It Will Take All of Us to Save Elephants


asian elephant in denver zoo exhibit

By: Lynn Von Hagen, Regional Conservation Director – Africa and Angela Yang, Director of International Field Conservation

World Elephant Day 2023 is the perfect time to reflect on the need for interdisciplinary collaborations to protect the world’s elephants. Three elephant species remain in Asia and Africa, all of which are threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, human-elephant conflict, and climate change. However, each species has its own unique geographic pressures and life-history traits, causing the conservation of elephants to sometimes seem an insurmountable challenge.  

So, how does the world take on the daunting task of making sure these iconic, intelligent, “gardeners of the forest” roam the Earth for perpetuity? An increasingly prominent issue is the concept of “coexistence” as fragmented and degraded habitats increase the proximity and encounters between communities and elephants. Elephant conservation is complex, and as conservationists we often seek solutions in isolation. A holistic, collaborative approach, bringing some of the world’s greatest minds together is what it will take; each discipline contributing an important piece to solving one of conservation’s enigmatic problems.   

An interdisciplinary approach to elephant conservation would involve leveraging the resources of multi-lateral agencies, the expertise of Indigenous and Western scientists, with the participation and support of local people who live alongside elephants. Denver Zoo’s field conservation strategy aligns with these ideals and supports locally based organizations working in elephant conservation and have recently entered a partnership with the IUCN’s Asian Elephant Specialist Group. Zoo-based Conservation Organizations (ZBCOs) often go overlooked for their investment in global community-based conservation programs and their unique role in educational opportunities with the public. Systems thinking applications used by academics or conservation planners can help to map out potential drivers of conflict. Social scientists can work with local communities (using free, prior, informed consent (FPIC)) to understand community perspectives to co-develop sustainable solutions. Agricultural agents and experts could propose multiple solutions that reduce crop losses from elephant foraging and provide resilience to other environmental threats. However, without local communities’ involvement, our best efforts at conserving elephants will fail.  

It will take many disciplines to address the complexities of conserving the world’s largest land mammals. Indeed, it will take all of us working together to save elephants.