Known as ‘The Land of The Giants’—Chobe National Park, nestled in the north of Botswana—is home to Africa’s largest population of elephants (Loxodonta africana). Chobe is the country’s first national park and at 4,500 square miles, is also the third-largest park in Botswana, after Central Kalahari National Park and Gemsbok National Park. There are an estimated 120,000 Kalahari elephants in the park, with individual herds numbering in the hundreds. Some elephants can even be spotted wandering outside park boundaries and into the outskirts of the neighboring city of Kasane.
The park is named after the majestic Chobe River that breathes life into the northern Kalahari desert. Emerging from the Angolan Highlands, the Chobe invigorates African floodplains, weaves through dense forests of cathedral mopane trees and bursts through broadleaf woodlands, then joins with the mighty Zambezi before crashing over the Victoria Falls.
Chobe National Park is divided into four distinct ecoregions. The Serondala area (Chobe riverfront) is characterized by verdant floodplains and dense woodland of mahogany and teak. The Savuti Marsh—in the west of the park—is recognized by its open grasslands and savanna woodland—shaded by the ghostly presence of drought-stricken trees. Savuti is rumored to be the best region to spot the park’s predators, such as lion, cheetah and leopard, as well as the annual migration of zebra. The Linyanti Swamp and Wetlands are found in the northwest corner of the park, surrounded by riparian woodlands consisting of sausage trees, jackal berries, palms and papyrus. Between the Savuti Marsh and Linyanti, lies the Nogatsaa grass woodland—known to be the most scorching and least-explored region of the park.
Trophy hunting was prolific in the early 1800s to mid-1900s throughout Botswana and much of Southern Africa. Elephant herds were decimated by European and American colonists who sought precious ivory and prestige. In 1931, a plan for a protected reserve was set into motion, followed by a hunting ban in 1932. However, after an ambush of Tse Tse fly, the project was halted indefinitely. Chobe Game Reserve finally came to fruition in 1960, only succeeded by its official declaration: Chobe National Park, in 1967.
Elephants exist within the only surviving proboscidean family, Elephantidae. In the late 1700s, French naturalist, Georges Cuvier, adapted the Greek term Pachydermos (which means “having thick skin”) as ‘pachyderme’ for any one of a whole assemblage of animals having hooves (or nails) and thick skin: elephants, rhinoceroses and hippopotamuses. Proboscideans are an order of eutherian (placental) mammals that include living elephants as well as the extinct mammoths, mastodons and gomphotheres. All members of the order are recognized by their proboscis, or trunk.
The first proboscideans evolved and diversified Africa 65.5 to 23 million years ago. Today, there are two living descendants of Proboscidea: the African elephant (Loxodonta africanus) and the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). There are two species of African elephant—the savanna (or bush) elephant and the forest elephant. The savanna elephant is the largest of the two and is also the biggest terrestrial animal on Earth. Forest elephants are darker and their tusks are straighter and point downward (savanna tusks curve outwards). Forest elephants also have oval-shaped ears, whereas savanna elephants are easily distinguished by their very large, vascular ears—which allow them to dispel excess heat.
African savanna elephants are well studied and populations are easy to estimate. Their herds are found throughout 23 countries—with the largest populations residing in Botswana, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Kenya, Namibia, Zambia and South Africa. Each family unit consists of around ten females and their calves. Units often combine to form a “clan” comprising several hundred members led by a female matriarch. A calf is born once every four to five years after a gestation period of 22 months, which is the longest of any other mammal. The baby is reliant on its mother’s milk for up to two years, and the females within the family unit share responsibility in nurturing the group’s young.
Elephants are emotionally complex mammals that develop extraordinarily close bonds. African elephants, in particular, are known for their fluid familial structure and dynamic organization. Ethologists identify their behavior patterns as a product of “fission-fusion” systems. Fission-fusion implies that the group splits and merges in order to fulfill the needs of particular members. An individual or two may diverge in search of resources, while larger units may fuse with neighboring groups to form an aggregation of hundreds of elephants, which can aid in protection. The adaptable nature of elephant kin allows them to optimize the benefits of group-living, while also taking advantage of traveling in reduced numbers.
