Elephants—Friends or foes?


A boy with his elephant friend.

Do you consider an elephant a friend or foe?


Elephants are prized for different reasons and hated for others.

To some they are valuable workers, adept at hauling huge logs and placing them in neat rows.

Others value elephants for their tusks, hide, and meat.

Still others just see them as a threat to their land and crops.

Many researchers, though, value elephants for their entertaining ways.

Cynthia Moss spent many years studying elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli game park.

In her book Elephant Memories, she writes:

“I have seen the grand old matriarchs leading and defending their families and I have also seen them lose all dignity and run around in play with their tails curled up over their backs and a wild glint in their eyes.”

Daphne Sheldrick of Kenya has raised many orphaned elephants and released them back into the wild. In an interview with the magazine Getaway, she explained:

“All the little elephants that come in have different temperaments, just as human children do. . . . They’re slightly competitive, they get jealous and when you reprimand them they may sulk. . . . Some of them will be deliberately mischievous or disobedient. We do have to discipline them, just as you discipline human children.”

Besides being entertaining, elephants play a practical role in nature.

A moderate number in a confined region increase the richness of plant species.

The book Elephants, Economics and Ivory lists other valuable functions, such as opening new grasslands, dispersing seeds, and reducing “the incidence of the tsetse fly.”

“Elephants,” conclude the authors, “have an essential ecological role in the African savannas and forests.”

If there are too many elephants, however, they cause damage to vegetation.

That is when they become a foe for some people.

Because of this, conservationists regularly cull elephants in some confined regions.

In other parts of Africa where elephants still have plenty of space, culling has not been resorted to.

This has advantages. “In Kenya’s Amboseli game park,” explains New Scientist magazine, “where there has been no culling, elephants walk freely among humans and show no fear of them.”

Scientists are working on alternative methods to reduce the elephant birthrate.

Meanwhile, as humans learn more about elephants, they will no doubt find more reasons to view them as friends rather than as their enemies.