The Nicholas School’s Duke Conservation Society and African Environment Initiative partnered to host a documentary screening of Gardeners of Eden, followed by a Q&A with Duke’s resident elephant expert John Poulsen. The 2014 film is a gripping, behind-the-scenes look at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, “the most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation program in the world.”1
The documentary is set within the context of the poaching crisis that has plagued the globe. For those that are unfamiliar, the poaching of elephants for their ivory tusks has led to a sharp decline in the population of the African elephant—from roughly 10 million in 1900 to less than 300,000 individuals in 2014.2 The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT), in Kenya, was founded in 1977 by Dame Daphne Sheldrick. She created the organization in honor of the memory of her late husband, David Sheldrick, who was the founding warden of Tsavo East National Park.1 Since its beginning, DSWT has successfully raised more than 150 infant elephants, many of whom were orphaned when their mother was poached.2 The ultimate goal of the organization, which it has achieved many times, is to release and reintegrate rehabilitated orphans back into the wild in the hopes that they assimilate and mate with wild individuals.2
Though DSWT is a highly praised example of conservation, the documentary does an excellent job of painting the complex picture that elephant conservation actually is. Only a small percentage of the elephants that are rescued actually—they must overcome both the physical and psychological trauma of not only losing their family, but also being held captive with what they may very well perceive as the enemy.2 Many are too badly injured or malnourished when they come into the orphanage, and despite intensive care, slip into a coma and die.2 However, amidst the backdrop of a golden sun, is footage of the elephants who have made it—and the immense love and care they are shown by their keepers is truly moving.
Throughout the film, the complexity of this global problem is woven through interviews with the DSWT employees, celebrity advocate Kristin Davis, and even a nearby villager who admits to killing an elephant when he needed the money. From the role that poverty plays in this issue to the unintended consequences of snares and the insatiable demand of ivory, it is eye-opening yet disheartening to be reminded that no simple solution to this problem exists.
But a solution is desperately needed. If not for the sake of the species, then for the sake of everything around them. The term “Gardeners of Eden” is fitting for these ecosystem engineers. They push down trees that then get recycled as nutrients, disperse seeds, create trails through forests, and on a grand scale trigger the natural ecological cycles in grasslands and woodlands.2 If elephants disappear, there are dire consequences for the rest of the food web and the habitat itself—including the resources and processes that humans rely on.
This is where John Poulsen, assistant professor of tropical ecology at the Nicholas School, comes in. I had the privilege of working in the Poulsen Lab last year, so I know first-hand the amazing research they do on forest elephants in Central Africa, mainly in Gabon. Collectively, the lab researches a variety of different topics, from forest elephant social behavior to drivers of elephant movement patterns, to the interaction between elephants and their environment, and ultimately the effect of their disappearance on forest structure and function.3
To back up slightly, African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis), are a completely different species from African bush, or savanna, elephants (Loxodonta africana). They are smaller in size, travel in smaller groups, and live primarily in tropical forests within Western and Central Africa.3 But, as Poulsen explains, “You can pretty much take all the issues that [savanna elephants] are dealing with and transfer it to West and Central Africa.” Throughout this Q&A session, it becomes clear that the problems that forest elephants face closely mirror those of savanna elephants that are highlighted in the documentary. Poulsen says that the “prevalence of poaching in forest elephants is very high” for many of the same reasons—high demand for ivory fuels poaching, which is often carried out by poor villagers who are hired by organized crime networks.3
In some ways, the situation for forest elephants sounds worse than savanna elephants. In comparison to areas like Kenya, Central Africa does not have the resources to combat poaching. There is no functioning wildlife service to effectively deter poachers, nor any elephant orphanages or rehabilitation centers like the DSWT.3 Human-elephant conflict, and thus retaliation against elephants, is also a huge problem in the forest, where villagers view elephants much more contentiously due to problems such as crop-raiding.3 This is in stark opposition to the love and pride for elephants shown throughout Gardeners of Eden.
I personally think that the illegal wildlife trade is one of the most fascinating and important issues within wildlife conservation, and hope to work within this realm one day. I learned a lot from this enlightening, yet slightly depressing evening, from which the main takeaway is that elephants all over the world are facing the same problems, and their situation is dire. Luckily, this problem is being addressed from all angles, whether it’s utilizing technology to better apprehend poachers on the ground, or reducing the demand for ivory. Ultimately, we are all working towards one goal—to make the world a safer place for elephants. As Dame Daphne Sheldrick says in the film, “in a perfect world an elephant wouldn’t have enemies.”
1. “About Us,” The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, October 30, 2018, https://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/about_us.asp
2. Gardeners of Eden, directed by Anneliese Vandenberg and Austin Peck. (2015, Kenya: RYOT Films), Film.
3. John Poulsen in Q&A with the author, October 2018.