Who Will Save the Elephants?

There’s a Buddhist proverb, later interpreted by the American poet John Godfrey Saxe, about people and elephants that goes something like this: Six blind men encounter the world’s largest land mammal and decide to investigate. They each arrive at a different part. One runs his hands over its side: “It feels like a wall.” One wraps his arms around a leg: “It feels like a tree!” One grips the trunk: “It’s like a snake!” One knocks on a tusk: “No, it’s like a spear.” One fingers an ear: “No, it feels like a fan!” One swings from the tail: “It feels like a rope!” And they argue for hours, and in some versions even come to blows, because each was sure of what he’d felt and what he understood an elephant to be, and each was sure that they were right and the others were wrong. Saxe said the elephant was god, and our fumblings religious certainism; the moral is about certainty and truth and accepting alternate points of view. These days, though, that parable could just as easily be about something else—namely the seemingly inevitable human propensity to abuse and misread nature. Consider the predicament that the world’s largest pachyderms find themselves in today: Thanks to us, the plight of elephants has become so dire that their greatest enemy—humanity: blindly blustering, greedily groping—is also their only hope.

On June 20, the AP reported that nearly 100 countries had taken part in an Interpol-led “globe-spanning crackdown on the illegal wildlife trade” called Operation Thunderstorm, in which they recovered contraband that included 43 tons of meat (including elephant) and 1.3 tons of ivory. “Some 1,400 suspects were identified worldwide” in the sting, Interpol said; they “include police, customs, and other agencies from 92 countries.” The AP noted that “global wildlife crime” is worth “about $150 billion annually,” ranking in value only behind “the illegal drug trade, counterfeiting, and human trafficking.” The threats that face the wild elephant—poaching, international crime syndicates, local farmers, governmental and judicial corruption, massive continental development, and infrastructure challenges—have stymied policy-makers and conservationists alike for a generation. Imagine a balloon, one person who worked in anti-trafficking said to me: You squeeze down on one part, the air moves to another. The free-fall of the wild elephant is one balloon that’s felt impossible to puncture—until now. In late May, Tiffany & Co. took a small group of journalists and influencers to meet the people behind the Elephant Crisis Fund, the conservation initiative that is making some headway defending wild elephant populations in Africa. The ECF, which is a joint initiative by Save the Elephants (a Kenya-based research and conservation operation founded in 1993 by the world’s foremost expert on the African elephant, Iain Douglas-Hamilton) and the Wildlife Conservation Network, in partnership with the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and #KnotOnMyPlanet (an awareness campaign fronted by supermodel Doutzen Kroes and conceived by DNA Model Management cofounder David Bonnouvrier and his partner Trish Goff), has been the recipient of 100 percent of the profits from Tiffany’s Save the Wild collection, an amount that recently exceeded $2 million. Through the efforts of the ECF, poaching rates in northern Kenya have begun to stabilize, and now that they’ve staunched the bleeding locally, they want to apply what they’ve learned to the rest of Africa’s elephants before it’s too late.

Since 2009, an estimated 20 to 30 percent of Africa’s elephants have been lost. The late aughts were also around when poachers began entering the protected grounds of Samburu National Reserve, where Save the Elephants is headquartered, killing the oldest bulls and cows, hacking off their ivory, and leaving their bodies to rot. Iain Douglas-Hamilton had seen a version of this before. He and his wife, Oria, wrote Battle for the Elephants in 1993, in the aftermath of what was then, due to poaching and wildlife mismanagement, the worst elephant crisis that Africa had seen. The Douglas-Hamiltons, who first encountered a country seemingly overrun by elephants when they arrived in Tanzania’s Lake Manyara National Park in the late 1960s, found evidence of an elephant genocide a mere 20 years later, with “wounded stragglers dragging their shattered legs” and “a skeleton of a six year old still intact except for the skull which had been hacked to remove its cigar-sized tusks.” A freshly killed elephant “lies like a fallen colossus,” Iain wrote. “Blood oozes from the wounds. The eyes are glazed, the lashes dusty. In the sun’s hot rays the ballooning corpse becomes an obscene parody of an elephant, its legs sticking out like a child’s toy.” The description gets less pleasant from there. 

Periods of increased poaching meant a harrowing time for the researchers and rangers working in Samburu, who would mark the disappearances of elephants that they had tracked for decades, or worse, recover their mutilated carcasses. “We were living here with these peaceful elephants, doing our peaceful research, right up to 2008, and then suddenly, we noticed that our big bulls were going, and that it was a crisis,” Iain told me. And if the poachers were brazen or desperate enough to hit Samburu, he knew that the reality for the rest of Africa would be much harsher.