Long-term fidelity is another unique attribute elephants possess. Individual relationships persist over decades, and females often select older partners, possibly for knowledge and information exchange. They have also been observed morning over deceased family members. Owed in part to their extraordinary memory, surviving members will revisit the bones of their dead for many years. They communicate grief by gingerly caressing the bones with their trunks.
Savanna elephants live in a variety of habitats—from open and wooded savannas—to deserts and forests. These giants contribute to the maintenance of savannas and open woodlands by reducing tree densities. As architects of the forest, or ‘eco-engineers,’ they knock over trees—paving the way for new plant growth, graze on grasses and browse on a variety of plants and fruits—stimulating soil fertility.
Explorations into Late Pleistocene and early Holocene revealed how prehistoric megafauna dispersed seeds of many of the large-seeded and large-fruited plant species in the Americas. Large herbivores, such as elephants, catalyze top-down trophic interactions and associated cascades and even affect biogeochemical cycling, enhance carbon stocks and change the climate. For example, in South Africa, elephants are responsible for helping to fertilize and germinate the marula tree—a highly valuable natural resource among local cultures and communities.
Scientist Fabio Berzaghi reveals: “We find that the reduction of forest stem density due to the presence of elephants leads to changes in the competition for light, water and space among trees. The extinction of forest elephants would result in a 7% decrease in the aboveground biomass in central African rain forests.” It is estimated that one-quarter to one-third of the total African elephant population is made up of forest elephants. Unfortunately, forest elephants are in sharp decline due to poaching for the international ivory trade, habitat loss and fragmentation. Their last strongholds are located in Gabon and the Republic of Congo, with smaller populations remaining in other African countries.
Though ivory poaching is their primary threat, African elephants also fall prey to trophy hunters and bush hunters. Killings are often exacerbated by war and the exploitation of natural resources. Remote and inaccessible elephant habitat, combined with limited resources, make it difficult for governments and wildlife rangers to monitor and protect herds. Furthermore, due to the prolific size of African elephants—up to eight tons in weight—they require an immensity of land and resources to thrive. Since an elephant can eat over 600 pounds of food a day, even a small herd can wipe out a farmer’s annual crop in a single night. They commonly trample crops, raid food surpluses, damage village infrastructure and deplete vital water sources. Disruption of community life occasionally leads to human injury and death. In retaliation or for public safety, the elephant is shot.
Anthropogenic activities have become so pervasive that they are now a planetary force. Consequently, we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction—and with it—persistent and rapid range declines in megafauna species such as elephants, rhinos, bison and large carnivores like lions and wolves. African forest elephant populations declined by 62% between 2002 and 2011 as a result of ivory poaching. The species also lost 30% of its geographical range.
What are the ecological consequences of these losses? What does the absence of the large top carnivores and herbivores mean for ecosystems?
In a recent discovery akin to a Sci-Fi horror plot—ivory poaching is now driving the evolution of tuskless elephant offspring. The illegal trade was used to finance a civil war in Mozambique from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. Before the war, about 18.5% of females were naturally tuskless—a trait that made them undesirable to poachers. Following the war, that fraction increased to 33% among the 91 female births. “This is a wake-up call in terms of coming to grips with humans as a dominant evolutionary force on the planet,” warns conservation scientist Chris Darimont.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
A long-term paleoecological, biogeographic and historical perspective is necessary for securing a future for our planet’s wild megafauna. It is crucial that we understand the ecosystems and biological processes in which our current species evolved if we are to foster conditions that will sustain the earth’s biodiversity.
