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Africa’s Elephants Are in Peril—but Travel Could Help Protect Them

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The African savanna elephant can live up to 70 years—and a new designation that classifies two types of elephants in Africa could offer new ways to protect them.

Photo by Kletr/Shutterstock

The African savanna elephant can live up to 70 years—and a new designation that classifies two types of elephants in Africa could offer new ways to protect them.

A new designation will help conservationists, and travelers, better support the world’s largest terrestrial mammals.

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If you’ve ever had an encounter with elephants—the world’s largest terrestrial mammals—you might be among the ranks of travelers who say it’s one of the most moving wildlife experiences of their lives. Elephants’ massive size, long trunks, and white tusks are a sight to behold. But most people are captivated more by their intelligence, curiosity, and sophisticated matriarchal social structures that challenge traditional ideas of what defines humanity.

Yet elephant populations around the world, from Asia to Africa, continue to face an existential threat due to illegal poaching as well as habitat loss, thanks to the world’s booming human population. News on the conservation front in Africa could help us to better understand some of the world’s last remaining megafauna—and to better protect them, too. In March 2021, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) officially recognized African savanna and forest elephants as two separate species—the first major conservation organization in history to do so. The IUCN also designated the two species as “endangered” and “critically endangered,” respectively, as part of its Red List of Threatened Species. (The last assessment in 2008 lumped together all elephants in Africa as “vulnerable.”)

The forest elephant is smaller than the savanna elephant and has straighter tusks and rounder ears.

The distinction between savanna and forest elephants—a topic of debate for decades—is a boon for conservation, according to Sue Snyman, research director for African Leadership University’s School of Wildlife Conservation. “The recent official splitting of the two [species] means that their conservation status can be better defined and actions for their conservation better focused,” she said. “It also means that the challenges of one do not get conflated with the other.”

Savanna-dwelling elephants are the mammals most of us think of when we picture elephants, with their hulking bodies and massive curvaceous tusks. Over the past 50 years, their population has fallen by 60 percent to about 370,000. The picture is grimmer for the lesser-known forest elephants, which are smaller with straighter tusks and live in West and Central Africa. Over the past three decades, their population has plummeted by almost 90 percent to less than 100,000, and their “critically endangered” designation puts them in the final category before “extinction in the wild.” 

Snyman said that although there are still thousands of elephants left, populations are fragmented and conservation outlooks are bleak, especially in the case of the forest elephant. But not all hope is lost: Snyman’s work at the ALU School of Wildlife Conservation focuses on linking conservation to economic growth on the continent—in other words, the preservation and management of wildlife and land should be sustainably leveraged as a source of economic growth for people.

Personal encounters with elephants are one of the most moving experiences in the natural world.

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“Africa has a complex suite of development and socioeconomic challenges that are at times in conflict with conservation,” Snyman said. “Human-wildlife conflict is also a huge issue. Finding common ground between these imperatives is critical and will be achieved through an understanding of the value of—and an ability to unlock the potential of—the wildlife economy.”

In order to lay the groundwork for innovation and entrepreneurship, the ALU School of Wildlife Conservation recently led the development of a series of published reports on wildlife and economies in Africa. The reports focused on five countries, including Gabon, home to half of the world’s forest elephants, and Kenya, habitat for close to 35,000 savanna elephants. Research revealed a lack of understanding about the enormous contribution that conservation could potentially make toward alleviating development and socioeconomic challenges across Africa. “There’s a need for governments to see fauna and flora as a key strategic asset, investing in it and growing wildlife populations,” said Snyman.

As the world reopens in the wake of the pandemic, it will become easier—and more exciting than ever—for travelers to visit elephant habitats across Africa.

The research also revealed that while conservation can’t rely on ecotourism dollars alone, tourism revenues can play a key role in a diversified economy that both supports and protects wildlife habitats. “Ecotourism is an important contributor to elephant conservation in southern and east Africa where the tourism industry is well developed, and where elephants are easy to observe in the open savannas,” she said, adding that the challenge is to transfer some of that tourism value to the less-visited regions of West and Central Africa.