In August 2011, Iain and George Wittemyer (who serves as chair of Save the Elephants’ Scientific Board) published a commentary in Nature warning that “ivory demand and prices have reached a point at which poachers are willing to target well-protected, closely monitored populations” like Samburu, and that the pressure there “may be a harbinger of what is to come for Africa’s protected areas.” Almost a year later, in May of 2012, Iain testified before the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations that their fears had been realized, and that “elephant poaching rates have spiked across the continent.” (At that point, 73 percent of all the carcasses that Save the Elephants were finding in Samburu were victims of poaching. “That’s crisis levels,” said Save the Elephants CEO Frank Pope: “We reached an inflection point.”) If that didn’t interest the U.S. government, Iain told the Senate, illegal wildlife trade was “often conducted by well-organized criminal networks that are undermining efforts to strengthen the rule of law and governance in many countries,” namely the type of people whom the U.S. has historically liked to be in the business of stopping. “It is time,” he warned, “for concerned individuals, NGOs, and governments to take action.” And so some of them did: 2013 was the year that Save the Elephants founded the Elephant Crisis Fund. “We were looking for a way to make a difference across the continent without falling into the traps that you could fall into if you try and scale a single organization to solve the problem,” Pope said. Plus, by virtue of being small and independent, the ECF can deliver funds fast (“your helicopter got shot down by poachers?” Pope said, “we can get you a new one tomorrow”), and they emphasize that they are beholden to good ideas, not to one institution.

In the mid-1970s, when Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton were living there, Tanzania had the largest elephant population in Africa. In April of 2018, Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve told CNN that its elephant population was down almost 90 percent in 40 years, from an estimated 110,000 elephants to just 15,200. (Under Donald Trump’s administration, the importation of ivory or other dead elephant parts as trophies to the United States is now being allowed on a “case-by-case basis” from six African countries.) In 2016, the WWF reported that the entirety of West Africa—beloved by poachers for its port towns, ease of ivory export, and frequent lack of government oversight—was down to a population of around only 11,000 elephants. Twelve entire elephant populations have been lost in Ivory Coast, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Togo, Guinea, and Nigeria since 2006. 

“This is one of the last elephants of Guinea-Bissau and West Africa. There’s probably between five and 10 elephants left in that country. So if they go, they’re gone forever.” Dr. Chris Thouless told me, and showed me a picture of a forest elephant surrounded by lush green foliage. It was smaller-looking than the ones I’d seen in Samburu, and had slender, downward-facing tusks. As the director of the Elephant Crisis Fund, Thouless is uniquely aware of the difficulties that elephant conservation faces in 2018: His job frequently entails field trips into some of the world’s most dangerous situations; surveilling one of the continent’s biggest remaining poacher trails in northern Cameroon; dropping into the famously difficult-to-police forest areas of Central Africa; visiting the national park in northeast Congo, which he described as virtually surrounded by “very heavily armed” poachers coming from all directions, and “probably one of the most dangerous places in Africa” for wildlife rangers—to see what the situation is like on the ground. Elephants are tough, they are hardy, and if given adequate support in time, they can rebuild their numbers, but once a population has died out, Thouless said, “That’s it—it’s over.”

Here is, roughly, how the ivory racket works in Africa: a poacher tracks and kills an elephant, hacks off its tusks, and sells them to a trafficker. The trafficker then typically disguises them and gets them off the continent and into countries like Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, and China, where they are transformed into jewelry and decorative art that the eventual buyer will purchase at an aggressive markup. It’s a system that works: The World Wildlife Fund estimates that 20,000 to 30,000 African elephants are killed each year for their tusks. How much their killers stand to profit depends on where they sit in the scheme: Despite taking on the most risk, the poachers themselves benefit the least, and once caught or killed themselves, they are easily replaced. It’s the crime rings moving the massive amounts of ivory undetected throughout the country and beyond who are ECF’s more urgent targets, a person involved with the anti-trafficking arm of the operation told me. “What we know is that these are major international criminal syndicates that are involved in the ivory trade,” she said. “This is not a small trade. It’s absolutely massive, and they are extremely agile, and they look for lawless countries and very corrupt governments.” Mali, for example, despite not having anything close to a port city and much of the country being positioned in the middle of the Sahara Desert, has become a major trafficking hub for ivory “because it’s lawless, it’s where there is a huge amount of al-Qaeda activity, and the government doesn’t really control most of the country,” one person familiar with the matter told me. So, suddenly “it’s become an interesting place for traffickers to go and operate.” 

