Sometimes you attend an event because it looks “interesting” and on the odd occasion, you leave from that event with a whole new passion and perspective. That’s exactly how I felt after attending Amarula‘s recent #DontLetThemDisappear Elephant Conservation media drive, a great endeavour to raise awareness about Africa’s dwindling elephant population. This may seem like “nothing new” but as we learn more and more about elephants and their amazing abilities and complex minds, as well as the key role they play in the ecosystem, we have to realise that it is important to all of us to support these efforts.
I even had a very special opportunity to sit down for a moment with Dr. Paula Kahumbu, the CEO of Kenyan Conservation NGO Wildlife Direct. You can also read a supplied bio on her at the bottom of this post.
Interview with Dr. Paula Kahumbu on #WorldElephantDay
I asked Dr. Kahumbu to tell me more about elephants’ amazing brains and their ability to communicate in ways we are only just beginning to understand, as well as how they are said to be able to locate something (like water) hundreds of kilometres away.
“Well, there are so many amazing and unique things about elephants that we are only beginning to uncover now. For example, research in Kenya shows that the elephants can even tell the sounds of different tribes. They know which people are dangerous to them and which people are not dangerous to them and they behave completely different around those people. From the sounds, and even from the smell.
When it comes to communicating, they have a long nose & big ears for a reason, but one of the most interesting things about their communication is that they can listen with their feet and with their trunks. They have special cells in their feet and in their trunks which allow them to feel vibration, and they are also sending vibration through the ground and receiving vibrations through their feet and their trunk.
And if they stand with three legs on the ground – [that is] by raising one leg – they can actually triangulate the direction of the sound and the distance of that sound. If you think about vibrations coming through the earth – it could be 100km away. If there is a rain storm far away from them, they will hear it and they will start moving toward that area. They might be a hundred kilometres away [but] they heard it and felt it … That’s why in many parts of Africa, people follow elephants because they know that the elephants know where the water is. In Northern Kenya, the word for elephant is actually ‘thunder’. They associate elephants coming to places and then it starts to thunder so they believe that elephants actually bring the rain.
So they consider them blessed animals, very spiritual animals. The Masai in particular believe that human beings are really elephants, that they are our ancestors, that we share the same blood and for that reason, they will not kill elephants and if they come upon a dead elephant, they will bless it in the same way they would bless a human body. They believe we have always been related to elephants.
There’s been a lot of research. Some of it has been done here in South Africa, a lot of it in Kenya. Sometimes people do playbacks of sounds to see how elephants behave and they monitor the way [they behave] … in the case of the smells, they literally have taken the same piece of cloth – one worn by a person from a certain tribe and another worn by either another tribe or not worn at all – and they leave them out in the Savannah and they observe how elephants behave with those.
The latest research on their brains … just looking at their neurons, they’re very unique. They’re not like any other mammal. So their brains are connected in a way that ours are not. They are tapping so many different parts of the brain at the same time, which means that they’re connecting information from many different sources in order to make decisions, so that’s why [we] say they’re contemplative animals. And that makes me feel even more strongly that we must protect them because they’re not just an unthinking creature out there.”
I also asked Dr. Kahumbu about the belief that elephants can recognise themselves in mirrors and are self-aware.
“Yes, there’s been a lot of work done … there was a very interesting experiment where they put mirrors into the various environments and they watched how animals behave, and the elephants very very obviously could recognise themselves in the mirror. If there’s a mark on their head, they would try to rub it off.
They are as intelligent as us and their brains as complex as ours. And there are things we can’t understand because our brains don’t have the ability to understand because we can’t smell what they’re smelling … their sense of smell is something like 400 times better than ours. So, they have an ability to detect very very low concentrations and also to distinguish between different smells.
I think we do have an ancient connection that’s actually in our DNA, that because we evolved together with elephants, we probably left Africa [following] elephants, walking alongside elephants … our relationship with them is so ancient.
If you look at the archaeological evidence, the way they are today is the way they were 12,000 years ago. They already were so advanced and we were just cave people, you know.”
AMARULA RAISES GLOBAL AWARENESS ABOUT ELEPHANT CONSERVATION ON WORLD ELEPHANT DAY
Humans have poached animals into extinction throughout history, with large mammals having been most affected. Elephants, one of Africa’s most iconic giants, are the largest land mammals on Earth, part of the big five and are estimated to live for up to 70 years without human interference. Yet they face extinction due to poaching. With the last few remaining species of giant mammals, including elephants largely confined to Africa, it’s up to humans to know better and do better. World Elephant Day, an international annual event that took place on 12 August is dedicated to raising awareness about the preservation and protection of elephants.
