Finding Hope for Elephants

 World Wildlife Day logo

Today marks the inauguration of World Wildlife Day, established by the UN General Assembly to celebrate the natural world, increase awareness of the value of conservation, and to fight wildlife crimes. Dr. Iain Douglas Hamilton, 2010 recipient of the Indianapolis Prize and founder of Save the Elephants, celebrates the occasion by noting that awareness and concern about the global demand for elephant ivory is gaining significant momentum.  One major example is the recent U.S. ban on the import and export of ivory, a significant victory for elephant conservation.  In addition, the destruction of confiscated ivory around the world continues to send a clear message that the killing of elephants for their tusks must end.   

Despite this encouraging news, China continues to consume ivory at an alarming and completely unsustainable rate. 

China continues to be the world's top consumer of ivory
China continues to be the world’s top consumer of ivory

 As reported in a front page article in the Southern Weekend, China’s largest weekend-selling newspaper, “In recent news on November 5, 2013, Xiamen Customs announced the largest ivory smuggling cases uncovered in recent years, two cases of which ivory added up to 11.88 tons, worth 603 million yuan. If it hadn’t been seized, the ivory from Africa would have infiltrated China ‘s secretive “black market”, to be eventually sold into private collections.”

Dr. Iain Douglas Hamilton
Dr. Iain Douglas Hamilton

Dr. Iain Douglas Hamilton states it plainly, “We’re still hoping for the ultimate prize: for China to exercise joint leadership with the USA and shut down her domestic ivory markets.”

That won’t happen without a major shift in Chinese public opinion.  Surveys indicate that most Chinese people don’t understand that ivory is the result of elephant poaching.

To counter that misperception, Save the Elephants is partnering with Li Bingbing, one of China’s most famous actresses and singers, and a UNEP Goodwill Ambassador. 

Li Bingbing, Advocate for Elephants
Li Bingbing, Advocate for Elephants

In a powerful mini-documentary, she simply tells the story facing elephants across Africa today.  Her message is simple:

Stop the Buying.  Stop the Dying.  Say No to ivory.

We must act now to save African elephants.
We must act now to save African elephants.








Did Dinosaurs Use Tools?


Triceratops_liveDBThat’s the provocative question being asked by Dinets, Brueggen & Brueggen as a result of their recently published paper that describes tool use by crocodilians.  They observed both mugger crocodiles (Crocodylus palustris) and American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) using tools while hunting.  While mostly submerged near bird rookeries, the crocodiles and alligators balanced sticks and twigs on their snouts as a lure for nesting birds – primarily egrets.

A mugger crocodile at the Madras Crocodile Bank, Tamil Nadu, India, using tools to attract birds as they search for nesting materials.
A mugger crocodile at the Madras Crocodile Bank, Tamil Nadu, India, using tools to attract birds as they search for nesting materials.


Using tools to “bait or entice” prey is relatively uncommon among non-humans, having only been documented in a small number of primates, birds, and insects.  However, the use of hunting lures by saltwater crocodiles (C. porosus) was described in 1998 by Davis and Zickefoose.  They cited reports of saltwater crocs “baiting for birds” with pieces of fish scraps left floating on the water.  The croc would submerge itself below the fish pieces and wait for a foraging bird to approach (See Shumaker, Walkup and Beck (2011), pp. 36-37). 

This earlier observation and the newly published research both describe the “bait, entice” mode of tool use, now known to occur in two geographically distinct species of crocodile as well as the American alligator.  Dinets et al. have also added a very important aspect to our emerging understanding of these animals.  This tool using behavior was observed only during the birds’ nesting season – the crocs and alligagors are apparently aware of some (still unknown) cues in the environment that signal breeding season in the rookeries.   

An American alligator successfully catches an egret after using a tool as a lure
An American alligator successfully catches an egret after using a tool as a lure


It’s certain that crocodiles and alligators have been mischaracterized in the past.  These ancient reptiles have been considered primitive, brutish, and existing in a world only of stimulus and response – almost always mentioned as best used for purses and shoes.  The joke’s on us.  They communicate with each other, actively care for their offspring, and flexibly use tools as lures when they hunt. 

Which brings us back to the dinosaurs.  Many were not so different from modern crocodilians.  Were they tool users as well?  If so, their tools were likely unmodified objects from their environment (like the stick lures), which would be unrecognizable as tools even if they fossilized.  We may never know, but the thought exercise is rewarding.  It’s good to know that our assumptions about other species can still be challenged and improved.

