It has been said that elephants never forget, but whether they will become only a memory depends in part on the work of an international array of elephant experts meeting in Pittsburgh this week.
A charismatic mega-fauna, elephants are nonetheless under attack and endangered in the wild at the same time that the captive population is aging, according to Deborah Olson, executive director of the International Elephant Foundation, which supports science-based elephant conservation, protection and management programs in managed facilities and in the wild.
Ms. Olson, who was attending the International Elephant and Rhino Conservation and Research Symposium, hosted by the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, said Wednesday that poachers, driven by the Chinese and Japanese demand for tusk ivory, are continuing to decimate elephant populations.
"Thousands of elephants have been killed this year for their ivory, especially in north, east and central Africa where civil wars have made guns and ammunition readily available," she said. "In the Congo, poachers in a helicopter swooped in earlier this year and killed 30 elephants."
As bad as the poaching is, increasing habitat loss and other human-elephant conflicts are taking an even greater toll, Ms. Olson said, both in Africa, where the number of elephants has dwindled from 1.3 million 40 years ago to less than 500,000 today, and in Asia, where the population has dipped below 50,000.
In Asia, elephant habitat has been lost to timber cutting, mining, palm oil plantations and expanding human settlement, she said. Elephants that damage plantation plantings or human food crops are often killed.
"If we are to protect the elephant population and its survival long term, elephant and human populations need to learn to coexist. If we can't do that, the elephant is going to lose," Ms. Olson said. "We need to support people who live with elephants and provide them with the economic incentive to continue to do so, through tourism or other ways."
The five-day symposium, which ends today, features more than 70 presentations on human-wildlife co-existence, poaching and illegal trade of ivory, reproduction, veterinary care and conservation. It provides an important opportunity for the 200 conservationists, researchers and keepers in attendance from around the world to share information about elephant and rhinoceros management as well as form partnerships and collaborations, said Barbara Baker, the zoo's president and chief executive officer.
Ms. Olson said the captive elephant population in the U.S. is also beset by problems. Some small zoos are finding it too expensive to keep elephants, and many animals in the existing captive population are older and no longer of breeding age.
There are an estimated 220 African elephants and 240 Asian elephants in American zoos, circuses and private wildlife parks, she said. Many are older animals in their late 40s and even early 50s.
Pittsburgh's pachyderms, including seven at the Pittsburgh zoo and five more at the zoo's 724-acre International Conservation Center in Somerset County, make up the type of large, mixed-age, genetically diverse, herd that many zoos aspire to, but few have or can afford.
The zoo's acquisition in 2011 of three female elephants from Botswana, all in prime breeding age and now at the Somerset facility, will give the zoo's breeding program a boost, said Ms. Baker and Willie Theison, the Pittsburgh zoo's elephant manager.
"The three females introduce new genetics and increase the dynamics of the breeding group we have out there," Mr. Theison said, adding that the Somerset facility also provides a venue for educating female elephants from other zoos about rearing their calfs and herd behaviors.
But it is the education of those who must coexist with elephants in the wild that will go further in ensuring the continued existence of the animals, said Sean Hensman, manager of Elephants for Africa Forever, a South African organization that educates visitors about elephants' economic and ecologic value at its two elephant viewing facilities.
"People, even in this country, don't realize that problem elephants are often [killed]," Mr. Hensman said, adding that all 12 of the elephants in his organization's facilities were slated to be killed by the government. "The public must be educated that elephants are a keystone species for African conservation."
Mr. Hensman said the captive elephant breeding facilities may eventually benefit wild elephant populations by restocking areas of Africa where they have become extinct.
"It's estimated that elephants in Kenya will be extinct in 12 years and they are facing similar fates in other areas of Africa," he said. "It will be great to have captive elephants available to repopulate those areas once they realize they've lost a great thing."
Ms. Olson, who describes herself as a realist but not a pessimist, said it's difficult to envision elephant numbers increasing in the wild in the long run.
"I hope the decline in elephant populations is not very bad, but as the human population grows and that places more and more demand on natural resources, elephants will find themselves confined to smaller and smaller islands of habitat," she said.
"As a species, we don't share well, but if elephants are to survive we need to do a much, much better job of land use planning."
Don Hopey: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1983.