I am constantly discovering (and sometimes envying) the genius of others, but in this article, I bow to these amazing research projects that work to protect elephants and rhinos against the ivory trade. I've shared my favorites with you because y'all need to know about these too.
1. Rhino Rescue Project
This project blows my mind. Rhino Rescue Project, which many of you know as the project that dies rhino tusks pink, was started in South Africa in 2010. RRP is the result of a desire to be proactive and protect a member of the Big 5, the rhino, which is under threat of disappearing this year. Their idea? Devalue the horn!
"Our mission is to offer a sustainable, cost-effective defense strategy to protect rhinos in South Africa and elsewhere from poaching," the project's website states. "We believe that the only way to save the rhino is to devalue their horns from the consumer perspective."
And so, rhino horns have been injected with ectoparasitides (a chemical to control parasitic populations without harming the animal injected). Because the chemicals are not safe for human ingestion, this deters the use of rhino horn for medicinal purposes, the main reason rhinos are poached.
Genius? I think so!
2. Tracking Ivory Tusks
This project was done by National Geographic and is an amazing piece of espionage. The publication wanted to find out the average route of a tusk from poachers to the Asian market, so they created fake tusks with hidden GPS trackers, placing them in known poacher territory in the Central African Republic (CAR).
They found that the tusks are often brought across several African borders to states with lax trade laws and enforcement. National Geographic was also able to track the rise in ivory sales as the tusks change hands on their way to Asia.
From their findings, tusks increase in price from $66 when sold to transporters to over $4,000 when they reach Asian markets. While I definitely don't have a budget to sustain this scale of research, I am pleased National Geographic is dedicated to creating a deeper understanding of the illegal ivory trade.
3. Elephants for Africa
This organization is the creation of Dr. Kate Evans, a British biologist based in Botswana. The unique approach of Elephants for Africa focuses on human-elephant conflict, the problem that started poaching.
By observing bulls, this team of researchers is able to better understand the behavior patterns that contribute to negative confrontations with humans, which then are turned into educational experiences. By educating and employing community members and children in Botswana, Elephants for Africa has created a more personal connection with the wildlife and has instilled a pride in Botswana's environment.
4. Finding Poaching Hotspots
I discovered a study released by Samuel K. Wasser (and others) from the University of Washington. This study pinpointed hotspots for ivory seizures to help understand the areas in Africa elephants are in the most danger.
"Here we use DNA-based methods to assign populations of origin to African elephant ivory from 28 large seizures made across Africa and Asia from 1996 to 2014," the researchers wrote in their paper, published in June 2015. "Identifying the number and location of Africa's major poaching hotspots may assist efforts to end poaching and facilitate recovery of elephant populations."
By doing this research we know specific areas of Africa where elephants are in the most danger. Not only this, we can identify what nations have more lax trading laws that allow tusks to be imported or exported with little difficulty. Now that we have this information, targeting poaching rings can be a more successful process.
5. Population Control
Another issue facing elephants is the concentrated populations of herds in local areas. Because humans are increasingly taking over the continent, elephants have less room to roam, so they restrict their movements to smaller areas. In recent years researchers have developed an immunocontraceptive to help control elephant populations by preventing cows from getting pregnant.
I'll admit, I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I would rather elephants not get pregnant than get pregnant and be shot for becoming too numerous. On the other hand, the idea that there might be less baby elephants in the world makes me sad, especially since elephants reproduce at slower rates than most animals (not surprising, considering elephant babies are considerably larger than other mammals).
But regardless of my personal feelings, I applaud the work that's been done to protect elephants from becoming targets of the government, or of farmers, who grow uncomfortable with large herds living next door. So ultimately, I am grateful for this more gentle approach to avoiding human-elephant conflict.
So there you have it, 5 great projects that have made a difference in saving a keystone species in Africa. While my own research project may not be as flashy, I'm proud that I can spread the word about the work others are doing to save elephants.
Kerry Skiff is a conservation advocate and recent journalism graduate of Northern Kentucky University. She follows the ivory trade around the world, and uses her voice to educate Americans about their role in animal conservation.