. Other animals capable of doing this are humans, apes and dolphins.

Main threats to elephants

Naturally, the biggest danger this majestic animal has to face is humanity. As we are overpopulating the planet we need an ever-increasing area to live on, destroying forests, grasslands any many more to build in the place of them. Elephants are losing their habitat, or suffer from the fragmentation of it. Due to the growing demand more land is converted to agriculture and this is causing conflicts between humans and elephants. They often raid areas and crops, and this is dangerous for both humans and them. The fight for resources is real, and it costs lives.

Another massive danger is the ivory trade. An estimated 100 elephants are hunted down and killed a day (!) for their tusk or meat. The price of ivory seemed to increase uncontrollably for a very long time, and Asia is the biggest trader for them. As long as there is a demand this will never stop, however, the species is dangerously running out of time, and space. Fortunately, the prices of ivory suddenly dropped in 2018 after a ban in China, and this certainly had an impact. The number of elephants killed for their tusk is decreasing now due to the decreasing demand.

Yet again, it is greed and the neverending lust for money, unnecessary items that will push a species towards extinction. Today we have to face the reality that overpopulation affects not just us but everything else around us. Eventually, even humanity will have to fight for their lives and resources if we don’t change the way how we live right now.

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Fusion and fission

Fusion and fission

As climate change becomes more and more of a reality, humanity must turn to alternative resources. There is a great deal of controversy surrounding nuclear power, especially after the Chernobyl series been released. It is crucial to understand, however, that not all nuclear energy source is the same, and we should consider this when determining whether it is a good alternative energy source, or not.

It won’t be a surprise if I say, that the very first working nuclear power plant was in Obninsk (Soviet Union back then). Its production of electricity did not last long. It was only grid-connected from 1954 to 1959. After that, it served as a research facility, until 2002 when it was finally shut down. But the most important factor in this is, that nuclear power started its journey at this point. But what is happening exactly in a nuclear power plant?

Nuclear fission

Conventional nuclear power plants produce energy today by nuclear fission. It is a truly amazing discovery, and the science behind it is mesmerising. In 1938 Lisa Meitner and Otto Frisch (both physicists) discovered that a Uranium nucleus can split in two, and also realised that the byproduct is energy. It didn’t just change the way we produce energy, but also lead to the atomic bomb later.

To better understand the process, we will need to touch the structure of an atom. But don’t worry, we won’t go into too much detail!

The atomic structure

As you can see, in the middle of an atom there is something called nucleus. The nucleus is made up of neutrons (no charge), and protons (positive charge). Around the nucleus electrons (negative charge) are “orbiting”. In nuclear fission, the nucleus is hit by neutrons, and the impact causes the nucleus to split in two. Two new atoms are formed in the process. Sometimes when the nucleus splits, additional neutrons are released in the fission. This will then cause a chain reaction by providing more neutrons that can hit the new atoms. Nuclear power plants today use Uranium atoms to produce energy. But why was this such an amazing discovery?

Nuclear fission isn’t just producing energy, it is producing a tremendous amount of energy! The energy produced by 1kg of Uranium equals to the energy produced by over 10000 litres of oil, or almost 20000 kg of coal. In the nucleus protons and neutrons are held together by a force called ‘strong interaction/nuclear force`. That is why they stay together. The neutron hitting the nucleus breaks this interaction or force, and all the energy that was used to keep the nucleus together is now released.

Nuclear fusion

In nuclear fusion, the exact opposite happens. While fission requires the atom nucleus to be split in two, during fusion they combine the nucleus. This, however, only work with small atoms, such as Hydrogen isotopes. The problem is, that due to the same charge in their nucleus protons repel each other. That is what we call the Coulomb force.