Forest Elephants in Rapid Decline

Forest elephants are being poached at unprecedented rates
Forest elephants are being poached at unprecedented rates

New evidence reveals that the conservation crisis for African elephants is widespread, and is decimating two species.  The worsening situation for Savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana) was recently chronicled in National Geographic’s story on “Blood Ivory“.  Sadly, the less-well-known Forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis), are faring even worse. 

A new study, just published in PLOS ONE, documents a “devastating” decline in the numbers of Forest elephants in Central Africa.  Between 2002 and 2011 the population was reduced by 62%.  Poaching for ivory, along with habitat reduction, has resulted in a situation where “The population is now less than 10% of its potential size,
occupying less than 25% of its potential range.”, according to the authors.

Forest elephant juveniles
Forest elephant juveniles

Forest and Savanna elephants have many similarities.  However, Forest elephants are smaller and their tusks point downwards as an adaptation associated with living in a denser habitat.  Savanna elephants have a much greater range, and a far larger population across the continent.  Neither species is being spared as the slaughter for ivory accelerates.  The authors of the study are clear in their assessment, “To save the remaining African forest elephants, illegal poaching for ivory and encroachment into core elephant habitat must be stopped. In addition, the international demand for ivory, which fuels illegal trade, must be dramatically reduced.”

Other experts believe that the only solution is a complete ban on the ivory trade.  A new report from CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) documents the fact that stockpiles of ivory – whether legal or illegal – are facilitating the trade in poached ivory. 

Stock piles of illegal ivory

Since 2007, the CITES report documents that the illegal trade in ivory has more than doubled.  In 2011 alone, approximately 17,000 elephants were killed for their ivory. 

As reported by CNN, China remains the single largest consumer of ivory, by far.  Related to that is the fact that Chinese officials are making more seizures of illegal ivory than any other country.  Over 6 tons (worth more than 6 million US) have been confiscated in the last 6 months.

Significant coverage of the ivory issue is not limited to national media outlets.  The Des Moines Register has published a story addressing the issue, including a plea from a local conservationist asking President Obama to do “everything in his power to address the crisis.”. 

Male Forest Elephant
Male Forest Elephant

The radius of empathy for elephants is increasing, yet the slaughter continues at unprecedented rates.  The killing must be stopped – at least slowed – until the Asian appetite for ivory ends.  This will require innovation in conservation methods as well as educational outreach.

Poaching is the Leading Cause of Death for African Elephants


Multi generational herd of African elephants
Multi generational herd of African elephants

By its very nature, the process of good science requires composure and objectivity.  How hard it must have been for the authors of a study recently published in PLOS ONE to maintain a sense of detachment while collecting, analyzing, and discussing the data that documents a slaughter.  The conclusions of this remarkably thorough study are clear – poaching by humans is wreaking havoc on populations of wild elephants. 

Conducted over 14 years in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, the authors demonstrate that the killing of elephants is escalating dramatically.  In 2011, humans were directly responsible for 56% of the recorded mortality.  In other words, poaching by humans is the leading cause of death for elephants in this population.   

Elephant mortality in Samburu as a result of poaching
Elephant mortality in Samburu as a result of poaching

As a result, the life expectancies of the elephants in Samburu was dramatically reduced when compared with the less impacted Amboseli National Park, also in Kenya.  In Samburu, females were expected to live half as long, and males only one quarter as long as their counterparts in Amboseli. 

As stated by the authors, “Unfortunately, illegal killing and related population decline is increasingly common across Africa, therefore the results from this study are directly relevant to understanding the conservation status of the species.”

The evidence is clear – the “blood ivory” trade is rapidly pushing African elephants towards extinction. 

Oria Douglas Hamilton
Oria Douglas Hamilton

In a moving tribute, Oria Douglas Hamilton remembered Changila, one of the last bull elephants in Samburu who was recently killed for his ivory tusks. 

After decades of advocacy on behalf of elephants, she makes it clear that the trade in “blood ivory” must stop.  Her pleas for action are clear and direct – Kenyan and Chinese authorities must end the buying and selling of ivory.  China must close the businesses that support this ongoing tragedy. 

Despite the continued killings and apparent indifference by those political leaders who could work to end the slaughter, there are signs of progress.  New voices are joining those who call for an end to “blood ivory”, and the chorus is growing stronger.

In October 2012, the National Geographic published a cover story that chronicled the trail of “blood ivory” around the world (see blog posting on the topic below). 

NG blood ivory

A particularly disturbing aspect of the story was the documentation of ivory being fashioned into modern day objects of religious devotion – particularly in some populations of the Catholic Church.  After thoughtful consideration, the Vatican has publicly responded. 

