Elephants are in trouble—and we’re to blame

We’ve expanded into their territory and exploited them for trinkets. Now a new series, Secrets of the Elephants, wants to inspire us to save them.

By Rachel Hartigan
Published 21 Apr 2023, 09:20 BST
Elephants drink from a lake near Galgamuwa, in northwestern Sri Lanka. With much of the country’s land developed, its estimated 6,000 elephants are forced to share almost 70 percent of their habitat with humans.
Photograph by Brent Stirton

Watch Secrets of the Elephants, a four-part National Geographic series streaming on Disney+.

“They’re all in trouble,” says Kenyan ecologist Paula Kahumbu. “All elephants are in major, major trouble.”

Populations of the three species have declined: savanna elephants, the largest land animals on the planet, trundling across sub-Saharan Africa; forest elephants, their straight-tusked cousins, navigating the shadows of Africa’s equatorial woodlands; and the smaller-eared Asian elephants, about a third of which live in captivity.

And we’re to blame. We’ve expanded into elephant territory, building homes and roads, felling forests and planting crops. More cruelly, people have indulged their desire for ivory trinkets that come from a dead elephant’s tusk. Although elephants are difficult to count, one estimate suggests that the African continent may have been home to some 26 million elephants at the beginning of the 19th century. That number has since plummeted, becoming dangerously low in the past five decades, with the rise of poaching. Now there are as few as 415,000 elephants in Africa. In Asia, there may likely be only 50,000 in the wild.

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, has funded Explorer Paula Kahumbu’s work around wildlife since 2010 and Explorer Joyce Poole’s storytelling since 1988.
Photograph by Illustration by Joe McKendry

Poaching doesn’t just destroy animals, says Kahumbu, CEO of the Kenyan conservation organisation WildlifeDirect and a National Geographic Explorer; it undermines society. That’s why her organisation monitored poaching cases in Kenyan courts, launched a campaign called Hands Off Our Elephants with then Kenyan first lady Margaret Kenyatta, and educates children on the value of wildlife. Kahumbu’s goal is lofty and urgent: to change “the whole national consciousness about conservation.”

Now, she’s taking her message to an international stage with Secrets of the Elephantsa four-part series on National Geographic and Disney+. It explores the hidden lives of elephants in four habitats—Asia, plus African forests, deserts, and savannas—as well as the people who are racing to save the animals.

One of those people is ethologist Joyce Poole, a leading expert on African elephant behaviour. The National Geographic Explorer compiled five decades’ worth of video and audio recordings of elephant communication—from ear waving to head butting—into the Elephant Ethogram, a publicly available digital library of elephant behavior.

As scientists learn more about elephants, they’re developing more effective ways to protect them. Kahumbu points to elephant crossings that take advantage of the animals’ geographic intelligence to negotiate major roads without hurting themselves or threatening nearby communities. “We kind of know what they need, but we aren’t always generous enough,” she says.

Secrets of the Elephants, she hopes, will familiarise people with the wildlife that lives in their midst. “As an African telling the story of Africa’s elephants, I hope that it will get more Africans interested in elephants,” she says.

While making the series, the plight of some elephants shocked her. “You look at their faces. They look so sad,” she says. “They don’t look well at all.” She particularly noticed this in Asia, where Asian elephants and people live in increasingly close quarters. Despite decades of research into African elephants, much research into Asian elephants has lagged behind—which is why our feature, “The Elephant Next Door,” will focus on this species.

Yet Kahumbu also met people who were determined to save elephants. And therein lies one of her greatest aspirations for this series—that it “amplifies their work, their name, their voices, their achievements, so that we can start pouring support onto the places where good work is being done.”

This story appears in the May 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine.


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