If the ivory traffickers’ interest in cohabitating with al-Qaeda didn’t make it clear; the ECF has found that those who traffic in poached endangered species tend to be related to other kinds of traffickers, too: namely of arms, or drugs, or human beings. The fund has been able to use this to their advantage by interesting foreign law enforcement partners like the U.S. and U.K., who wouldn’t normally contribute as many resources to protect wildlife, but might to take down international arms dealers, or sex traffickers. “I think what they’ve started to understand now is that criminals are not careful with ivory—they’re very careful with drugs and arms and humans but they’re not with ivory . . . ivory has become this sort of soft underbelly,” one anti-trafficking representative told me: “It’s like a Trojan horse into the networks.” Still, it is a dangerous business: Just last year, one of the ECF’s partners, Wayne Lotter, who had received numerous death threats after making headway against ivory traffickers in Tanzania with the PAMS Foundation, was shot while heading back from the airport in Dar es Salaam. At least eight people have been charged in connection with Lotter’s murder, and the trials are still proceeding. It is unknown if the motive was poaching-related, though some with Save the Elephants think so. “He was poking higher and higher and higher into the syndicates,” one ECF representative familiar with the case told me. “These guys didn’t like what he was doing, and they took him out. In February 2018, a well-known American ivory and rhino horn trade investigator named Esmond Bradley Martin was stabbed to death in his home in Nairobi. He had recently returned from a research trip to Myanmar for STE, for which he was working as a consultant.

The Elephant Crisis Fund operates like a venture capital fund, identifying and directly supporting 59 different organizations that are working to save elephants either from poaching or the more benign sounding but no less fatal “human-wildlife conflict.” One hundred percent of the money that is donated to the fund goes directly toward actions to save elephants, with zero overhead. What the ECF is looking for, and trying to support, Thouless said, are projects that specifically disable or disarm different parts of the ivory supply chain. He broke down their approach to three pillars: anti-poaching, anti-trafficking, and demand reduction. Poaching is pernicious, and the trafficking syndicates that pull the strings nefarious, but it’s demand that’s the real root of the problem: “Africa is full of wild remote places with very poor populations, lots of young men who don’t have any other source of employment, who, if they’re asked to go and supply some ivory, they may not even know that it’s illegal—they will go out and shoot elephants,” Pope said, and in 2011 for example, the ivory of the largest male elephant poached in Samburu commanded a price equivalent to 1.5 years’ salary for a wildlife ranger, or 15 years’ salary for an unskilled worker. A 50-year-old bull can grow tusks that each weigh roughly 50 kilograms, or more than 100 pounds; The New York Times noted this year that the global price of ivory is around $1,000 a kilogram, with traffickers typically collecting and shipping “at least half a ton . . . or 500 kilograms, in a container.” Ideally, “If there is no demand for ivory, then there will be no poaching,” Thouless said, but it takes time, and no one is quite sure how much of that the elephants have left. 

The biggest consumer is China, which has a tradition of ivory carving, and of giving lavishly carved or decorated pieces as gifts. This is where a certain amount of PR savvy helped. “We’ve had some major successes in the last few months with the legal demand for ivory,” Thouless said, “particularly in China, where at the end of the year [2017] they closed down all their [legal] sales outlets and their factories,” and in Hong Kong, where they’ve pledged to close stores by the end of 2021, thanks in part to a campaign undertaken by Save the Elephants. (Samburu representatives flew to Hong Kong and testified to the parliament there about the crisis—“a real tearjerker,” Pope said.) 