Dr. Paula Kahumbu, a foremost authority on African elephants and CEO of WildlifeDirect says: “What many people don’t realise is that the future of the African elephant is at a tipping point, and this could have a far-reaching effect on the greater African habitat, because elephants are keystone species. This means that they play an indispensable role in the healthy functioning of the larger ecosystem.” If elephants were to disappear off the face of the earth, the ecosystem would change dramatically or cease to exist altogether. This might be a reality at the rate that things are going – around 96 African elephants are poached for their ivory every day, that’s one elephant every 15 minutes.
In a heartfelt attempt to raise awareness on World Elephant Day, Amarula in partnership with WildlifeDirect, launched their “Don’t Let Them Disappear” campaign in various markets across the globe, including Duty Free, the United States, South Africa, Canada, Brazil and Germany.
Giant Melting Ice Sculpture Unveiled
Last weekend, multiple life-size elephant ice sculptures appeared in key cities: Johannesburg, Toronto and Sao Paolo. As these massive elephant ice sculptures slowly melted, it dramatically symbolised the disappearance of elephants. This lead to mass awareness, as people from different cities around the world witnessed these elephant ice sculptures slowly disappearing before their eyes.
Spectators were encouraged to join the experience and spread the message on social media by using the hashtags #DontLetThemDisappear and #WorldElephantDay.
Global Brand Development Manager at Amarula, Saramien Dekker hoped the giant installation would be a captivating symbol to raise awareness. “Amarula has been committed to elephant conservation since 2002, through our non-profit organisation, The Amarula Trust. We believe that collectively we can make a difference and that the biggest barrier is the lack of education and awareness around how important elephants are as a keystone species. We need the public to become aware of our future without elephants and understand that only if elephants thrive, so do we.”
Limited Edition Bottle to Showcase Elephants as a Keystone Species
Amarula’s new limited edition bottle features the elephant as an environmental custodian as well as the various other plants and animals that rely on the elephant as a keystone species. These unique bottles will only be available for the month of August, when we celebrate World Elephant Day.
The Amarula Trust Continues Conservation Efforts
The elephant is more than a brand icon. Amarula shares a special bond with these magnificent creatures as the Marula tree and its fruit contribute enormously to the well-being of the elephant and the very existence of Amarula. Without this natural heritage, Amarula would not be able to distill the liquor which forms the base of all their liquors.
The Amarula Trust, through its partnership with WildlifeDirect, is committed to protecting Africa’s elephants and to make sure that for generations to come, they continue to meet the elephants beneath the Marula trees. The proudly African brand has launched various initiatives to raise awareness for the conservation of the African elephant and plans to continue their work in this field.
Dr Paula Kahumbu Biography
Dr. Paula Kahumbu is the CEO of Kenyan Conservation NGO Wildlife Direct and led the hard hitting Hands Off Our Elephants Campaign with Kenya’s First Lady Margaret Kenyatta. Hands Off Our Elephants was a campaign to restore Kenyan leadership’s role in elephant conservation through behaviour change at all levels of society, from rural communities, to business leaders and political decision makers.
She is a Kenyan conservationist with a PhD from Princeton University where she studied Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and conducted her field research on elephants in Kenya. In addition to running Wildlife Direct, Paula lectures undergraduate Community Conservation at Princeton during an annual field course in Kenya.
Paula is the winner of the Whitley Award 2014, Brand Kenya Ambassador (2013), Presidential award Order of the Grand Warrior (2013), winner of the National Geographic/Howard Buffet Conservation Leader for Africa (2011) and is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer (2011). She formerly worked for the Kenya Wildlife Service and ran the CITES office and headed the Kenyan delegation. In 2005, she joined Bamburi Cement and ran Lafarge Eco Systems, a company that specializes in forest restoration of limestone quarries. She is a board member of Lewa and the Soysambu Conservancies, a well as Jane Goodall Institute Kenya.
Specialties: She is also an accomplished writer and she has co-authored a global best selling children’s book on a true story about a hippopotamus and a tortoise called “Owen and Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship”, its sequel “Owen and Mzee: The Language of Friendships”, and “Looking for Miza”, a story about an orphaned mountain gorilla in Democratic Republic of Congo in the same series.