Africa's elephants are under siege. Poachers are now killing them more quickly than ever before, in many places outpacing their ability to reproduce. If the slaughter continues at this rate, African elephants are expected to vanish in a few decades.
Thankfully, however, many people in Africa are also scrambling to protect elephants from this poaching boom. And while elephants could be forgiven for holding a grudge against humans in general, some of these highly intelligent mammals seem to have a remarkable knack for distinguishing the good guys from the bad guys.
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In one recent case, that nose for nuance may have been life-saving. It happened earlier this year in the Tsavo region of Kenya, where poachers shot a trio of wild elephants with poison arrows in hopes of getting their ivory tusks. Not only did the elephants escape, but they managed to slog across the countryside to a rare safe place: the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust's (DSWT) Ithumba Reintegration Center.
These elephants hadn't personally lived at Ithumba before, but at least one of them knew other elephants who had. That unnamed male had previously mated with two former orphans — named Mulika and Yatta — who were raised at Ithumba and now lead a wild herd of their own. About four years ago, he fathered a baby with each of them, named Mwende and Yetu respectively by DSWT staff.
It may seem unlikely that Mulika and Yatta could share their knowledge of Ithumba with this male, and that he could use that second-hand knowledge to lead his injured friends to safety, but that's exactly what happened, according to DSWT.
"We are sure that Mwende's father knew that if they returned to the stockades they would get the help and treatment they needed because this continuously happens with the injured bulls in the north; they all come to Ithumba when in need, understanding that there they can be helped," DSWT writes in a statement.
Rescuers had to work quickly to sedate and treat each of the wounded elephants individually. (Photo: DSWT)
It's well-known that elephants are clever and social, so it makes sense that friends and family would share useful information. And as a 2015 study highlighted, there's truth to the old cliche about elephants never forgetting. They have excellent spatial memories, repeatedly taking the shortest routes to watering holes up to 30 miles away. So if Mulika and Yatta did tell this male about good people at Ithumba, it's possible he mentally filed away the location for emergencies.
However the male and his two friends ended up at Ithumba, it turned out to be the right move. DSWT immediately dispatched a veterinary team, which sedated and treated the elephants one by one. Two fell on their injured sides when sedated, including the father of Mwende and Yetu, forcing rescuers to use ropes and tractors to turn them over. All three had severe arrow wounds, but DSWT staff were able to clean them, apply antibiotics and cover the injuries with clay to aid healing.
"We know, through years of experience ... that it is no accident that they return to us for help," DSWT writes. (Photo: DSWT)
Counteracting poachers may be a daunting task, but stories like this illustrate how important it is to try. All three of these elephants survived, preserving not just their inherent genetic and ecological value, but also their cultural knowledge that at least some humans are on their side.
"Mwende and Yetu's dad has remained in the area with his friends and they have regularly been seen since undergoing treatment," DSWT writes. "[T]hankfully all their wounds have healed beautifully so they have all made a full recovery."