Amboseli elephants: to whom do they belong?

Take a moment to watch this video on the recent elephant collaring in Amboseli and learn more of IFAW’s partnership with the local community and other stakeholders to secure critical elephant habitats in the short and long term.  

It’s in the early evening and the Amboseli temperatures have mercifully gone down. We are watching this huge bull about half a kilometre away moving across the road from Longinye Swamp in Amboseli Park. Two other vehicles are further ahead of us and they stop to marvel at the giant for a minute or so before moving on.

As we get closer to him, I estimate he could be over 40 years old. There’s no doubt that he’s in musth - he is dribbling urine and his pungent odour almost knocks me out. He looks somewhat menacing and up close, his size is intimidating, probably the reason the visitors in the other vehicles drive on after observing him for a short while. He then swiftly ambles away, towards the scrubland in the direction of Mt Kilimanjaro, leaving me thinking about his ‘ownership’ and what the future portends for him and his species.  

To whom do this majestic bull and other elephants in Amboseli belong? Do those who claim ownership of wildlife do so intermittently when it suits them or is it, like in marriage, well, at least in the vows, in both good and bad times? Is it even appropriate to pose this question of ownership?

I will hazard a guess that the local communities, who graciously host these elephants on their land, would argue that they belong to God or the Kenya Government. This is despite the fact that these giants spend over 80% of their time in the Maasai community group ranches and beyond in search of forage, water, other nutrients, space and potential mates. Amboseli National Park is too small to sustain all the elephants found in the landscape.

On the other hand, the Government, and specifically Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), would state that it is only mandated to conserve and manage wildlife in the country on behalf of Kenyans. This means that Kenyans are the rightful owners of wildlife harboured in Kenya.

In various instances, I have overheard some managers regale their visitors with tales about his or her elephants when the behemoths quench their thirst at waterholes close to luxury camps or lodges.

Elephants in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro.Meanwhile, the ‘Amboseli elephants’ criss-cross the common border between Kenya and Tanzania through key migratory corridors. As many elephants, and even people, do in many countries across Africa. But these elephants don’t have visas or passports or ID cards. So do they belong to Kenya or to Tanzania? The Tanzania Government would probably give a similar answer – elephants in their territory belong to Tanzania.

Many wild parks and reserves visitors – local and foreign - painstakingly save their hard-earned money for years to view elephants in their natural habitats. Others donate for causes that help protect, conserve and manage elephants. Isn’t wildlife, and for that matter elephants, really a global heritage? Can visitors and wildlife enthusiasts rightly stake an ownership claim?

To me, there is no single entity that can claim sole ownership of wildlife. These elephants belong to the world. Furthermore, ownership means responsibility. It means we all have a responsibility of not only enjoying the benefits – monetary and non-monetary – that they give us, but also finding the means to share those benefits equitably.

The local communities sacrifice a lot when they graciously host elephants in their lands and we should not take their magnanimity for granted. It is only fair and right that we support these communities in initiatives that not only enhance their livelihoods, but which are also compatible with the conservation of elephants. Some of the initiatives can be co-investments in ecotourism ventures, support to community game scouts programme, better livestock management, water provision, among others. 

In addition, wildlife authorities like KWS need support varying from other entities through infrastructural and research support for management of elephants to lending your voices against poaching and trade in ivory.

More crucial is that, now more than ever, we owners of elephants should be more concerned, more action-oriented and more focused on the survival of elephants and seek ways to safeguard their future. Human populations are burgeoning and land is shrinking as people move into areas that were traditionally wildlife habitat or pastoral lands. All is not lost. There are still some critical habitats that need our attention and action now. Securing these dispersal areas and critical wildlife migratory corridors is important for maintaining ecological and genetic connectivity.

This is what has inspired the International Fund for Animal Welfare to work with the Olgulului Ololarashi Group Ranch, the largest community ranch in Amboseli, to secure a critical corridor that would allow elephants safe pathways from Amboseli to Tanzania. It behoves us all - owners of elephants and other wildlife - to play an active role in ensuring that these remaining corridors are secured for animals and people.

--JI

For more information about our efforts to protect elephants around the world visit our campaign page. 

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Experts

Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
IFAW Elephant Expert
IFAW Elephant Expert
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
James Isiche, Regional Director, East Africa
Regional Director, East Africa
Jason Bell, Program Director, Elephants Regional Director, South Africa
Program Director, Elephants, Regional Director, South Africa
Peter Pueschel, Director, International Environmental Agreements
Director, International Environmental Agreements
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Regional Director, South Asia