05:49 - Source: CNN
Iconic African elephant population on the brink

Editor’s Note: CNN’s David McKenzie and Ingrid Formanek have reported extensively from southern Africa. Most recently, they covered the Great Elephant Census, which found these animals declined 30% between 2007 and 2014. Some 144,000 elephants disappeared during that period. This story is part of CNN’s “Vanishing” series. Learn more about the sixth extinction and get involved.

Johannesburg, South Africa CNN  — 

The female elephant charges through shrub, ears pinned back, silent.

At least that’s how I remember it. I was 7.

I’m wedged between a cousin and my father, my grandmother perched behind. We are in the back of an open pickup near the banks of the Olifants River in South Africa.

“Drive!” we shout at my uncle in the cab, banging on the roof.

But banging on the roof is our signal to stop.

The truck stops and the elephant is right behind us. We can see the milk discharging from her teats. Her newborn is somewhere hidden in the bushes.

My dad pulls out an antique double-barreled shotgun. He loads it with birdshot to fire in the air.

“Don’t shoot the elephant,” my gran cries and smacks him.

It would be like shooting an elephant with a tic-tac.

I am crying, and so is my cousin. We smell the elephant musk; we can see the horizon through its legs.

My uncle sees the elephant looming in his rearview mirror. He hits the accelerator.

Outrunning the charging animal, we bounce along the dirt track. Shortly after, she turns back.

We are safe. Right around the corner, the truck’s axle breaks in an aardvark hole.

My family often recounts this story. And from that incident, I learned elephants had to be respected – even feared.

It means no worries

Imagine my alarm, then, nearly 30 years later, when I am assigned by CNN to a story in the Maasai Mara in Kenya.

The Great Elephant Census found 30% of African elephants disappeared over  seven years.

The guide drives right up to a breeding herd of elephants in the grasslands and promptly switches off the engine.

“Shouldn’t we keep it on,” I say, “and maybe not be so close.”

“The elephants here are relaxed,” he smiles, “Hakuna Matata.”

Meaning: “No worries.”

I can’t understand it. The elephants don’t charge. They do not seem agitated, as has been my experience. They completely ignore us.

To be sure, elephants can be dangerous – and sometimes deadly. But in this section of the Mara, there hasn’t been hunting for decades. They are used to the tourist vehicles.

The game farm from my childhood near Olifants bordered a hunting reserve to the west. At the time, they still culled elephants in Kruger National Park to the east.

The elephants knew.

“Elephants have a cognitive sense of where they are safe and where they are at risk,” Mike Chase, the lead scientist on the Great Elephant Census, told me on a recent trip to Botswana, where he’s been tracking elephant movements for years. The census is a pioneering pan-African aerial survey that aims to count the continent’s savanna elephant populations.

“This is really the front line, this is as far as they come, they will no longer move across eastern Namibia into Angola and Zambia, fearful of the consequences of poaching,” says Chase.

As poaching rises, the elephants know to stay away.

And they remember.

No, they don’t forget

It’s sometimes tempting to anthropomorphize – to give an animal human characteristics – but the more I speak to people about elephants, the more elephants seem special.

I met up with Chase with Ingrid Formanek, one of CNN’s most experienced field producers.

Ingrid’s connection to Botswana runs deep.

In 1999 she moved to Maun, on the doorstep of the Okavango Delta, to document the rehabilitation of elephants. She lived there on and off for five years.

Ingrid recounts the story of an elephant orphaned in the Kruger culls, called Shireni.

Shireni’s handler taught her a trick: to remove her handler’s hat with her trunk and to put it on her own head and then to put it back on her handler’s. Ingrid observed as the elephant learned the behavior.

Nearly a decade later, Ingrid went back and saw Shireni.

“She remembered me with that simple gesture. She took the hat off my head and put it on hers. She then put it back. She made the link to that time in our lives,” says Ingrid. “”Shireni hadn’t done that in all the interim years. I was amazed, and truth be told, flattered.”

Anybody who has studied or worked with elephants has their own stories about how sharp elephant memories are.

Experts like Dame Daphne Sheldrick, who has rescued hundreds of orphaned calves, talks about elephants remembering people years later, and the things that happened to them – good and bad.

Sheldrick speaks of elephants reintroduced to the wild who have returned years, sometimes decades, later for help with an injury or just to say “hello.”

Vanishing herds

Despite their obvious emotional intelligence and survival instincts, elephants can’t escape the ravages of humans.

Elephants are slaughtered by poachers who seek their ivory tusks.

Before European colonization, scientists believe that Africa may have held as many as 20 million elephants; by 1979 only 1.3 million remained – and the Great Elephant Census revealed this year that things have gotten far worse.

In the seven years between 2007 and 2014, numbers plummeted by at least 30%, or 144,000 elephants.

As of July, Africa’s savannah is now home to only 352,271 elephants, according to the Great Elephant Census. Overall, including forest elephants, there are thought to be between 400,000 and 500,000 elephants across Africa.

And the specific cases are even more disturbing: In the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, and Mozambique’s Niassa Reserve, elephant populations have plummeted by more than 75% in the past 10 years as poachers cut down family herds, according to the survey.

“When you think of how many elephants occurred in areas 10 or 20 years ago, it’s incredibly disheartening,” says Chase.

“Historically these ecosystems supported many thousands of elephants compared to the few hundreds or tens of elephants we counted.”

In Botswana, elephants were long thought to be safe. It was part of southern Africa’s “haven” that comprises 60% of all savannah elephants counted in the census.

But the ivory poaching wars, driven primarily by Asian demand, are on its doorstep.

Botswana is fighting an unconventional war to try to stop the slaughter, with the Botswana Defense Force mobilized throughout the border region.

More than 700 specially trained soldiers are stationed in 40 bases in the far north.

That protection no longer seems enough.

A new memory

From a distance, it appears the elephant could be resting. But the smell reveals the truth.

A once glorious bull lies lifeless in a dry section of the Linyanti swamp in Botswana. His face hacked off by poachers.

As we approach, we see the tusks have been taken. The trunk is 10 paces from the body. The carcass is perhaps two or three days old. And it is just one of more than 20 we have counted in Linyanti in just over 48 hours.

Now, with current rates of poaching, they will be wiped out from some of their range states.

They could even go locally extinct, says Chase.

“I’ve been asked if I’m optimistic or pessimistic about the future of Africa’s elephants,” he says, “and on days like today, I feel that we are failing the elephants.”

This horrific scene could be the only way we remember them.