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Tag Archives: Amboseli National Park
By Ferris Jabr, Brainwaves, Scientific America
Many years ago, while wandering through Amboseli National Park in Kenya, an elephant matriarch named Echo came upon the bones of her former companion Emily. Echo and her family slowed down and began to inspect the remains. They stroked Emily’s skull with their trunks, investigating every crevice; they touched her skeleton gingerly with their padded hind feet; they carried around her tusks. Elephants consistently react this way to other dead elephants, but do not show much interest in deceased rhinos, buffalo or other species. Sometimes elephants will even cover their dead with soil and leaves.
What is going through an elephant’s mind in these moments? We cannot explain their behavior as an instinctual and immediate reaction to a dying or recently perished compatriot. Rather, they seem to understand—even years and years after a friend or relative’s death—that an irreversible change has taken place, that, here on the ground, is an elephant who used to be alive, but no longer is. In other words, elephants grieve.
Such grief is but one of many indications that elephants are exceptionally intelligent, social and empathic creatures. After decades of observing wild elephants—and a series of carefully controlled experiments in the last eight years—scientists now agree that elephants form lifelong kinships, talk to one another with a large vocabulary of rumbles and trumpets and make group decisions; elephants play, mimic their parents and cooperate to solve problems; they use tools, console one another when distressed, and probably have a sense of self (See: The Science Is In: Elephants Are Even Smarter Than We Realized)
All this intellect must emerge, in one way or another, from the elephant brain—the largest of any land animal, three times as big as the human brain with individual neurons that seem to be three to five times the size of human brain cells. Over the course of their evolutionary history, elephants—just like humans—experienced a dramatic increase in their encephalization quotient (EQ): the ratio between the actual mass of an animal’s brain and what you would expect its brain mass to be based on its overall body size. An EQ of 1 is exactly what you would expect. A higher EQ generally but not always syncs up with what we perceive as greater intelligence. Humans have an EQ higher than 7; dolphins between 4 and 5; orcas and chimpanzees between 2 and 3. As far as we can tell, elephants did not start out particularly bright. The African bush and forest elephants, the Asian elephant and their extinct cousins the mammoths all evolved in Africa many millions of years ago. Some of the most ancient relatives of elephants were swamp-wallowing creatures akin to hippopotamuses and tapirs with flexible upper lips and as many as eight short tusks. Over time elephants became larger and larger, evolving to survive by eating huge amounts of relatively nutrient poor grasses. As their bodies grew, so did their brains—even more than one would predict. Between 35 million years ago and today, the EQ of Proboscidea—the taxonomic family containing modern elephants and their extinct relatives—increased 10 fold, from 0.2 to greater than 2 for Asian elephants.
Scientists have only started to seriously examine the neural architecture housed in the elephant cranium, but they have already found some unique features. Paul Manger of the University of Witwatersrand moved to South Africa in 2002 for the express purpose of studying the elephant brain. What stands out so far, he says, are neural networks specialized for the elephant’s extraordinary senses and kinetic talents.
At the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego, California this past November, Manger, Suzana Herculano-Houzel of the Instituto de Ciências Biomé́dicas/Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and their colleagues presented the first accurate cell count for a whole elephant brain. Herculano-Houzel has developed one of the most sophisticated methods for counting the number of cells in a brain. Basically, she liquefies entire brains, preserving only the nuclei—sacs of DNA that serve as the command center of cells. Then she tags the DNA inside each nucleus with fluorescent proteins and measures the intensity of the fluorescence to get the total number of nuclei. Since each cell has only one nucleus, that number is the number of total brain cells.
It turns out the elephant brain has three times more neurons than our own: 257 billion to our 86 billion. The vast majority of these neurons are found not in the cerebral cortex—the seat of abstract thinking in humans—but rather in the elephant’s cerebellum, which controls breathing, heart rate and movement, among other duties. The elephant cerebellum has 250 billion neurons; its cortex has 5.5 billion. Humans have about 70 billion neurons in the cerebellum and 16 billion in the cortex.