Save the Elephants, along with WildAid (an organization focused on reducing the demand for dead animal products), invited Chinese superstars Yao Ming and Li Bingbing to Elephant Watch Camp to meet the elephants and spread the gospel about ivory’s very real cost. (“Most Chinese people had not been aware before then that elephants had to die for their ivory to be harvested,” The Washington Post wrote in 2017. Yao Ming has since appeared on WildAid billboards posing with elephants with the words “Only Elephants Should Own Ivory” and “When the Buying Stops, the Killing Can Too.” This outreach has had a marked effect on consumption, the ECF says. “Fashion has the power to destroy; it’s fashion for ivory that’s led to two crises we’ve seen, one in the ’70s and ’80s and one recently,” Iain Douglas-Hamilton told me in May. “It can bring a species to its knees, but it’s also fashion that can restore. Fashion can actually reach people—the people that we’re reaching now with fashion are not the people that we reached before.” As China has shown commitment to ending its domestic trade in ivory, however, recent reports have detailed a new demand for Asian elephant skin, used to make elephant leather accessories, and as a powdered ingredient for human consumption in “traditional remedies,” like to cure upset stomachs or skin ailments. If elephant skin picks up in popularity as an ingredient in Chinese medicine, it will compound the threat facing the wild elephant: A demand for skin does not target mostly older elephants, like ivory does, and it was the purported medicinal properties of rhino horn that has pushed that animal to the precipice of extinction.

Elephants have a lot more in common with humans than anyone who has ever hunted one would have you believe. Scientists who have studied elephants’ brains have found that they are designed in a manner that’s strikingly similar to ours: In 2011, National Geographic detailed how elephant MRI scans “suggest a large hippocampus” (“the component in the mammalian brain linked to memory and an important part of its limbic system, which is involved in processing emotions”) as well as “an abundance of the specialized neurons known as spindle cells . . . thought to be associated with self-awareness, empathy, and social awareness in humans.” They have been known to use rude tools like tree branches (to scratch themselves with), as well as more sophisticated ones, like latched gates. They communicate using a range of vocalizations (from low rumblings to high-pitched screams and trumpeting noises) and in the manner of particularly demonstrative speakers, also use visual signals cued with their trunk, ears, head, and tail. They are largely considered to be among the most intelligent animals on the planet. 

Every researcher whom I spoke to for this story emphasized the extreme psychological complexity of elephants, and most referred to their emotions in anthropomorphic terms (they “get angry” or “frustrated”; they “grieve” and “tease” or “play” or “try to gin up their confidence” to do something that frightens them, as in the case of the young bull I saw loudly trumpeting to himself as he crossed the rushing Ewaso Ng’iro alone, watched by a crocodile on the far bank). Both sexes follow their mothers, whom they rely on for food and protection, until teen males peel off to form their own groups of roguish bachelors. Older males return later, singly, while in the hormonal rush of musth (a condition in which their testosterone increases by 20 to 30 percent) to survey the available mating opportunities. The females live in tight-knit matriarchal societies beginning with the birth mother and immediate aunts and then branching out to include what can be dozens or hundreds of female members of their family tree and established friends, and they will stick together for most, if not all, of their lives—which, if left to their own devices, last well into their mid-60s.

While in Samburu, I watched a herd of elephants appear to strategize their crossing of the Ewaso Ng’iro: They sent the larger members of the group out first, creating bulwarks that ensured the littlest members wouldn’t get washed away in the current. This sort of tendency toward community, however, does not always serve elephants’ best interests. When they perceive a threat, adults will encircle their young in a protective huddle, forming a wall of legs and bodies with the smallest members in the center. This method of gaining mass on their attacker almost certainly worked better before the influx of semiautomatic weapons, poisoned darts, and spears now carried by most poachers; these days, it just serves to make them a bigger target. 

Many elephants walking across Africa’s savannas today bear evidence of prior human attacks. In Samburu, Save the Elephants’ researchers have recovered rib bones scarred and swollen by bullets from elephants who years later died of drought. “The way people shoot elephants here is with AK-47s, sometimes G3s. These are anti-personnel weapons; they’re not designed for killing elephants; they’re not good at killing elephants. You have to spray an elephant with bullets or be a very experienced shot to kill one immediately,” Pope said, adding that many of the elephants you’ll see in the wild “are the walking wounded.” 

When elephants lose their matriarchs—being the oldest, they have the biggest tusks, so they’re poachers biggest targets—entire families dissolve. The psychological effects are terrible, Save the Elephants’ head of field operations David Daballen told me, even in the increasingly rare case that the cause is natural. Any herd absence is not taken lightly. Even when the team at STE sedates an elephant for the brief process of collaring it with a radio collar tracking device, Daballen said they have to be strategic about preventing the rest of the herd from seeing. “If her family sees her go down, they will go berserk,” Daballen said, and noted that once the collared elephant is returned, even after an absence of only 15 minutes, the herd reacts ecstatically. The “greeting ceremony is key to cementing bonds in an elephant family,” National Geographic writes. “Elephants vocalize a greeting-rumble as they hold their heads high, vigorously flap their ears, and reach out and touch family members with their trunks. They secrete from their temporal glands, urinate, and defecate. Sometimes they show their excitement about being back together by clanking tusks together and spinning around, as if doing pirouettes.”) 