As the world reopens in the wake of the pandemic, it will become easier—and more exciting than ever—for travelers to visit elephant habitats across Africa in both emerging and iconic destinations. Whether you’re looking for hands-on conservation work in the field, close encounters with enormous herds on safari, or ways to support from home until it’s time to book that next trip, read on for a dose of inspiration. If you intend to travel, be sure to check coronavirus-related travel restrictions before you start planning.

Help collar (and measure) elephants on a trip to South Africa with andBeyond.

Work directly with endangered elephants 

Depending on the time of year, conservation-minded safari company andBeyond arranges for travelers to participate in elephant collaring alongside experts at Phinda Private Game Reserve, its more than 70,000-acre area of protected land on South Africa’s Eastern Cape. A group of up to eight guests join a team of veterinarians as they track one of the seven savanna elephant herds on the reserve that have been collared for monitoring and research. The veterinary team flies in a helicopter to find and dart the collared elephant, while guests follow along in a safari vehicle with a seasoned ranger. When the elephant is fully tranquilized, guests are invited to approach it and help with the replacement of the collar; all funds raised by travelers go toward the elephant conservation and management projects at Phinda.

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When you’re not collaring elephants, take a game drive in search of lions, leopards, and black rhinos. Base yourself out of one of the reserve’s six lodges, which range from the glass-walled Phinda Forest Lodge, whose 16 suites are built on stilts and face the mossy sand forest, to the farmhouse-style Phinda Homestead, a private villa with four sprawling, neutral-hued bedrooms and stand-alone bathtubs that face the acacia-dotted landscape.

At Reteti, travelers can witness caretakers feeding orphaned and injured elephants, as they prepare them to reenter the wild.

Observe elephants in the wild

A weeklong walking safari in northern Kenya organized by Asilia Africa is filled with encounters with the indigenous Samburu and Rendille people, rhino tracking, sleepouts under the stars on bedrolls—and a stop at the country’s first community-owned and run Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, located in the Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy. At Reteti, guests can get a close-up look at the conservation of injured and orphaned young savanna elephants, whose caretakers are rehabilitating them before they reenter the wild. Observe as staffers feed the elephants, and watch the pachyderms cool off from the midday sun with exuberant mud-wallowing.

In northwestern Zimbabwe, African Bush Camps’ Somalisa Camp at Hwange National Park is home to a sizeable population of about 45,000 savanna elephants. At night, before retreating to one of the seven tented accommodations, with their sprawling verandas, linger after dinner near the pool’s adjacent watering hole, and you might be lucky enough to catch a close-up view of a herd gathering to drink.

In Botswana’s Chobe National Park, which has the world’s largest concentration of savanna elephants (estimated at 120,000), Belmond Savute Elephant Lodge is where British explorer Levison Wood chose to base himself for the filming of his Animal Planet series Walking with Elephants. Dine in the lodge’s elevated camouflaged lookout deck, which puts guests at eye level with nearby pachyderms.

Most of the elusive forest elephants live in the Congo Basin, including Gabon and the Republic of Congo, and neighboring countries such as the Central African Republic, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They are also found in low numbers in the forests between Nigeria and Guinea. Some of the best lodge companies to consider are Sangha Lodge in the Central African Republic, Odzala Discovery Camps in the Republic of the Congo, and Gabon Wildlife Camps & Safaris in Gabon.

One way to support elephants without traveling? Adopt one from a distance.

Support elephant conservation from afar

You don’t need to travel to Africa to support the continent’s elephant populations.

Snyman recommends Save the Elephants, an organization that’s based in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve but works with both forest and savanna elephants across Africa. The organization releases an annual expenditure analysis so donors can get a clearer picture of where their money is going.

In Kenya, the Nairobi-based Sheldrick Wildlife Trust operates projects that extend to anti-poaching, land preservation, community awareness, and animal welfare, but it became world-famous for its sanctuary for injured and orphaned savanna elephants and rhinos, which are rehabilitated for reintroduction into the wild. The organization allows for people to adopt an elephant at home with a minimum donation of $50, and all donors receive detailed updates on their elephant’s progress.

>>Next: A New Partnership Aims to Protect Our Fragile Oceans—Here’s How Travelers Can Help

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