Manger and Herculano-Houzel suspect that the elephant depends on such a dense cerebellum to maneuver one of the most sensitive and versatile appendages in the animal kingdom. With more than 100,000 distinct bundles of muscle fibers, an elephant’s prehensile trunk is just as dexterous as a human or chimpanzee’s hands. In the first few months of life, as a baby elephant learns to handle its trunk, the wriggling appendage seems to have a mind of its own—reminiscent of a human infant’s flailing limbs. By adulthood, elephants can use their trunks to snorkel when submerged, heave objects weighing more than 700 pounds, or gingerly crack open a peanut shell.
Neural networks in the temporal lobe devoted to vocal communication and hearing are also particularly large and complex in the elephant brain. Elephants can chirp softly or trumpet about as loudly as a jet taking off. They can recognize the calls of up to 100 different elephants even from a distance of nearly 5,000 feet. And they often communicate with low-frequency rumbles that humans cannot hear unaided. Some scientists have speculated that thirsty elephants guide themselves towards distant rainfall by detecting vibrations produced by thunderstorms. Along with sound and touch, elephants primarily rely on odor to learn about one another and the world around them. A fusion of the upper lip and nostrils, the trunk gives elephants a sense of smell that is even more acute than that of nosy critters like rodents and dogs. One region of the elephant olfactory bulb—the part of the brain that processes smell—contains extra layers of cells in a honeycomb arrangement not found in other mammals.
If the elephant’s gargantuan cerebellum—as well as its intricate olfactory and temporal lobes—equip the creature with sensory superpowers, what features of the elephant brain account for its more sophisticated, more abstract mental talents: for its cooperative problem-solving, understanding of death and self-awareness? Based on what we know about brains generally, this type of intellect arises from the cerebral cortex. Manger and Herculano-Houzel’s recent investigations confirmed, however, that despite having a brain three times as large as our own, the elephant’s cerebral cortex contains surprisingly few neurons and is nowhere near as dense as the human or chimpanzee cortex. Yet the elephant is clearly capable of astounding intelligence.
Benjamin Hart of the University of California Davis has speculated that the elephant cortex derives its intellectual prowess not from local density but from widespread interconnectivity. He suspects that, whereas the human and chimpanzee brains have evolved many tight-knit networks of nearby neurons throughout the cortex—akin to states packed with highly populous cities—the elephant brain has favored lengthy connections between far-flung brain areas, building the equivalent of an extensive cross-country railroad system. For now, though, this is mostly hypothetical.
To look an elephant in the face is to gaze upon genius. Here is a creature who experiences emotional intimacy with friends and family, who seems to understand death and treats its dead in a way that borders on ceremonial. Here is an animal who can recognize itself in the mirror, fashion twigs into tools, formulate and implement plans, and remember someone’s face for decades. An animal that has exquisite ways of sensing the world we can never experience firsthand and a complex language we will probably never decipher. An animal whose cleverness parallels our own, yet is in many ways unique. As a species, we have long valued our extraordinary mental powers, obsessively comparing our intelligence to the braininess of all other beasts. We insist on continually updating a grand hierarchy of cleverness. The more one learns about exceptionally smart and sensitive animals like the elephant, however, the less useful such rankings become. It suddenly seems silly to think of intelligence as a pyramid. Yes, some creatures have bigger brains and some are capable of impressive mental feats others will never achieve. But what is far more impressive—what is far more fascinating—is the glorious diversity of intelligence on our planet. There are so many different ways to be smart. Every species alive today is exactly as smart as its survival required. When we look into the eyes of the elephant, we should recognize nothing less than an intellectual equal.
Meet Quanza , an elephant orphan who was one year old when she saw her mother shot dead with an assault rifle before her tusks were hacked off by poachers.
Quanza’s two sisters went the same way and the young calf was spared only because she had no ivory worth wasting a bullet on.
She is one of the thousands of African elephants left orphaned as crime syndicates linked to terrorism sell prized “white gold” to the Far East.
But the violent massacre of defenceless creatures has a human cost too.
More than a thousand wildlife rangers have been murdered by poachers in 35 different countries over the last decade.