In his 1159 Latin treatise, Metalogicon, philosopher John of Salisbury reasoned:
“Our age enjoys the benefit of the age preceding, and often knows more than it, not indeed because our intelligence outstrips theirs, but because we depend on the strength of others and on the abundant learning of our ancestors. We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants so that we are able to see more and further than they, not indeed by the sharpness of our own vision or the height of our bodies, but because we are lifted up on high and raised aloft by the greatness of giants.” Isaac Newton echoed this sentiment in a letter to his rival Robert Hooke, in 1675 with the retort, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
Anatomically modern humans originated in Africa around 200 thousand years ago. According to a 2019 study, scientists now hypothesize that our ancestral homeland was in northern Botswana—not in East Africa, as previously thought. Based on archaeological, linguistic and climatic evidence, as well as mitochondrial DNA (passed down from mother to daughter), the paper’s co-authors assert that we are all descended from Khoisan hunter-gatherers who lived in vast wetlands encompassing Botswana’s Okavango Delta and the Makgadikgadi regions.
Prior to the arrival of Homo sapiens, megafauna was diverse and abundant across all geographic and climatic regions. Before the late Quaternary megafauna extinction, which exterminated 178 species of the world’s largest mammals, proboscideans persisted on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Now, only protected nature areas in Africa and southern Asia are capable of maintaining these megaherbivores. It is hypothesized that the lowest extinction rates occurred in sub-Saharan Africa because of long-term, gradual hominin–megafauna coevolution.
The science of extinction began as a whisper at the start of the 18th century, but much like Darwin’s theory of evolution, the very idea of it was unthinkable—even heresy. In challenging Western orthodoxy, one was challenging God by extension. However, as more specimens were unearthed within the American colonies, the mountain of evidence against Creationism became too monumental to suppress.
It all started with a very distant relative of the elephant—the mastodon. More specifically, the molar tooth of a mastodon, weighing almost five pounds. Spotted on the shore of New York’s Hudson River in 1705, the specimen was promptly shipped off to London, bearing the label, “tooth of a Giant.” Though dinosaurs would not be discovered for another century, this tooth’s owner quickly became recognized as the world’s first prehistoric monster.
The beast was referred to as “incognitum” (unknown species) by the American public until 1806, when Georges Cuvier determined it should be called “mastodon,” from the Greek mastos (for “breast”) and odont (for “tooth”) because its conical cusps apparently looked like breasts. Laymen preferred “mammoth,” in relation to the woolly mammoths being dug out of the ice in Siberia. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson puzzled over tusks and a jaw brought back by explorers from the Hudson Valley and Ohio River valley (present-day Kentucky), and when more teeth turned up in South Carolina, enslaved people observed how similar they looked to the African elephant.
Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, the French naturalist, humbly declared that both human and nonhuman species in the New World were small and inconsequential. “No American animal can be compared with the elephant, the rhinoceros, the hippopotamus,” he asserted in 1755. Through anatomical analysis, Cuvier revealed that mammoths and mastodons were distinct from any known pachyderm. Thus, he arrived at the controversial conclusion that these creatures must have vanished from the face of the earth long ago. Contrary to the Bible, which taught that the earth came into existence only 6,000 years prior, after a divine flood—Cuvier depicted an apocalyptic vision in which flood, ice and earthquake swept away “living organisms without number.”
Mass extinction was an inconceivable reality to Jefferson—so much in fact, that as President, he once laid out a collection of mastodon bones on the floor of the East Room in the White House. He even sent Lewis and Clark to explore the American West—partly to see if they would cross paths with a living mammoth. For portrait artist Charles Willson Peale, however, these enigmatic giants were worthy of consideration beyond even the wildest of imaginations. The 1783 Ohio River Valley discovery inspired a quest for knowledge about the natural world, leading him to establish North America’s first national museum in Philadelphia.