For the first five years of life, elephants are fully dependent on their mothers, and if orphaned, will die without intervention. Since 1977, pioneering conservationists like Daphne Sheldrick and the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s orphans project have hand-raised more than 150 orphaned elephants. The newer Reteti Elephant Sanctuary is attempting the same under slightly different parameters, though they both have keepers who bottle feed, stroke, and make rumbling noises at and occasionally sleep next to orphaned calves, filling the maternal role until the calves reach an age where they can be re-released into the wild and hopefully form their own herd. I visited Reteti and watched a feeding, with keepers clucking and lip trilling over their charges as they drank greedily from enormous baby bottles, wrapping their trunks lovingly around the human men who fed them.

The loss of older bulls (who operate as role models) has been shown to affect the behavior of younger elephants for the rest of their lives. (In the early 1990s, National Geographic reported, a group of young bulls in South Africa that witnessed the older males of their herd being culled by the government went on to kill more than 40 rhinoceroses in an unorthodox show of aggression; in some cases, the elephants had even “attempted to mount” the rhinos.) “The loss of older elephants and the extreme psychological and physical trauma of witnessing the massacres of their family members interferes with a young elephant’s normal development,” a psychologist named Gay Bradshaw told National Geographic; the article went on to suggest that the behaviors exhibited by elephants orphaned by poaching “conforms to a diagnosis of PTSD in humans.” 

I had often heard that elephants mourn their dead—what I didn’t know until Daballen told me was that they have been known to revisit the bones of the deceased for months, even years, to feel them with their trunks, and occasionally pick them up to scatter elsewhere. “Elephants have an extraordinary compassion that they show toward other elephants that are either ailing, or dying, or dead,” Iain Douglas-Hamilton told me, recalling one they called Eleanor Roosevelt, from a herd named after famous First Ladies. (There is also a Michelle Obama and a Margaret Kenyatta. There is not a Melania Trump.) Eleanor Roosevelt “was the matriarch. She was very sick, and she was tottering around,” Iain recounted. “She fell in front of another elephant that wasn’t related to her. Her family, because she was going slow, had gone on ahead, but other elephants came to help get her back on her feet. But she fell again,” and died. “And for the next week we saw elephants coming up to her carcass, looking, concerned, rumbling, smelling her, feeling all over, even trying to get her back on her feet.” Outside the main office of STE’s research center lay an array of tagged and coded recovered lower jawbones. “All of these are animals that we’ve known,” Daballen told a group of visitors. A pile of partially destroyed radio collars (which are often shot, burned, or buried in termite mounds by poachers attempting to throw rangers off their trail) were heaped over a fence nearby. Iain told me that sometimes elephants passing through the center’s grounds will stop to smell and fondle the collars with their trunks, apparently catching wind of their absent friends and family.

Real legal consequences for poachers and traffickers haven’t existed on much of the continent over the past 50 years—until 2013, the most severe penalty for convicted poachers in Kenya was a fine of about $400; fewer than 4 percent of those convicted for their crimes actually went to jail. 

As the hardworking operatives at WildlifeDirect know, even an arrest is not a guarantee; for real reform, you have to follow through all the way to the end. Dr. Paula Kahumbu is the CEO of WildlifeDirect; she has worked with the Kenya Wildlife Service and for nongovernmental organizations. She got her PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton. “I personally sat in courts and witnessed how horribly trials were being conducted,” Kahumbu said: “It was actually heartbreaking.” Save the Elephants “were actually at the forefront with us, [which] led to us leading a very high-level government meeting,” Kahumbu recalled. “[Government officials] said, you know, ‘Just tell us what’s really happening, how bad, how serious is this problem . . .’ And we were saying, ‘It’s a crisis. We’re going to lose these animals. We’re going to lose our name, our reputation, and our tourism opportunities as a consequence.’ ” 

