Together with a rapidly growing number of zoologists and environmentalists, PETER FROST is increasingly exasperated at the advancing, but preventable, extinction of the world’s elephants
The spa town of Leamington has many fine Victorian features but few as impressive as the Jephson Gardens first laid out in 1831 as informal riverside walks along the River Leam and then developed into formal Victorian gardens after 1846.
It was named in honour of Dr Henry Jephson, the famous doctor who had first promoted the town as a spa and encouraged his patients to drink and bathe in the health-giving mineral-rich spring waters in the town.
Among Jephson Gardens’ most unusual features is an elephant wash — a large paved ramp leading down to the river (below). The first elephant trainer in England was Sam Lockhart (above), born to a circus family in Leamington in 1850.
Lockhart brought three elephants to the town and taught them tricks. They were taken down to bathe in the river in the centre of town but when their trumpeting disturbed worshippers in the parish church it was decided to construct a purpose-built elephant wash in Jephson Gardens. It is still there but today, sadly, rarely used by elephants.
All over the gardens and indeed all over the town you will find statues, fountains, plaques and illustrations featuring the towns favourite animal.
The elephant is the world’s largest land animal. The biggest can be up to 7.5m long, 3.3m high at the shoulder, and 6 tonnes in weight.
A few years ago I was lucky enough to be invited to South Africa to help the new ANC ministry of tourism attract visitors to that beautiful country.
One of the most exciting places I visited was Addo Elephant Park in Nelson Mandela Bay — it is the third-largest national park in South Africa with spectacular wildlife including hundreds of wild elephants. It was wonderful to live alongside the huge beasts.
There are two subspecies of African elephants — Addo’s are the larger savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana), which roams grassy plains and woodlands.
The other is the smaller forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis), which lives in the equatorial forests of central and western Africa.
Since 1979, African elephants have lost over half of their habitat and this, along with massive ivory poaching, has seen the population drop significantly.
Back in the early part of the 20th century, there were between three and five million elephants in Africa. Now the total population is well under half a million and that number is dropping fast, perhaps reaching just 400,000.
Unless we halt the decline and stop the murderous slaughter for ivory, unless we learn to live with the elephant, they may become totally extinct.
Can we really tolerate a situation where our great-grandchildren will never see a live elephant? Elephants live in a complex social structure of herds composed of related females and their calves. Males usually live alone but sometimes form small groups with other males.
After mating and a 22-month gestation a single calf is born — it will be nursed for over six years. Elephants can live up to around 70 years.
Below. Leamington’s latest elephant sculpture.
Despite a ban on the international trade in ivory they are still being poached in large numbers. Their tusks are the most sought after but their meat and skin are also traded. Tens of thousands of elephants are killed every year and poaching is increasing.
The ivory is often carved into ornaments and jewellery — China is the biggest consumer market for such products.
Another threat to this proud beast comes from the expanding human population as more land is being converted to agriculture. The elephant habitat is shrinking and becoming more fragmented, which severs their ancient migration routes.
The result is elephants and people don’t mix easily as elephants will, during those seasonal migrations, sometimes cross farmers’ fields damaging crops which affects the farmers’ livelihoods — and elephants have been known to kill people and been killed in retaliation.
Below, Sam Lockhart’s brother George also appeared with the elephants.
The elephants I saw at Addo have small or no tusks. Over the years this made them less attractive to poachers who tended to hunt down the bigger tuskers. The result was that small tusked animals become dominant. This isn’t natural selection but selection by illegal slaughter.
Today poaching is much better controlled and elephant numbers in Addo are increasing but this is only one location.
The elephants that Lockhart brought to Leamington more than 150 years ago were Indian elephants (Elephas maximus indicus) from what was then Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. Here they are parading through Leamington.
Indian elephant populations are just as threatened as their African cousins. Since 1986 the population has declined by at least half but they are threatened by habitat loss rather than poaching. Only male Asian elephants have tusks, meaning that females are safe from ivory poachers.
All elephants need our protection. Yet if the decline in all species continues at its present rate then in between 20 and 40 years there will be no elephants anywhere in the wild.
It is unthinkable that our great-grandchildren will never have the chance to see one in the wild.
This article was first published in the Morning Star 9 December 2016.