11 Aug 2017 Story Ecosystems

Mammoth lessons for elephant conservation

The last woolly mammoths lived on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean around 4,000 years ago. They were so wracked with genetic disease that they lost their sense of smell, shunned company, and had a strange shiny coat, scientists reckon.

Rebekah Rogers of the University of California, Berkeley, who led the research, told the BBC the mammoths' genomes "were falling apart right before they went extinct", in what she described as the "first case of genomic meltdown in a single species”.

"You had this last refuge of mammoths after everything had gone extinct on the mainland," she explained.

The researchers had analysed the genetic mutations found in the ancient DNA of a mammoth from 4,000 years ago and compared it with a mammoth that lived about 45,000 years ago, when the animal roamed widely across Siberia and North America.

This knowledge could inform conservation efforts for living animals.

While isolated pockets of elephants could over time face a similar fate, the immediate challenge is to address the current threats which are killing them off far quicker than any genetic mutations ever could.

The elephant is loved, revered and respected by people all over the world, but poaching, habitat loss, and human-elephant conflict, exacerbated by climate change, have drastically reduced populations in Africa and Asia in recent decades.

In the two decades before an international ban on elephant ivory was enacted in 1989, the elephant population was cut in half by rampant poaching. At the end of 2015, there were an estimated 415,000-550,000 elephants, compared to 508,000-655,000 at the end of 2006, according to the 2016 African elephant status report.


Elephants Mating Ritual  ©: Charlesjsharp

Putting pressure on poaching

The demand for ivory is the main driver of the poaching of both African and Asian elephants.

Some 20,000-30,000 elephants are estimated to have been illegally killed annually since 2010. However, elephant populations are increasing in some areas, especially in southern Africa. And while poaching is still a major threat, the good news is that poaching levels seem to be declining due to increased enforcement measures and greater consumer awareness of the ivory trade’s impact on elephant populations . China, where demand for ivory is greatest, took a bold step last year by bringing its national legislation in line with the international ban, banning ivory imports from the end of 2017.

An interesting footnote is that over the last 10 years Russia has been exporting 60-100 tons of mammoth ivory annually, mostly to China.

Habitat loss and human-elephant conflict

The loss of habitat due to deforestation, increases in mining, and agricultural expansion has become problematic, for both African and Asian elephants. The fragmentation of habitat also creates isolation,  making breeding more difficult, and allowing poachers to find the elephants and set traps more easily.

Human-elephant conflict most often occurs when elephants enter farmland, often due to habitat loss or degradation, leading to humans killing elephants – and elephants killing people.

What is UN Environment doing?

In addition to its work on awareness-raising and demand reduction through its global digital campaign, Wild for Life, UN Environment is working with the Oxford Martin School and the Luc Hoffmann Institute on a three-year project tentatively titled Conservation 3.0: Rethinking conservation for the 21st century.

Despite decades of work on wildlife conservation and all the successes achieved, the erosion of biodiversity and the impoverishment of ecosystems proceed apace.

The goal of the Conservation 3.0 initiative is to design a comprehensive new approach to the conservation of living natural resources and ecosystems, including a new, compelling and positive narrative focused on the interdependence of nature and humanity.

World Elephant Day was conceived in 2011 by Canadian filmmakers Patricia Sims and Michael Clark of Canazwest Pictures, and Sivaporn Dardarananda, Secretary-General of the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation in Thailand. It was officially launched by Patricia Sims and the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation on 12 August 2012.The Day is supported by over 65 wildlife organizations and many individuals across the globe.

For further information: lisa.rolls[at]unep.org

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