WildlifeDirect launched the Hands Off Our Elephants campaign in 2013, mobilizing public support (“we literally got thousands and thousands of people marching on the streets of Nairobi with placards, children screaming in the streets, and that kind of thing,” Kahumbu recalled). Margaret Kenyatta, the First Lady of Kenya, came on board as its patron soon after. The next year, President Uhuru Kenyatta signed in a new law that prescribed the most severe penalties for wildlife crime in the world, allocating an additional $20 million for anti-poaching activities, and deploying 577 newly trained rangers across the country. Right before World Wildlife Day in 2016, President Kenyatta burned 105 tons of ivory, and gave a speech in which he said: “For us, ivory is worthless unless it is on our elephants.” It was a real victory, but not the war won: When it comes to poachers and traffickers, WildlifeDirect still maintains what it calls the Eyes in the Courtroom Project, in which they essentially operate as an external, unofficial prosecutor, attending and sometimes recording wildlife crime trials in order to hold the judiciary accountable and ensuring compliance, transparency, and accountability at all stages of the judicial chain. 

WildlifeDirect has even, on occasion, retained its own copies of the court’s evidence, which otherwise has a history, WildlifeDirect’s legal affairs manager Jim Karani said, of going “missing” in cases against high net worth individuals. In 2016, with WildlifeDirect’s help, “ivory kingpin” Feisal Mohamed Ali was convicted of illegally possessing and dealing 2 tons of ivory and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Wildlife crime investigators have since come to believe that Ali is not only at the top of an ivory racket, but that racket may also be connected to a drug-trafficking ring involving two brothers from Kenya, Baktash and Ibrahim Akasha. Ali’s call logs connected him to an associate of the Akashas, according to The Guardian, which led investigators to more linkages between the brothers’ operations and ivory trafficking, including phone and shipping records that correlate ivory seizures with the Akasha network. The Akashas were extradited to New York in January 2017 after the Justice Department charged them “with participation in a conspiracy to import kilogram quantities of heroin and methamphetamine into the United States.” (The brothers have pleaded not guilty and deny any involvement in ivory dealings.) Of the trafficking ring, DEA Special Agent Thomas Cindric, of the Special Operations Division in Washington, told The Economist: “They’re like the mafia in the U.S.; they’re multifaceted. These guys are drug and ivory traffickers. And the smuggling routes for ivory are the same as the smuggling routes for drugs.” 

Ali is currently appealing his conviction. When the judge rejected his bail application in 2015, partially based on supplementary evidence supplied by WildlifeDirect, Karani claimed that Ali turned to him and his cameraman, made a gun with his fingers, and pulled the trigger. Karani said he has been threatened with an actual gun three times and shot at twice, but he speaks with the confidence of a man who knows he’s on the right side of history. “The way we look at it is the truth will always set us free,” he said. “We have no personal agenda—we have an agenda against the 1,958 wildlife crime offenders who have been brought to court in the last two years.” Visiting Kahumbu and Karani at their offices in Nairobi, where they have a framed copy of a wanted ad featuring Ali on the wall, is not unlike stopping by the campaign headquarters of someone particularly persuasively running for office; it’s hard not to feel like triumph is a foregone conclusion. “We realized,” Kahumbu said, “that when you do something that’s a huge success, you can’t stop there. You’ve got to keep going.”

The hospitality side of the Save the Elephants enterprise, Elephant Watch Camp, essentially serves as the headquarters of the organization’s charm offensive. Founded in 2001 by Oria Douglas-Hamilton alongside a gentle bend in the Ewaso Ng’iro river, Elephant Watch is run by a staff of mainly local Samburu, and overseen by the older of Iain and Oria’s two daughters: Saba, a former BBC presenter and wildlife filmmaker. Saba runs the camp on what she calls “eco-principles”: solar power, locally sourced food, rationed water for bathing, and carefully managed and recycled waste. Many of the staff (who are, as Bernard Lesirin, a Samburu warrior who works with Save the Elephants, told me, “natural conservationists”) operate as guides, taking guests on game drives through the bush, often steering up to within an arm’s reach of a herd of elephants. About 120 adult bulls roam through the Samburu ecosystem, and occasionally they return the favor and cruise through camp. 

“I feel like the role that we play [at Elephant Watch Camp] is to sort of catalyze our guests to fall in love with this place, with the people, with the wildlife, and also with conservation,” Saba told me. She and Dudu grew up here (as documented in their parents’ first book, 1975’s Among the Elephants) and both have returned with their families to live—Saba at Elephant Watch with her husband, Save the Elephants CEO Frank Pope, and their three young daughters, for most months of the year. “We’re kind of like an undercover conservation recruitment agency: You think you’re coming on holiday, but our aspiration is that by the time you leave us you’ve made a pledge in your heart that you’re going to start doing something, and that every step that you take is a change in how you serve the wild world.” 

