Thanks to their larger than life bodies and gentle presence, elephants cast a captivating spell. Yet all over Africa, elephants are being poached for their ivory. With their love for ellies, wide network of contacts and vast knowledge of Africa, the authors of The Last Elephants, Don Pinnock and Colin Bell, decided to do something about it. By Gaynor Siljeur
The Last Elephants is the fascinating story of Africa’s elephants and the dangers they face as told by over 40 researchers, conservationists, activists, photographers, poets and rangers. Even the British royal family is involved as HRH Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, provided the foreword.
Wild spoke to Don Pinnock, historian, criminologist, environmental journalist and co-author of The Last Elephants about this fantastic book, the inspiration behind it and his fascination with one of the world’s most iconic wild animals.
The title is ominous…
Elephants in Africa are being poached at an average of one every 15 minutes. In the 1970s there were well over one million, now there are now only 350,000 savanna elephants left. If you add forest elephants (a sub-species) that number would be less than 450,000.
Elephant poaching has increased substantially with a decline of 79,413 elephants between 2010 and 2012 recorded.`
What do you hope to achieve with the book?
The Last Elephants is a tribute to the many people who work for the welfare of elephants, particularly those who risk their lives for wildlife each day: field rangers and the anti-poaching teams in particular. It is an acknowledgment, also, of the many communities around Africa that have elected to work with elephants and not against them.
We hope the book will help to fulfil two wishes. The first is that the Congress of Parties of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) uplists all elephants in all countries to Appendix 1, forbidding trade of elephants or elephant parts across international borders.
A second wish is that those countries which receive and use legal and poached ivory – primarily China, Vietnam, Laos and Japan – seriously and strenuously ban its trade and use within their borders.
We’re losing elephants fast. They could become extinct. In many countries where they once roamed, particularly in West Africa, they already are. They need and deserve our protection. Let us not have to bear witness to the last wild elephants. That would cause a terrible, unforgivable hurt to the Earth’s living fabric. And in a deep, ancient way, the loss of such intelligent, thoughtful minds that have been with us throughout the existence of our species would leave us so lonely.
Why are elephants such rewarding subjects to study?
Elephants are extremely intelligent, long-suffering and essentially gentle animals with family structures and allegiances similar to our own. Our bond is well expressed by one of the writers, Sharon Pincott, who spent many years with a single herd in Hwange, Zimbabwe:
“With familiarity came trust and there’s nothing quite like being trusted absolutely by an enormous wild elephant. Ultimately, I became a part of their families and a reassuring presence during troubled times. Often, they would greet me with a rumble, as they would their own kind. Remarkably, they began coming to me from afar when I called them by name. It was a grand privilege when mothers chose to bring their newborns to meet me, regularly relaxing right beside my vehicle door for 30 minutes or more. Sometimes they would follow my slow-moving 4×4, as if I was their matriarch, taking time to browse whenever I stopped along the sandy roads.”
This book spans the entire continent. How do elephants’ lives differ across Africa?
Across Africa elephants are taking massive strain from poachers, hunters and habitat loss. Often, they are driven to the extremes of their survival. There are elephants in the Namib Desert, the deepest forests of Central Africa and the parched plains of Chad. In places like Botswana they are protected, something which they seem to know and gather there from surrounding countries. In other places they are ruthlessly hunted with industrial-scale poaching
What is some of the most fascinating research you came across in compiling The Last Elephants?
Gathering chapters from around 40 elephant specialists, game guards, poets and scientists from across the continent has given Colin and I privileged insight to the extremes those who love the creatures will go to protect them. And the nature of elephants.
Who knew that there were elephants in a war zone near Lake Chad, that they were making a small comeback in Nigeria, the extent to which the environment benefits from elephant tree pruning, path making and their poo? Or the sophistication of their communication and their remarkable, GPS-like abilities to remember and find their way across vast distances? And their gentle kindness?
What are some of the novel ideas to protect ellies?
In some places there are small armies dedicated to their protection – full battle dress, weapons and sophisticated training. The book also looks at what the average person can do, how to become involved as a reader and who to contact to help. There is an illuminating section on how to ‘read’ elephant behaviour.
What is your own most treasured elephant encounter?
There’s a rule of the wild, often fatal if broken, that you don’t get in the way of a wild elephant. You give it all the space it needs. And if the tusker is a matriarch in charge of a breeding herd, you keep well away. These warnings were flashing code red as I stared up at the huge grey creature only metres away which had impaled me with her stare.
The situation could have been avoided if I’d checked the stairs into the hide before the Hwange game-drive vehicle moved off. It turned out they were broken. So I leaned up against a log-pile at the waterhole and hoped for the best.
As the sun dipped westwards, elephants began arriving across the water. I was transfixed but, as it turned out, a little too transfixed to notice a breeding herd led by a huge matriarch coming up behind me.
There was nowhere to hide and running would have been suicide, so I made myself as small as possible and, I think, stopped breathing. The matriarch led her herd to the water’s edge and the soft twilight was filled with the sound of slurping, sighing and the happy squeals of youngsters.
I fervently hoped she hadn’t seen my crouching form but, it turned out, for the moment she was ignoring me. When the drinking was done, she turned towards me, raised trunk and sniffed. With her ears flared in warning she seemed to fill the sky.
We looked at each other for an uncomfortably long time. Then something extremely strange happened. I generally avoid attaching human intentions to animal actions, but she did something so human I couldn’t help it: she lowered her trunk and nodded. As she did, I felt an inexplicable wave of acceptance wash over me. I relaxed and smiled at her.
Then she put her ears back in their at-ease place, stepped forward in a trajectory that would take her only a few metres from where I was sitting and led her family past me. I could hear their stomachs rumbling.
From that moment – I suspect at her behest – I became obsessed with elephants, spending time with them when I could, writing about them when I couldn’t. This book is one of the outcomes.
The Last Elephants by Don Pinnock and Colin Bell. Struik Nature. 2019. R490.
Expect to be captivated by the beautiful photography and insightful chapters about elephants across the African continent, how they are the constant gardeners of the wild and what can be done to manage the elephant population across borders. The Last Elephants is available for R490 at all major book bookstores and online at Penguin Random House.
Also read: Are we seeing pink elephants?