In the statement, Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office states that “…we are absolutely convinced that the massacre of elephants is a very serious matter, against which it is right that everyone who can do something should be committed. For our part, we can certainly undertake a program of information and empowerment through some “Vatican” organizations.”

The three initiatives underway by the Church involve:

1. Bringing the issue to the attention of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace

2. Raising awareness of the ivory trade through programming on Vatican Radio, particularly in range countries for elephants

3. Widely publicizing research by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on environmental issues and biodiversity

These are important and meaningful steps, spurred by the awareness that was created from excellent journalism.  Good people are doing important work on behalf of elephants.  But, more must be done. 














Finally, Some Good News for Chimpanzees in Biomedical Research


New rules from NIH may provide a long overdue change for chimpanzees in biomedical research
New rules from NIH may provide a long overdue change for chimpanzees in biomedical research

The United States and Gabon are the only countries that still allow the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research.  A long overdue change in US policy is underway, hopefully improving the lives of hundreds of chimpanzees who have been used and abused – some for decades. 

On Tuesday, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) proposed new rules that would retire most of the 400 or so chimpanzees still owned by the Federal Government and living in biomedical research labs to permanent sanctuary homes such as Chimp Haven.  This historic decision marks the beginning of the end for invasive research with these great apes. 

These new recommendations follow a 2011 report, commissioned by the NIH, that finally acknowledged that most medical research with chimpanzees is unnecessary. 

Unfortunately, the new rules would still leave about 50 chimpanzees in labs as possible research subjects – should an unanticipated need suddenly arise.  But, the report requires a dramatic improvement in the care that these individuals will receive. 

According to an NPR report, there is still disagreement about how funding for the retired chimpanzees will be provided.  As further reported, NIH does not have the resources to fund this effort, and congressional action will be necessary to support the plan. 

A final decision on the new rules is expected in March.  Until then, public comments on the plan are being received.

To voice your support, contact your congressional represenatives.

Chimpanzees need your help, it’s time to speak on their behalf.    


Advancing Animal Conservation

Meaningful conservation is never easy.  For professional conservationists, it takes talent, creativity, perseverance, and reliable funding.  Even then, it can be a constant uphill battle.  For the average person who cares about the fate of the natural world – a citizen conservationist – finding a way to make a genuine difference can be challenging.  Of course, grassroots support for reputable conservation organizations remains essential.  But, many people want to do more.

In an article published in the Indianapolis Star, Myrta Pulliam offers a wonderful travel essay (and spectacular photos) about her recent visit to Borneo in search of orangutans.  She found them, along with opportunities to help make a positive difference for conservation. 

Myrta Pulliam - writer, photographer, and dedicated conservationist
Myrta Pulliam – writer, photographer, and dedicated conservationist

Borneo is one of the most biologically rich and diverse places on the planet – and all of it is under constant threat. 

The situation for orangutans provides an example.  Found only in Borneo and Sumatra, these great apes are the largest arboreal species on Earth.  They navigate the forest at heights of up to 150 feet in the canopy, and have a unique social structure in which adults spend most of their time alone.  Females only reproduce every 7-9 years, the slowest rate of reproduction for any land mammal.  Orangutans express their intelligence in many ways, including the use and manufacture of many different types of tools.  Like chimpanzees, they exhibit cultural variation across their range in the wild.  Unfortunately, they also have the distinction of being the first species of great ape that may face extinction in recorded history.  Since the 1950’s, we’ve lost about 50% of all wild orangutans due to habitat conversion (primarily for agriculture), habitat destruction, and the resulting conflict with humans.  Their numbers continue to decline every year, with populations becoming increasingly isolated in patches of habitat surrounded by human development.  It is no exaggeration to say that it is a conservation crisis. 

Wild orangutans are under threat from loss of habitat and the resulting conflict with humans
Wild orangutans are under threat from loss of habitat and the resulting conflict with humans

Pulliam’s essay is important for two reasons.  First, she brings attention to the conservation status of wildlife in Malaysia and Indonesia – species that are less well known in the West compared to their African or South American counterparts.  Second, the topic of ecotourism is explored in a realistic way that is approachable and engaging for citizen conservationists.

At its best, ecotourism can provide a profound incentive for government authorities and local people to protect wildlife and wild places.  Pulliam describes several ecotourism opportunities that are well run, responsible, and committed to education and conservation.  Her visit to the forests of Borneo directly supported the critical work of dedicated conservationists who are making a difference for wild orangutans. 