It works: David Bonnouvrier and Trish Goff return to Elephant Watch at least once a year. “Look, it’s like Oria once said to me, ‘My darling, the elephants have a way of creeping into your life, and once they do, they never leave,’ ” said Bonnouvrier.

When you talk about protecting the future for wild elephants, it’s about more than ending the demand for ivory, or persecuting the criminals who’ve stolen or sold it. What you’re really talking about is making space: How much space are we, as a human race, willing to give to the world’s largest land mammals? An adult elephant in the wild only sleeps for around two hours a day and spends 12 to 18 hours eating between 200 and 600 pounds of food. They are herbivores, and foragers, and cross the country ripping up vegetation and drinking gallons of water; some have ranges that span 3,000 square kilometers. In fact, they can wreak almost as much destruction on a landscape as human beings. Iain Douglas-Hamilton described their movements as “streaking” (in which elephants will go “very rapidly at night in one direction and pitch up the next morning in a new area”), a term I’d last heard in the context of drunk fraternity brothers. They are naturally inclined toward their own specific routes, which researchers dub “wildlife corridors,” and which tend not to take people’s homes, farms, and freshly planned urban developments into consideration. This provides something of a puzzle for conservationists: The elephants “have favorite places that they go, and other favorite places over there, and they go between the two, very often passing through dangerous country—dangerous, mainly, because of human beings,” Iain said. While in a park, wildlife is protected and has sufficient resources for survival, but once it travels outside of those boundaries, there are no security assurances. 

“One of our big interests,” Iain said, “is how do you maintain the corridors that elephants use to link up their areas” while ensuring that the land owned by the human community is also used to their best advantage? In the case of one Samburu elephant, a stately figure named Mountain Bull, who had enormous, ground-sweeping tusks (as well as a reputation for ravaging local crops during his regular progression to Mt. Kenya and back—Iain says he was particularly “bad for elephant politics”), STE banded together with some of their associates to create a new corridor, replete with a highway underpass. “The big question mark was whether this big bull,” who had been traveling a certain way for decades, “would eventually learn” the new route, Iain said. “Well, he did learn. He broke into the corridor, he learned that corridor, and it was a good solution to that particular problem.” (Not good enough, however; Mountain Bull was later poached for his tusks in Mt. Kenya National Park.)

The majority of the land in Kenya is community-owned, and the community is increasingly inclined to use it for purposes that better serve the immediate wants and needs of its rising population than those of its endangered elephants: converting it into grazing grounds for livestock, tilling it for agriculture, harvesting it for timber, or settling new villages. This, of course, is the entirely rational conclusion of people who are trying to improve their livelihoods and economies—it’s just not particularly good news for wildlife. 

Save the Elephants wants Kenya to be among the first countries to design its infrastructure with wildlife conservation in mind—making concessions to the living creatures that the country counts among its natural resources by doing things like adding urban corridors through which elephants can roam safely—rather than attempting to retrofit it later. “Through creating crossing points, underneath the railways, over the roads, under the roads, you can continue connectivity, and you can actually have both worlds,” Pope told me. “It’s not as beautiful as having it without the infrastructure, but hey, this continent is home to a billion people,” 1.2 billion, and set to double by 2050, “and it’s their land. We can’t keep this as just a preserve.” Conservationists continue to clamor for better land-use policies, and Save the Elephants “gives elephants a voice” by using the data from their tracking collars to show the corridors they prefer and how they will maneuver around new developments so that recommendations can be made, but it’s hard for anyone involved to ignore the fact that historically, development almost always trumps conservation—even when the former puts people and wildlife into direct conflict, with dangerous consequences.

Craig Millar sees Kenya’s human-wildlife conflict firsthand. A fourth-generation Kenyan, Millar sits at the head of several hundred rangers employed by the Big Life Foundation, which, along with the Kenya Wildlife Service, protects more than 2 million acres across the Amboseli-Tsavo-Kilimanjaro ecosystem of East Africa. One of the main problems that he has to deal with, as he put it, is that “while tourism and conservation are semi-compatible, farming and conservation are not.” A large part of Millar’s job is human-facing: He and his rangers intervene when wildlife appears where it shouldn’t, provide conciliatory funds to farmers for crops or livestock that have been lost so they don’t seek revenge on wildlife, and send vehicles out to usher meandering elephants out of human settlements and back into the park. “Any given night, we’ve got 40 rangers and four different vehicles actually patrolling crops, trying to keep the elephants out,” Millar said. 