They include Jonathan Mancha, shot dead by gun-toting Somalis in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park where Quanza was born, leaving seven children between 15 and three without a father.
Jonathan, 37, had been chief ranger for 15 years when told a poaching gang was at large.
He was off duty but that didn’t stop him waving goodbye to his family, jumping in his Kenya Wildlife Service jeep and heading for the scene of the massacre.
That was the last time they saw him.
I meet the family in a tiny, stifling hovel down a rutted mud track. Old newspapers cover the wooden walls.
Older brother Tim, who has stepped in to support the children, tells me Jonathan was a hero.
Widow Alfonzina, 50, has to go outside as we begin to speak. She can’t bear to be reminded of what happened.
Tim recalls: “He was told by another ranger that men, he called them butchers, had killed a giraffe and an elephant.
“He said, ‘I’m not going home while poachers are slaughtering animals’.
“It was believed these were Somali poachers and I warned him that Somalis shoot to kill, not to scare.
“John and the other rangers had to go out into the bush on foot and they spotted the poachers. There were four of them, lying down.
“The rangers opened fire but the poachers retaliated and John was shot in the thigh. The bleeding was so bad that he died very quickly.
“No one could stop the bleeding. The poachers had better weapons.”
The killing of rangers on the poaching frontline is one issue David Cameron and African heads of state will discuss at a London conference on the £12billion illegal wildlife trade next week.
Gangs linked to al-Shabaab fire their assault rifles indiscriminately at rangers often armed only with wooden batons, then flee over the border to lawless Somalia.
In just one national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 183 park rangers were killed in 10 years.
In Amboseli, where 1,500 elephants roam freely on the dusty plains, watching 13ft-high bull elephants tear up grass with their trunks as their calves follow meekly behind is an awe-inspiring sight. It seems inconceivable anyone would kill them simply for their ivory.
Yet the vast empty space beneath Mount Kilimanjaro is too large to be patrolled adequately, and that makes the animals vulnerable.
In October 2012, Quanza was beside her mother Qumquat, the leader of the family, when poachers strafed their herd with AK47 bullets.
She was one of three elderly mothers killed, targeted for her long tusks which would fetch up to £80,000 in the Far East.
The poachers had lain in wait on the Amboseli herd’s migration route to the forests of Tanzania.
Rangers found Quanza standing next to her mother’s rotting carcass, the family’s only survivor.
It is stories like this that made Jonathan risk his life.
As I talk to his brother in the half-light of the mud-floored room, Jonathan’s children play in the overgrown yard outside.
They are too poor to afford school.
“I will always believe that he died a gallant soldier,” says Tim.
“He protected those elephants as though they were people. He was a very dedicated man who was passionate about wildlife.”
Happily for Quanza, her story has a happier ending.
Unable to survive alone, she was sedated and flown to an elephant orphanage in the Kenyan capital Nairobi run by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
Now tended by keeper Amos Lakalau, she spends her days with other orphans in woodland and sleeps in a guarded enclosure.
Once rehabilitated, she will be returned to the wild.
Dame Daphne Sheldrick, 80, who tells me Quanza is likely to have seen her mother’s face hacked apart with an axe to get at the tusks, says: “It takes two years for the gestation of a baby elephant compared to nine months for man.
“This means it takes a long time for herds to regenerate if the older adults are targeted.
“Our anti-snaring teams are always catching poachers and alerting the authorities but the next day they are out again.
“They are laughing at them.”
Dame Daphne, honoured in 2006 for her lifetime’s work, adds: “There is no doubt that ivory smuggling syndicates are involved in arms and drugs.
“It is undoubtedly linked to terrorism, to al-Shabaab. The syndicates have become extremely rich through killing elephants.
“Corruption has always been a problem. The poachers have the connections to bribe their way out of prison.”
Prices of more than £100 a kilo for ivory in Kenya mean big money for the poorest people.
“The temptation is enormous,” she says. “In Kenya there are no social security benefits so a man has to live by whatever means he can.
“The key lies in China. As long as there is a demand for ivory, elephants will be killed.
