Duke Students Work to Protect Disappearing Elephants
African elephants are “going tuskless.” In a striking example of expedited evolution, elephants across the continent have begun to shuck the tusk gene, an adaptation developed to protect against the ivory poachers that threaten their survival.
Amelia Meier, a PhD student in the Nicholas School of the Environment, is one of several Duke students in the Elephant Ecology and Conservation working group dedicated to protecting this endangered species against illegal poaching.
The loss of forest elephants to the multi-million dollar ivory industry is not a new story, Meier said, but one that is more critical now than ever. Sixty percent fewer elephants roam the African rainforests than did 15 years ago—a “catastrophic” decline that scientists attribute largely to illegal poaching.
“This is truly a crisis,” Meier said. “These are highly organized groups that are moving ivory from Africa to Asia in huge quantities, and we are losing an iconic species as a result.”
The demand for ivory tusks comes predominantly from a growing middle class in China, where ivory is a symbol of wealth. Even a pound of ivory—less than one percent of the weight of a single male tusk—can be worth up to $1,500 on the black market when carved into art or jewelry.
To help protect these animals from humans who hunt them for profit, the Duke team has partnered with the Gabon Park Agency to place GPS collars on elephants across the country.
In contrast to observing rare forest elephants on the ground, which Meier joked is “like playing a precarious game of Where’s Waldo,” GPS movement data can safely and accurately provide detailed information about elephants’ habitat shifts and social behaviors.
In addition to GPS studies, the group is evaluating the use of drones to detect elephants from above and map out their distribution across the region.
Despite the rapid decline of this species, Meier remains hopeful about the impact of research—from Duke and from other universities and organizations around the world—on conserving these animals.
“The end goal is to predict where elephants are going to be and when, so we can work with park management to shift their anti-poaching controls to these areas,” Meier said. “We’re getting very close to achieving this.”
The forest elephant working group is one of 18 graduate working groups supported by the Duke University Center for International and Global Studies and the Africa Initiative. These groups consist of students from all academic disciplines who conduct research into global issues ranging from global mental health to ocean policy.