Equally important, her story has reached thousands of people who may never have thought about orangutans, proboscis monkeys, Asian elephants, or the many other species that live in the remaining forests of Borneo and Sumatra. 

Effective conservation requires dedicated team work among field workers, scientists, legislators, officials, and local people.  They also need voices like Myrta Pulliam’s to tell their story with passion and credibility. 



Lecture by Dr. Karen Strier

Dr. Karen Strier
Dr. Karen Strier

Dr. Karen Strier from the University of Wisconsin-Madison will be at Indiana University, Bloomington on Wednesday, November 28 to deliver a lecture on the behavioral ecology of muriquis (woolly spider monkeys) in northern Brazil. A National Academy of Sciences member, Dr. Strier has conducted research on primates in Brazil for over 30 years, and is an expert on primate ecology, demography and conservation.

This is a public lecture, beginning at 5:30 pm in Jordan Hall, room 124, on the IUB campus. The event is part of the Primate Behavior Speaker Series, co-sponsored by the Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior and the College of Arts and Science’s Themester.

What Are Friends For?


Dr. Joan Silk of Arizona State University

Prof. Joan Silk from Arizona State University will be at Indiana University, Bloomington on Thursday, November 15 to deliver a lecture on “What are friends for? The adaptive value of social bonds.” 

Prof. Silk’s research concerns the role of competition and conflict among primates and the importance of social bonds in negotiating a complex, competitive social environment.  She has examined grooming patterns and their relationship to coalition formation, reconciliation in primate societies, and factors that influence female reproductive success. 

While widely known for her studies of baboons, Dr. Silk’s expertise extends to many species of primate including chimpanzees and humans. 

Baboon friends engaged in grooming
Baboon friends engaged in grooming

According to Dr. Silk, “Having friends is important for us and for female baboons—and maybe for some of the same reasons”.  She continued, “Our findings are strikingly similar to evidence from humans showing that social ties have important effects on our mental and physical health and our longevity. We suspect that the human motivation to form close and lasting friendships has a very long evolutionary history.”

Dr. Silk’s lecture is free and open to the public, beginning at 5:30 pm in the Whittenberger Auditorium in the Indiana Memorial Union. The event is part of the Primate Behavior Speaker Series and is co-sponsored by the Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior, and the College of Arts and Science’s Themester.

Elephant Mimicry

So, it’s not just the researchers working with beluga whales who have been hearing voices.  A remarkable new study in Current Biology has documented the first case of an elephant reproducing the sounds of spoken human language. 

Koshik, an Asian elephant who mimics human language

Koshik, an Asian elephant living at a South  Korean Zoo, is capable of reproducing at least 5 different words he regularly hears from people, including his primary caregiver and trainer.  These vocalizations are unlike any naturally produced sounds made by Asian elephants.  It’s unclear exactly how his ability emerged, but Korean speakers reliably understood the words produced by Koshik when they listented to audio recordings. 

Of particular interest is the way the sounds are produced.  Koshik places the tip of his trunk in his mouth, manipulating his vocal tract to assist in forming the words.  This method of vocal control has never before been documented in any species.  To see and hear more, visit the story produced by NPR

Koshik appears to be the first elephant documented to spontaneously reproduce human speech – although there are anecdotal reports from the early 1980’s of the same phenomenon with an elephant named Batyr living in a zoo in Kazakhstan.

However, Koshik is not the first elephant to demonstrate vocal mimicry.  In 2005, Poole et al. reported that two African elephants showed vocal learning.  The first was able to approximate (of all things) the sound of passing trucks.  The second elephant mimic was a male living with two Asian female elephants at a Swiss Zoo.  He learned to produce the typical chirping vocalizations made by Asians that he regulalry heard from his companions.

It’s worth noting that our understanding of natural elephant vocalizations was revolutionized in 1986 when Payne et al. reported the discovery of infrasonic communication by Asian elephants – sounds made almost completely below the range of human hearing.  Prior to that, this type of communication among elephants was unknown.  Soon after, specifics about how African elephants used these same communicative abilities were described by Poole and her colleagues. 

So, it’s not just parrots (and several other species of birds) that we should include on the list of spontaneous mimics of human speech.  We can now add elephants, as well as beluga whales and harbor seals.

Perhaps the bigger question is why should they do this at all?  There’s no definitive explanation, even for parrots.  Vocal mimicry might just be play, or a way to create and maintain social bonds.  For wild parrots, some have suggested it’s a way to make a patch of habitat sound more crowded to potential competitors who might want to move in.  Of course, it may be a combination of factors, or something we haven’t yet considered at all. 

