This year, stuck at home and unable to travel, I found myself thinking fondly about something extraordinary that happens in southern Africa every year. In the dry season, thousands of elephants migrate hundreds of miles across barren savannah and empty deserts to converge on one of the continent’s last great wildernesses—the Okavango Delta in Botswana. They travel in search of water and nutrients that are found only in these vast wetlands. It’s the biggest migration of elephants in Africa: many cross over from neighboring Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Angola for this annual feast, providing tourists with one of the best safaris on offer.
In the summer of 2019, before the onset of the pandemic, which has decimated African tourism, I spent a month walking across Botswana, tracking the elephant herds across some of the most incredible and diverse landscapes imaginable. Traveling on foot, in the company of a San bushman (a member of one of southern Africa’s hunter-gatherer tribes), I was immensely privileged to gain rare insight into the lives of these gentle giants, at ground level and on their terms.
I wanted to try to get inside the mind of the African elephant, to try to find out what makes them tick. Over the past decade my research has taken me all across Africa, from the mountains of the Congo to the grasslands of Tanzania. I’ve tracked elephants in war zones like South Sudan and worked with conservation officers to track poachers in Kenya, often with sad results. Using my own observations and compiling the discoveries of the best experts in the field, I have tried to make my new book on the subject, The Last Giants, more than just a compendium of academic findings.
I have explored where elephants came from and their evolutionary history; did you know, for instance, that the last woolly mammoths died out just 4,000 years ago—after the Egyptian pyramids were built? I’ve also studied elephants’ place in the natural world of today. As “mega-gardeners,” they are considered a keystone species because of their ability to alter the landscape.
It’s the biggest migration of elephants in Africa: many cross over from neighboring Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Angola for this annual feast.
I also investigate their relationship with humans over our shared history. Elephants have long played a part in the societal imagination, serving as symbols of strength and hope. So what went wrong? The Last Giants explores the devastating effects of colonialism, hunting, and poaching over the last few hundred years, as well as the more modern challenges of today.
Elephants have long been hunted for their coveted teeth. The ancient Egyptians drew hieroglyphics of slaves carrying massive tusks; before them, pre-historic man hunted elephants for their meat, causing them to become extinct in many parts of the world. And yet the 20th century saw elephant numbers drop from around 12 million to 450,000 in the space of just 100 years. Now that figure teeters around 420,000, perhaps less.
That brings us to the biggest problem of all—habitat loss caused by a booming human population. As villages and towns grow, and the world relies more on industrial farming, the last wild places become few and far between, which inevitably results in more human-wildlife conflict. When people speak of rogue elephants trampling through villages, what they really mean is an elephant following the same ancestral migratory route that’s been used by his matriarchal line for thousands of years, only to discover that someone has built a cabbage patch on top of it. Elephants need to drink water pretty much every day, like humans, and yet their pathways are now disrupted by roads, fences, farmland, and towns. As access to watering holes and feeding grounds have been chopped up by the inexorable growth of humankind, the survival of the elephant becomes precarious.
Only through education and engaging with local communities can conservation ever really work. If we are serious about saving the last giants then we must all work together to protect wilderness areas like the Okavango, which the elephants call home.
Levison Wood’s The Last Giants: The Rise and Fall of the African Elephant is out now from Black Cat, an imprint of Grove Press