Then, in 1801, a farmer named John Masten stumbled upon “an animal of uncommon magnitude” while tending to his crops in Newburgh, New York, near the site of George Washington’s headquarters during the final months of the American Revolution. Equipped with a set of paintbrushes, and a loan from the American Philosophical Society, Peale orchestrated an excavation of the most complete mastodon skeleton found at that time. To drain the waterlogged pit, he cleverly devised the on-site construction of a massive wooden wheel, complete with a conveyor belt of buckets, mechanized by manpower. Peale commemorated the scene in a dramatic portrait, titled, Exhuming the Mammoth. When the mastodon fossil was finally excavated, assembling the skeleton took three months. Moses Williams, who was enslaved by Peale, “fitted pieces together by trying, [not] the most probable, but the most improbable position, as the lookers-on believed. He did more good in that way than any one among those employed in the work.” Peale wrote. Williams’ magnum opus was the world’s largest terrestrial being on display, and his reconstruction was the world’s second of all fossil species—proceeded only by the reconstruction of a giant ground sloth in Madrid.
The BIG Picture
“This is why a paleoecological perspective is so important: attention to longer histories allows us to appreciate the rich, diverse landscapes that have existed in pasts beyond human memory…Looking at how environments and their biota have varied enormously in the past can also allow us to gain an understanding of the potential for biodiversity under different climatic conditions…While it is clear that wild large animals can coexist with people and live in anthropogenic landscapes, the fate of the earth’s megafauna in the Anthropocene will depend on the intentional and unintentional actions of people…Awareness of ecological history will be one key factor here in making people notice the absences, the ghosts—a crucial step in realizing what has been lost and what could come back,” passionately proclaims Jens-Christian Svenning, biologist of the Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA) group.
Africa’s human population is set to double by 2050, creating enormous pressures for elephants. As farmland spreads and infrastructure developments fragment habitats, elephants are being forced into increasing conflict with people. Zoologist Dr. Lucy King is one of the innovative minds working to find sustainable solutions. As head of the Human-Elephant Co-Existence Program at Save the Elephants, Dr. King explores the use of novel beehive fences as a natural elephant deterrent—creating a social and economic boost for local communities through the harvesting of elephant-friendly honey. This exciting collaboration is in partnership with Oxford University and Disney’s Animal Kingdom and has facilitated expansion into Botswana, where the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) helps fund the Northern Botswana Human-Wildlife Co-existence Project. The project aims to reduce human-elephant conflict in 13 selected villages in three primary wetland areas in Botswana: the Okavango Delta Pan Handle, the Chobe-Linyanti Wetlands and the Makgadikgadi wetlands area. In addition to the construction of beehive fences, the villages installed chili fences with early maturation seed varieties and kraals—guarded by trained dogs to reduce livestock predation.
Another remarkable example of human-elephant coexistence is the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary Community United for Elephants (RESCUE), which is the first community-owned and managed elephant sanctuary in Africa. Nestled in the Samburu County of northern Kenya, the local people unite on community-owned lands, where they care for their home’s injured and orphaned giants. Not only are they raising future generations of wildlife, but they are fostering “a new wave of thinking about wildlife and the environment, that goes far beyond traditional conservation methods, and dives deeper into the core value of what nature represents.” Their website proudly announces, “Opportunities are being created, livelihoods are improving, and wildlife is returning, proving that nature can provide a sustainable economy for the populations that occupy its magnificent ecosystem.”
World Wildlife Fund empowers local and Indigenous populations to secure migration corridors and protect elephants from poaching and trafficking through educational and financial incentives. WWF cultivates a growing ecotourism economy by identifying investors and offering business training to conservancy members. Joint-venture lodges and campsites provide the most significant source of benefits to conservancies. Tourism generates employment and encourages a variety of creative sources of revenue, such as craft markets.
You can play a role in protecting Africa’s elephants by joining WWF and Natural Habitat Adventures on our flagship safari in Botswana. Watch elephants bathing and playing in the water as you cruise the Chobe River’s marshy channels and visit local communities to see their conservation initiatives in action!