Saturday, February 5, 2011

Elephants in the backyard

The following news article is just for pretend. None of the people and places in it actually exist. It springs off of my last post, and is in response to Deborah's related comment. It reflects the opinion of this writer, opinions that are based in real, existing research in human-wildlife relations.

South Dakota town says 'No' to elephants in their backyard
By Jenny Seifert
Published: February 4, 2025

Where the buffalo roam a pod of African elephants are also trying to make their home on the range, but with little success. And their neighbors are angry.

Citizens of the town of Smallville, SD, which borders the elephant's range, are fed up with the elephants. The pod is damaging crop fields and property. A few have even become aggressive toward people and other animals, such as livestock and the recovering herds of buffalo.

"I lost an entire season's worth of corn in just one night to a couple of elephants that trespassed onto my field last summer," said Phillip Johnson, resident of Smallville and farmer.

Another farmer, Joe McDonnell, lost a couple of cattle to a young bull elephant this past fall.

The conflict is the unfortunate result of a trial run of a "re-wilding" project that began ten years ago. Re-wilding, in this case, basically means importing large mammals from Africa and Asia, which are related to those that once existed in North America 13,000 years ago, before humans moved in. With the help of these animals, the conservation biologists spearheading the effort dreamed that North America's grassland ecosystem could be restored back to its Pleistocene state.

"In addition to rehabilitating America's grasslands, we thought the project could improve the conservation of endangered species, such as African elephants, whose populations are suffering in their native range," said conservation biologist Henry Stewart, one of the project's leads.

The African elephant was supposed to fill the ecological niche, or the position and purpose in the local ecosystem, that the woolly mammoth once claimed. The idea was that the elephants would help restore and maintain America's imperiled grasslands by eating woody plants that otherwise dominate grass species.

Thus far, the team is seeing limited grassland recovery and, unfortunately, also some unintended detrimental effects to the ecological web, such as squabbles between the elephants and the buffalo.

"The re-wilding project brought in species that the North American grassland had evolved without since the Pleistocene. The ecosystem simply doesn't know what to do with the elephants," said Daphne White, ecologist and critic of the project.  

The conflict between the elephants and local citizens was also unanticipated.

"We didn't think that the problems elephants have been experiencing with people in Africa would travel over to America," said Stewart.

Human-wildlife relations expert, Miranda Long, still can't believe that the team overlooked the possibility of this conflict. "No matter the country or culture, humans and animals, especially large mammals like elephants, vie for the same resources--land and food. The re-wilding project seems to just be replicating the conflict between elephants and people that has persisted for decades in Africa and Asia."

For example, conservationists are still trying to resolve conflict between elephants and the people of Masai Mara, Kenya. Due to depleted habitat, elephants have been raiding crops and destroying property. Simply put, they are competing with the people for the same limited resources.

Perhaps most disturbingly, across Africa elephants have been attacking people, in many cases killing them, a story which the New York Times covered in 2006. Scientists think that the elephants are acting out like this because of poaching, which causes significant disruptions to their intricate social structure. In other words, the trauma of losing relatives and the absence of certain important social ties are resulting in distressed and confused elephants.

Many conservationists are blaming the opening of an elephant hunting season in South Dakota five years ago for the increased cases of aggressive elephants.

"When it comes down to it, wildlife management is often in reality people management, requiring a continuous negotiation between ecological principles and human values and demands," Long said.

The re-wilding team now hesitates to begin their plans to introduce the African lion to the Plains. Historically, humans have had contentious relationships with large carnivores, and some conservationists fear adding another carnivore to the mix in North America could be disastrous.

"Americans have had a hard enough time seeking a truce with the gray wolf, which makes me very wary of the idea of importing lions too," said Long.

American frontiersmen vilified the gray wolf throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, nearly eradicating them entirely. A cultural change of heart and the Endangered Species Act enabled a successful recovery by the early twenty-first century. Yet, once populations had reached a number large enough to justify their removal from the federal endangered list, the wolves once again faced hatred, mainly from angry farmers and hunters, who saw them as a threat to livestock and game, respectively.

The re-wilding team is still scratching their heads about what to do with the elephants, and the residents of Smallville are demanding that a solution be found quickly.

"We haven't wanted to fence in the elephants, because the team questions how the project would then be any different from a giant zoo or safari park. But it now seems that fencing is our only choice, besides removing the elephants altogether," said Stewart.

Daphne White laments the ecological oversight and failure of the project. "While it was a bold and good intentioned conservation undertaking, re-wilding with animals that don't belong in this current ecosystem is simply an irresponsible science experiment. I think the project could have been much more successful if it had focused on restoring the grasslands with native fauna that have evolved to live here more recently," she said.  

Long believes that Americans need to undergo a fundamental value shift for any ecological restoration efforts to really be successful. "The paradigm of oppressing the needs of nature to make way for human demands, which is exacerbated by the persistent human vs. nature dichotomy, will continue to handicap conservation efforts. I think we'll only be successful when we collectively change how we view our relationship with the other creatures we share this planet with," she said.

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I promise to revisit this issue in a future post, returning to a more hopeful way of looking at conflict between humans and wildlife.

1 comment:

  1. I really liked your fun news story on this topic.

    I completely agree with your quote about wildlife management being about people management. I also think your argument that until attitudes change, wildlife management will be greatly hindered.

    What do you think wildlife officials and the media can do to shift these attitudes? Sadly, I've noticed that protecting and managing wild, exotic species draws more public attention than looking out for species in our own backyards. Do you think a certain level of detachment to local land has anything to do with it?