But it’s clear that elephants continue to surprise and fascinate.  This recent paper reminds us that they are studying us while we continue to strive to understand them.

Blood Ivory


Multi generational herd of African elephants

In 1989, the New York Times published an article describing a landmark event in conservation history.  Daniel Arap Moi, then president of Kenya, set fire to 12 tons of poached elephant ivory. 

Tons of poached elephant ivory being burned

With this historic event, the world became aware of the conservation crisis that plagued African elephants. Awareness was raised, action followed, and the slaughter slowed – but did not stop.  The trade in ivory was banned the following year.  Now, nearly 3 decades later, the number of elephants being killed for their ivory is again reaching historic levels.  The ban has been significantly weakened.  When following the link above to the New York Times article on the 1989 ivory burning, the page included an ad for mail order ivory products – dated 2012 – which are guaranteed to be legal.  The irony is remarkable.

African elephants are the largest land mammals, living in multi generational family groups where females form the social core.  They may live for 60-70 years, and are widely known to grieve over their dead.  Elephants are cognitively complex.  Studies demonstrate that they can recognize themselves in a mirror, a mental skill found also (and only) in humans, great apes, and dolphins. Elephants make and use tools, communicate with each other using infrasound (below the range of human hearing), coordinate their movements with other elephant groups over vast distances, and are remarkable problem solvers.  Not long ago they roamed across the majority of the African continent.  They numbered between 3-5 million in the first half of the 1900’s.  Today, those populations have been reduced dramatically, with numbers varying greatly from country to country.  It is no exaggeration to say that a conservation crisis is underway for African elephants.  Their future in the wild is uncertain.    

The biggest threat to their survival is illegal poaching to obtain their tusks, known as ivory.  The tusks are actually teeth – incisors that are used by elephants in many ways, such as digging, moving objects, for assistance in foraging, or during social interactions with other elephants.  For centuries, humans have used ivory for numerous purposes.  Not long ago, it was made into such common items as billiard balls and piano keys – which explains the curious phrase “tickling the ivories” for playing the piano.  The current resurgence in the desire for ivory is unsustainable and rapidly driving wild elephants closer to extinction.  

The cover story for the current edition of   National Geographic documents the reality of ivory worship.  Across the globe, illegal ivory is harvested, smuggled, carved into ornaments, and sold for incredible profit.  While many countries are involved, the primary market is Asia where the cultural attachments to ivory appear to be stronger than ever. 

Some buyers are misled into believing that ivory comes from elephants that die naturally, that tusks are shed and grow back, or that it is all ancient mammoth ivory found buried under ice and snow.  Of course, none of this is true.

The facts are clear.  Ivory requires that elephants be killed.  The demand for ivory is strong, and the number of elephants in Africa are declining at alarming rates.  Further, the trade in legal ivory facilitates poaching and illegal ivory.  As a case in point, NPR correspondent John Burnett has detailed the decimation of Tanzania’s elephant herds that is underway.

Only last week, 4 tons of illegal elephant ivory were confiscated in Hong Kong.  Officials believe that the shipment included tusks from Tanzanian and Kenyan elephants, and was headed for carvers in China, which remains the world’s largest consumer of ivory products. 

Importantly, this confiscation was supported and conducted by Chinese officials.  These individuals are not alone.  The China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA) has a membership of over 30,000 Chinese people who are working to protect and preserve China’s wildlife, change cultural attitudes about ivory, and end the slaughter of African elephants. 

Delegation from the CWCA at the Indianapolis Zoo


A delegation from the CWCA recently visited the Indianapolis Zoo to describe their work and discuss the future for African elephants.  They are taking on a massive task, namely to provide an “ecological and moral education” to the young people of their country.  While China has specific laws against the illegal trade in ivory, enforcement is difficult.  As a start, every flight coming into China from Africa has enhanced inspections to discourage and prevent illegal ivory from entering the country.  Punishment is very serious – ranging from 5-20 years in jail.   To be sure, enforcing existing laws and changing cultural attitudes is a massive task – and it requires international support.  The dedicated conservationists from CWCA provide a ray of hope and remind us that there is room for optimism. 

In the 1980’s, the world rallied around elephants and stopped the slaughter.  But, we’re facing another conservation crisis today, perhaps on an even larger scale.  Recent attention from major media outlets is an important and appropriate step forward, momentum has begun. 

How to assist? 

Don’t purchase ivory.  Ever. 

Spread the word. 

Learn more about elephant conservation organizations and give them your support. 

Here’s a suggestion:  Save the Elephants

Elephants need your help.