Keeping elephants wild: choosing not to intervene in the natural cycle of life

Goodness enjoying a mudbath with her newborn close by, March 2014.One of the females from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) social disruption study in Amboseli National Park in Kenya is missing..

Goodness had given birth to a healthy and adorable female calf in March, whom I found and photographed before leaving on a fundraising trip to the US.  While I was away, Goodness developed what we suspect were post-birth complications, sickened and stopped producing milk. Her beautiful little calf starved to death in May, just before I returned to Kenya.

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Goodness herself, was not with the family yesterday when I saw them, and as I write this, my colleagues are investigating reports of a carcass not far from our camp. If it is her, I will miss her. More importantly, so will her sisters and other family members.

These situations of course make me sad, but they also make me think carefully about our obligations to the elephants for whom we care so deeply.

Many people find it hard to understand why we don’t intervene to treat sick or wounded elephants. They think it our duty, especially for elephants, whose pain and suffering is so hard to witness.

I know this may seem harsh, but I have to say I don’t agree. Let me explain why.

Elephants have been doing just fine for a very long time without human intervention. In fact, the reason they are not doing so well right now is because of humans.

If humans left them alone, elephants would thrive.

And therein lies my caveat: We do intervene, of course, when people have caused harm or injury. We pull baby elephants out of human-dug wells, we call vet teams to help us remove snares or treat spear or bullet wounds, and we rescue the orphans of poaching and human-wildlife conflicts, sending them to the expert care of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

But the fact remains that treating and handling elephants carries risks to both elephants and people. Even with expert ground crews, sedation and handling can cause such stress to animals that they cannot recover. We are often going in blind; we have no idea of what other conditions an animal may be suffering from which may cause negative reactions to anaesthesia or other drugs.

Some people might say that we should have “rescued” Goodness’ starving calf.

But intervening would not have been beneficial for the family: it would have been stressful and hugely disruptive and would almost certainly have altered their trust in our research vehicles.

Not every calf taken into human care survives, even under expert care. The biggest killer is the stress of losing their family, and the elephant-based world they were born into. For many young elephants, chronic stress results in autoimmune and chronic digestive disorders, which further challenge their growing bodies.

I am not a vet. I am a scientist, a behavioural ecologist and a conservationist. My job is to understand how elephants behave, contribute to our understanding about the kind of things that elephants need, and to help spread the word about how special and important elephants are.

If we have anything you could call a duty, it is to learn about elephants in their own world, on their terms.

Not every elephant born will die of old age, but as long as their cause of death is natural, I can live with the sadness of watching them suffer. And their family will have to live with the sadness too.

Darwin’s “Struggle for Existence” is defined by the verb “to struggle.” Life in the wild is not easy; whether you have to catch food, avoid being eaten, or (usually) both.

Goodness (centre) with her friend Georgia (left) and sister Geeta.

Every living thing on this planet depends on the dazzling complexity and wonderful subtlety of intact ecological systems. These can only be understood by observation, not by trying to control or change the elements of the system.

You cannot control what you do not understand. And we still have a great deal to learn about elephants, and the sensitivities and subtleties of their lives.

Even great lives must come to an end, and, assuming Goodness is indeed dead, she had a good life, lucky to be born in Amboseli where she didn’t have to live every moment wary of humans.

As a conservationist, I believe we are fighting for the right for all elephants to live and die like Goodness and her calf, wild and free and liberated from human persecution. For me, fighting for elephants is a fight for the places in which they can live their lives without human intervention.

After all, wild and free is the only way elephants can be.


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

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Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Faye Cuevas, Esq.
Senior Vice President
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
James Isiche, Regional Director, East Africa
Regional Director, East Africa
Jason Bell, Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Consulting Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy