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Elephant Conservation: Does Elephant Compassion Deserve Our Own?

African wildlife conservation photographer and Bushtracks traveler Susan McConnell describes the profoundly moving elephant interactions she witnessed on safaris in Namibia and Central Africa and offers a solution for African elephant conservation through the Wildlife Conservation Network. Trunks aloft, ears aflap, the younger elephants were panicking. They trumpeted and paced in circles, eyes focused on a water trough where the littlest elephant, a year-old baby, had toppled in. The calf might easily have navigated a natural water hole, but he was trapped by the steep walls of the pump-fed concrete trough, a remnant of agricultural days before Etosha became a national park. While the baby flailed in eye-high water, I stood helpless in an underground hide twenty yards away, hoping not to watch him drown. But through the dust and chaos emerged the baby’s mother and three grown females, perhaps all sisters. They walked calmly to the trough, knelt beside the terrified calf, lowered their trunks in concert, and with a bit of slipping and splashing, collectively extricated him from the water. Siblings and cousins rushed over to fondle him with their trunks. In the elephant world, as in ours, everyone dotes on the baby.

Photo by Susan McConnell. A family of elephants rescues its 1 year old baby. Etosha National Park, Namibia.

This wasn’t the only time I’ve seen elephants act with what can only be called compassion. At Dzanga Bai, a clearing in the Dzanga Sangha forest in Central African Republic, forest elephants congregate by the dozens to consume essential minerals. At the end of the rainy season, at Christmas time, I watched elephant bulls use tusks and trunks to excavate holes and drink mineral-rich groundwater. The biggest bulls hogged the best holes. When smaller bulls tried to sidle up to these prime spots, the larger males drove them off with a trunk slap, a tusk poke, or an all-out chase across the bai. This held true for all the smaller bulls but one – an emaciated little male whose trunk was nearly severed. He could control the upper half of his trunk, but the half below a wound dangled useless, impeding his ability to eat and drink.

Photo by Susan McConnell. Starved and injured elephant bull struggles to consume essential nutrients at a mineral hole next to larger elephant bull. Dzanga Sangha Forest in Central African Republic

None of the researchers at the bai knew what had happened to the little bull; they debated whether he’d been bitten by a snake or caught in a snare. Of all the elephants at the bai, however, he alone was tolerated by the largest males. He alone was allowed to brush flanks with a big bull at a prime mineral hole, and if he interfered with another elephant’s drink, the injured bull received only a gentle push with a trunk – as much a caress as a reprimand.

Photo by Susan McConnell. Elephant competes with another at mineral hole. Dzanga Sangha Forest in Central African Republic

Such are the faces of community and caring among elephants: youngsters yelling “Oh no, do something!” in a crisis; wiser, calmer heads engineering a solution; communal relief at disaster averted, and a touching tolerance for the weak and injured. I can only imagine the grief felt by the elephants at Dzanga Bai when, the day after Christmas, the little bull with the maimed trunk finally died of malnourishment. Such grief is rampant right now throughout Africa, with 35,000 elephants killed in the last year alone from poaching. That translates to 96 elephants shot or poisoned each day, their faces hacked off with axes and tusks hauled away for the ivory trade.

Photo by Susan McConnell. A majestic bull. Dzanga Sangha Forest in Central African Republic

Surely animals that express compassion for one another deserve the same from us. Elephants are suffering, and the privilege and joy of watching them in the wild is being stolen from us by poachers, ivory traders, and habitat loss. Each of us can and must take action, and many individuals and organizations are working full-time to protect elephants in the current crisis. Whether you make a donation, write a letter, share this story, or discourage someone from purchasing ivory, please do whatever you can to help.

If we stand by, these extraordinary animals may soon be irrevocably lost. In the words of the the late poet Maya Angelou:

And when great souls die, after a period peace blooms, slowly and always irregularly. Spaces fill with a kind of soothing electric vibration. Our senses, restored, never to be the same, whisper to us. They existed. They existed. We can be. Be and be better. For they existed. [From “When Great Trees Fall”]



To learn more about how you can help save elephants, visit Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton’s Save The Elephants Program, on the Wildlife Conservation Network website at:

The first version of this article was posted on 6 Jun 2014 at 3:52 PM.


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