In the 2016 Netflix documentary The Ivory Game, filmmakers Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani capture how delicate this task can be, following Millar as he rushes out in the middle of the night with Big Life rangers to intercept a group of enraged townspeople hunting the elephants that have been pillaging their farms. “Elephants don’t pay for my children to go to school,” one farmer fumes: “My tomatoes do.” A single elephant can destroy a year’s worth of crops and create a lot of economic hardship in a matter of hours, Millar said. Beehive fences—an initiative supported and promoted by Save the Elephants that uses the elephant’s fear of the African bee as a deterrent, and which are being tested in 14 countries across Africa and Asia—are a sustainable, low-cost, and effective solution, but they’re only operational over short distances. Electric fences with angled prongs specifically designed for elephants work, but they’re expensive, at $11,000 a kilometer; Big Life aims to install about 120 kilometers of fencing this year alone. ECF’s funding goes toward that cost, as well as toward fueling the planes Big Life uses for aerial surveillance and transport, and the on-the-ground intelligence from paid informants who help rangers either intercept poachers before they attack or recover ivory before it gets laundered and trafficked. (“If the poacher doesn’t get the ivory, then he’s not going to bother trying” the next time, Millar said.) As a result, Big Life lost two elephants in the last year to poaching—compared with 25 to 30 that were lost in 2011—and only one set of tusks. “That’s about as good a record as you’re going to find” for a 2 million–acre area, Millar said.

Ultimately, Iain Douglas-Hamilton said, “it’s the hearts and minds of the people who live in Africa that’s going to determine the future of elephants,” and at the heart of the challenge that the ECF faces today are two opposing ideas: how to make life incredibly hard for poachers and traffickers, and extremely easy for the communities who are living with elephants. Paula Kahumbu believes that if you make wildlife conservation beneficial to the people who live in the communities most affected, they’ll be more inclined to protect it. “Something like a million tourists come to this country to see this extraordinary wildlife; they save for a lifetime to come and see it,” Kahumbu said, “but for the people who live in those landscapes, they’re incredibly poor; they don’t see the benefit.” It’s those people who “need to be at the center,” Kahumbu said. “They need to be the ones getting the jobs; they need to be the ones creating their own industries and enterprises around wildlife conservation.” Or, as Big Life’s Daniel Ole Sambu put it, “If conservation supports communities, then communities will support conservation.” It’s up to ECF and its fellow NGOs and conservationists to lead by example, Pope said; like the beehive fence, “If you can show people a model that works, these things spread very fast.” The hope is that they will be able to do it in time: Even with help from deep-pocketed donors, the need across the continent is so great, and so widespread, that it creates something of a heartbreaking choice for the conservationist. “It may be that we have to give up on a lot of the forests in central Africa and really focus our attention on a few strongholds where there is a chance of saving the elephants,” said Thouless. “If we don’t focus like this, then we may lose everything.”

The human population of our planet has never been particularly good about sharing, let alone using its natural resources wisely. We have leveled rainforests, decimated glaciers, pillaged and poisoned the plains for oil, and choked the Pacific Ocean with a whirling gyre of microscopic plastic flotsam the size of a small country. We have taken the infinite possibilities of interconnectivity and used them to become increasingly insular, fearful societies; walling off our neighbors, closing our borders, and isolating ourselves from the wants and needs of others. We have, in effect, forgotten that we are not the only creatures who live here. We have, if we’re honest, forgotten that we are creatures at all. But there is something about the elephant crisis that feels like it could inspire even the most hardened students of human nature. To allow the extinction of the world’s largest and smartest and most sensitive land animal—a keystone species, meaning that when it goes, an entire ecosystem goes with it—on our watch? What could that mean for who we are, and what we’re becoming? “People often say, ‘What can we do, you know, we work hard, do you want me to come to Samburu and be a ranger?’ And we’re like, ‘Actually, the people here really know what they’re doing on that score, but it’s not just about here,’ ” Pope said. The battle to save the elephants “is a global problem. We need a global coalition if we’re going to solve it.” In other words, there is a future worth fighting for, and one which we can undertake together. Who knows: If we save the elephant, we may just end up saving ourselves as well. 

To donate to the Elephant Crisis Fund, click here.