Fusion is something that we see very often, but having difficulty so far to recreate. How is that? The fusion of Hydrogen atoms creates helium. This is the energy source, that powers the Sun. Fusion reactors today use Hydrogen isotopes (such as tritium or deuterium), as these atoms require less temperature to fuse than the Hydrogen isotope itself. Only 1 g of these isotopes can produce as much energy as over 10000 kg of coal.

However the problem with fusion is, and the reason why we still cannot grid-connect a fusion plant is a temperature issue. To break the above-mentioned force, that makes protons repel each other in Hydrogen atoms, an enormous amount of temperature is required (as previously said, the Sun gains its energy from fusion as well). How can we recreate the environment the Sun provides for fusion, and how could we possibly build anything that withstands that heat? Fusion has been on the horizon for a very long time, but I believe that one day we will harness this power.

The not so beneficial side of nuclear power

As an environmentalist nuclear power is rather concerning. Although there are various methods to manage the radioactive waste produced by the power plants, none of them is totally risk-free. There is a very interesting statement on the Stanford University website. It says: ” 1 tonne of fresh fuel rod waste from a nuclear reactor would give you a fatal dose of radiation in 10 seconds if placed 3 meters away.”. This is rather alarming. Although the fission process itself does not emit carbon dioxide, the mining of uranium surely does!

Another important factor to consider the existence and evolution of nuclear weapons. In 1945, more than 75000 people died in Nagasaki as a result of a nuclear explosion. A few days earlier more than 130000 in Hiroshima for the same reason. This was exactly 74 years ago. The soviets then tested the Tsar bomb, in 1961. This was over 3000 times more powerful then the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Today we have even more powerful weapons, and the number of them grew dramatically.

The destruction that nuclear power can cause and environmental concerns due to uranium mining and radioactive waste makes this alternative source rather controversial. What do you think?

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Hiral’s story

Hiral’s story

When you’re as passionate about nature and wildlife as I am, people can’t help but ask where that passion stems from. Truth be told, I can’t really pinpoint exactly where it came from but I’m pretty sure growing up in Zimbabwe and being exposed to nature so freely, probably had something to do with it. My early migrations from Zimbabwe to India and then to South Africa also made me more receptive to what the world could offer. From a really young age, I was very curious and adventurous and that led me to be completely fascinated with the sciences. I was fortunate enough to have a family that encouraged that curiosity which ultimately allowed me to pursue a science degree.

From astronomy to climatology and geology to evolution, I remember wanting to learn about it all. Eventually, in university, I decided I wanted to stick with geography and ecology as my two majors. Fast forward seven years and I graduated with a Master of Science with a distinction and my research focused on evolutionary ecology in snakes. One of my proudest moments in life. As an Indian female working in herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians) in the developing world, comes with a certain amount of challenges. First off, there aren’t many women in herpetology and rarely any Indian females in this field outside of India, that we know of! However, when you are as passionate and determined as I am and willing to go after what you want, the world presents you with many opportunities.

After I finished my masters two years ago I decided not to jump into a PhD straight away and that was one of the best decisions I made. In the past two years, I’ve exposed myself to other means of learning both online through videos and media and offline through networking events. I have learnt about the collaboration of science, technology and arts which has opened my mind up to ideas that I might not have been able to harness before. I now look at combining artificial intelligence in wildlife research, using technology and art for conservation communication and combining all STEM subjects to fit my niche. In my spare time, I am invested in learning about astronomy, machine learning, biology and everything that will increase my knowledge of the world and how it works. I am learning to train neural networks and I am using marketing as a means to communicate the importance of wildlife. I certainly have my plate full and continue to want to do more.

Next year I hope to start a PhD in Australia working with reptiles and using my combined skills and passions that form the epitome of STEM. What my science degrees taught me is this: A curious mind and a willingness to learn will give an edge but an ability to think with an open mind and be able to apply the scientific method in all aspects of life, will give you the ability to profoundly influence your problem solving and creative capabilities. Your mind is your only limitation and just a tip, never underestimate the value of a good encyclopaedia to a child.

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