“Until the sale of ivory is banned completely there will be a problem, and China will be seen as the villain.
“In China ivory is seen as a status symbol. It is considered white gold.”
I realise the enormity of the challenge when I meet ranger Moses Sinkooi, 30, and his team of three in a simple hut up a rocky hill.
It’s a far outpost, a small dot on a vast horizon.
The team monitor 5,000 acres on foot and the odds are stacked enormously against them.
“Three elephants were shot dead near here,” Moses tells me.
“It’s hard. There are only four of us and many of them.”
But the dedicated rangers will not give up… because, until the politicans take decisive action , they are the last line of defence for the animals they care for.
Njoroge Kaburo, English.news.cn
NAIROBI, Sept. 20 (Xinhua) — Kenya’s First Lady Margaret Kenyatta on Friday called for increased support in order to save elephants which are being slaughtered at a high rate.
Speaking at an anti-poaching campaign at the Amboseli National park, Margaret said the government has shown essential political goodwill and support in the fight against ivory trade to save elephants and other endangered species.
“We are inviting everyone to help us protect the elephants. The world is a global village; the demand for ivory comes from countries far away. We need to work together to save the elephants, ” she said.
The First Lady’s remarks came as wildlife activists have launched PoachersExposed.com, an online campaign aimed at naming and shaming poachers in the East African nation and help in the fight against the menace.
The Kenya United Against Poaching (Kuapo) said the launch of the online campaign was motivated by the spike in killings of 100 elephants each year in Kenya, noting that the campaign will show charged or convicted people with links to poaching.
PoacherExposed allows informers to do so confidentially and hopes the information will reveal patterns of conviction by region, court and magistrates.
“There are concerns that along the chain there are issues of evidence not being collected properly to judges not fully understanding the impact of the crime, to leniency and corruption, ” Chandra said.
Photos will be posted along with name, where available, alongside court case information or charge sheet.
Margaret called for the need for the law to provide for stiffer penalties to deter poaching which was a major threat to the country’s economy, stability and natural heritage.
“We must all be concerned by the impact of poaching. The only people who benefit from ivory trade in Kenya today are a handful of criminals. I am leading the campaign for the future, for my children. Imagine Kenya without elephants. All Kenyans must say no to poaching.” she said.
Statistics from the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) showed that 3 percent of overall wildlife tourism earnings are now being redirected to the treatment of wounded elephants and catering for orphaned calves.
Margaret emphasized the need for communities involved in wildlife conservation efforts to benefit directly from their noble efforts.
She said communities must benefit from protecting wildlife as an incentive for them to appreciate the importance of peaceful co- existence with wild game in their private ranches and minimize conflicts between wildlife and human.
The Kenyan government in August launched an elite paramilitary force to boost the fight against poaching that is to blame for a decline in population of elephants and rhinos in the east African nation.
The new anti-poaching crack unit comprises officers drawn from specialized units of the Kenya Wildlife Service, Administration police and the General Service Unit.
The specialized anti-poaching squad will undergo a three-week training, to be equipped with skills and knowledge on fighting wildlife crimes that have escalated in Kenya’s vast jungles.
The East African nation has also fast-tracked the implementation of an action plan to fight poaching of elephants in response to the convention on international trade in endangered species (CITES).
Margaret, who is at the forefront in the campaign against poaching and is passionate on wild game conservation, said elephants are a global heritage and should be protected for posterity.
She said elephants at the park are individually known by names like human beings, adding that communities must benefit for real from protecting our wildlife.
“This campaign is aimed at creating a national understanding of the elephants to show the connection between conservation and sustainable livelihoods,” she said.
Conflict between land for wildlife and land for farmers and pastoralists in Kenya has also reached crisis level with rampant killing of lions and elephants among other types of important wildlife.
The First Lady lauded the communities adjacent to national parks and game reserves for the frontline role they played in the protection of wild animals roaming private land during their daily and seasonal migrations.
The game park has its ecosystem spreading across the Kenya- Tanzania border and is recognized by UN Education, Science, Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a Biosphere Reserve due to its richness in flora and fauna.