Wise, Gentle Giants

As the world’s largest land mammal, elephants have quite the commanding presence. Yet as giant as they are in size, elephants are equally expressive- joy, anger, grief, compassion, love; the finest emotions reside within these hulking masses. Sadly, poaching, habitat loss, and human conflict have led to the devastating loss of millions of elephants across Africa over the last 100 years. Below, Lexi Bowes-Lyon, Director of Philanthropy at Space for Giants, discusses how the coronavirus is affecting work to protect Africa’s elephants— which, as she reminds us, have much to teach us. 

Lexi Bowes-Lyon rides a horse through one of Africa’s scenic valleys.

What is Space for Giants and why is it important?

Space for Giants is an international conservation organization that protects the great wildlife landscapes that Africa’s remaining elephants need in order to survive and thrive. These landscapes give homes to giants, but they also bring great value to people and nations: biodiversity, livelihoods and enterprise, new medicines, carbon storage, even the very oxygen we breathe. But they are under threat. Criminals kill endangered animals for tusks, horns, scales and skins. Farmers needing more land to feed their families expand into wildlife habitat. When wild animals then damage their crops, they retaliate.

Space for Giants grew out of pioneering research in the early 2000s into how to encourage the co-existence of people and wildlife in modernizing Africa. Since then, it has spent two decades working in these landscapes, studying how people and wild animals live together, and how that relationship is changing. We understand that to survive, these landscapes and their wildlife must prove that they bring value now and long into the future. Then they become assets people and governments fight to protect. We also understand that time is short. While we work to demonstrate this value, we must also act now to preserve these landscapes so that they don’t disappear before it’s too late. 

Two adult elephants and a baby enjoy themselves in a field of rolling grasslands.
(Roshni Lodhia/Space for Giants)

So how do elephants fit into the current pandemic?

It is critical to remember we are in this situation because we have exploited Earth’s last remaining natural ecosystems where we capture or kill wild animals to supply highly lucrative international illegal trades, which includes tusks and horns— as well as meat. We now know this has exposed us to the deadliest of diseases including HIV, Ebola, SARS and now COVID-19. The more we interfere with nature, the greater the chance of these zoonotic diseases jumping from animals to humans. If ever there was a reason to take action to protect Earth’s remaining natural ecosystems, it is now.

So why elephants? They are a keystone species of a healthy ecosystem. For them to exist, the natural processes of their habitats must be flourishing. Among elephants, knowledge is passed through generations—knowledge is an essential factor in determining the survival of a herd. 

Elephants are matriarchal, meaning they live in female-led groups. An elephant is twice as likely to survive if her grandmother remains close to her herd, and she will produce more calves, more frequently, if her mother is around. Their incredibly complex and nurturing social structures are maintained through sophisticated communication, on which elephants rely not only to orient themselves properly in the world, but also to recognize, honor, and somehow carry on the world of the past. Understanding how elephants exchange information and what they seek to express teaches us so much about their fascinating world. Humans could learn from the generational communication patterns of elephants.

Now more than ever, isn’t it essential to our own societies- whilst we are on lockdown- to remember the importance of trusted, fundamental truths passed down from our elders? As elephants do, it is vital for us to remember the importance of fundamental values: kindness, compassion, personal responsibility, and respect, to name a few. A society where we revere the elderly and learn from them will enable us to make smarter, long-term decisions in the interest of a better future.

A Gabon forest elephant looking wise beyond its years.
(Roshni Lodhia/Space for Giants)

How is elephant conservation being affected by COVID-19 and what’s being done to help? 

A huge proportion of funding for conservation comes thanks to tourism. Certain wildlife reserves where Space for Giants operates are looking at holes in their budgets of 60% or more, as the global travel shutdown continues. The risk is that poachers will take advantage. As such, the task of monitoring and patrolling vast swaths of land now rests solely on rangers. Their jobs are becoming more difficult, dangerous, and crucial to the survival of these already endangered animals. Space for Giants is raising money for our #AHealthyEarth campaign to help plug the gaps that the pandemic is opening up in financing of key programmes and operations, including maintaining frontline protection. The illegal wildlife trade networks will surely pounce if they see that security dipping. 

Whilst tourism is a key source of revenue, Space for Giants is working to diversify the range of nature-based businesses driving dividends to local people. Carbon opportunities are one such expansion. The work Space for Giants does across the landscapes where they operate ensures their ongoing protection, allowing them to continue to sequester carbon. 

To lose ground now would put us back years. As a result, Space for Giants urgently needs support to continue to cover the core costs of their conservation programs and to plug the gaps that the loss of tourism has left. Please donate at http://spaceforgiants.org/support-us or email lexi@spaceforgiantsusa.org to learn more about the critical work that Space for Giants is doing.

Rangers trained by Space for Giants protect wildlife from poachers in a Kenyan reserve.  (R.J. Turner Photography/Space for Giants)