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.

More in the Endangered species series:

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Gorillas of Africa

Gorillas of Africa

I have no doubt that gorillas are beyond worthy to take the first place in the Endangered Species series. Even though their numbers increased in the past, the species is still critically endangered. Their population was last assessed by IUCN in August 2018. The number of mature individuals was 2600 back then.

Conservation of this majestic species has received a great deal of attention. It is of paramount importance to protect their habitat. Similarly, it is also crucial to recognize, how important is gorilla tourism in the area. Gorillas typically live in lowland tropical forests and transitional forests. The Eastern gorilla in particular lives in the area of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda.

They are not aggressive in nature, but adult males do go above and beyond to protect their families. Hence there are certain groups that have been habituated to get used to the presence of humans. This was important to build tourism around the species bringing a considerable income to these African countries.

Daily routine

Gorillas don’t migrate, but as the vast majority of the animals, they do follow food. As they tend to feed on the ground level, they are very careful and shy, and certainly not easy to find. They rest in very dense vegetation, which protects them from invaders, whether it is other animals or humans. Sometimes they rest on trees on well-made nests. The silverback male leads its group and safeguarding them ceaselessly.

You might be already familiar with their signature move when gorillas beat their chest. This can be a sign of various things. It can be a display of power, as well as a form of aggression. Likewise, it can be also just simply a release of tension.

Most of their day is surprisingly spent on eating. Due to their low energy diet (mostly vegetation) they have to feed a lot to achieve appropriate nutrition levels. Their muscly body has got no problem to tear a banana tree into particles in less than an hour. They eat all kind of plants, fruits, occasionally ants or termites as well. Another shocking fact: gorillas can eat up to 40-50 pounds of food a day. Can you imagine eating 20 kgs of iceberg lettuce? Well, it is quite a challenge I suppose.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

The area surrounding the national park is heavily populated. Most of the people in the area make a living from farming. There are ancient, highly spiritual groups that live nearby, such as the Batwa. In the past they used to live in the forest, hunting for bushmeat and harvesting. They have a very strong culture and they are still cherishing their ancestors. The Batwa has an otherworldly connection with the forest.

In 1993 gorilla tourism started in Uganda, and local people’s access to the forest has been denied. Some communities received more profit from the revenue, some received less and some nothing. Rangers still to this day guarding the forest with guns to keep communities out. Those people that were denied access to the forest resisted and lit fires as a form of rebellion. Today they are trained to lead tours into the forest and guide tourist groups around. They also take part in maintaining souvenir shops, hotels, restaurants in the area.

At Bwindi, over a 100 villages share a boundary with the park, and the income is now sent to the district authorities and divided equally. This profit can be used to improve their lives, such as schools, hospitals, or agriculture.

However, as we all know, all magic comes with a price. Letting tourists into the forest to visit gorillas present an ultimate threat to the species. Due to their DNA being so similar to ours, it is very easy to transmit diseases. A simple cough can wipe out an entire group of gorillas, and possibly even a population. Tourists sometimes don’t take the threat seriously. It is indeed tempting to let a gorilla touch you, or pet a baby gorilla.

Threats gorillas are facing

Today there are very strict rules to visit each habituated gorilla groups. Tourists have to maintain at least 7 m distance from the individuals. Smoking, eating and drinking are not permitted on the tour, and visits are limited to one hour per gorilla group a day. Is this enough to protect the gorillas, and conserve their habitat?

Unfortunately, it is not just the human touch that threatens these highly intelligent creatures. Due to climate change, their habitat is shifting and continuously alters. Urban developments and the building of tourism areas were the main cause of deforestation. For the same reason to improve transportation networks, local authorities paid a great deal of attention for building roads and railroads. To produce energy for the country oil and gas drilling started in the area, as well as mining. Naturally, the issue that occurs in most forests occurs here as well. Hunting for bushmeat and logging for wood disturbing their natural habitat.

Can we protect gorillas? Will the next generation know gorillas?

Please do not hesitate to donate to help a great cause. You can also adopt a gorilla for as little as £3/month. Help to protect their habitat, and support research and local authorities.

If you want to know how a surf trip lead to 4.5 million pounds of rubbish to be cleaned from the ocean:

Or if you want to read about Catharina and her love of amphibians

The Endangered Species series

The Endangered Species series

1 million species threatened with extinction. Why do we still deny facts? Is it because reality is scary? Is it because still way too many people no nothing about it? Or is it because it’s not in our interest? I reckon all of these, but largely depends on what level we are looking at. On a state level, there is definitely no financial interest to call a climate emergency. It is also not in their best interest to conserve habitats and protect endangered species. Why? Because it cost money. The market level perfectly adapted to the new situation. Just think of the flood proof, floating houses (why treat the reason, when we can just ease the symptoms). Or the seeds sold to farmers, that are advertised to be resilient against excess water, high temperatures, and many more. And on the community level…well…ignorance is the biggest enemy in this fight. We need to change our priorities and learn to value nature. Because if there is no nature, there is no humanity either.

The newest United Nations report found that 1 million animal and plants species are threatened with extinction. That is due to land conversions (such as deforestation), over-fishing, hunting/poaching, climate change, pollution, and invasive (alien, non-native) species. What is the first thing you notice? None of these would even exist without humanity! The equation is very simple really, because everything is connected, let me show you how.

The food web

In a food chain there are primary producers, primary, secondary, tertiary and quarternary consumers, these are also called trophic levels (5 of them all together).

A primary producer makes its own carbon-based material, starting from carbon-dioxide, these producers also known as the autotrophs. Almost all plants belong to this trophic level. Primary consumers are those feeding on trophic level 1. The secondary consumers are animals that eat animals in trophic level 2. Carnivores or omnivores for example. Tertiary consumers eat those animals in trophic level 3, and naturally carnivores on trophic level 5 eat tertiary consumers. As you can see, this is a well thought out system of our nature, and even the smallest plant is part of a bigger picture.

Avoiding the unavoidable?

But it is not just plants that are in great danger now. It is the entire network now. Plants and animals, all organisms are affected by human activities. These species are suffering from circumstances they never should have experience in the first place. Based on a reasonable estimate there are about 9 million species on this planet all together, with only 2 million species identified. 1 million now considered threatened, endangered, or critically endangered. Are we heading towards another mass extinction?

You can now see, that we cannot just turn away from a plant and animal species becoming extinct. It might be grass for you, but it is part of a network. It is life for some. I still believe that we can avoid catastrophe. I believe that we will open our eyes, and realise what we have done.

Beyond Science is a website for all kind of science, and to praise women in STEM. But it is also meant to raise awareness. This website is my call for help. I still think humanity can stand up for our planet, and turn it back from something irreversible. Although we have passed borders we have never passed before, and we certainly turned away for too long, I STILL HAVE FAITH. We have to fight against this, together. Not just for you and me. But for your kids, and their kids. It is not just about us anymore, it is about all next generations, and essentially the future of our planet.