A wealthy man’s journey to save the elephants

Joel-Bruno Créton is a successful primatologist who happens to be a friend of our magazine. He’s also afraid the poaching scandal on his continent may damage elephants’ chances of survival. A young elephant and…

A wealthy man’s journey to save the elephants

Joel-Bruno Créton is a successful primatologist who happens to be a friend of our magazine. He’s also afraid the poaching scandal on his continent may damage elephants’ chances of survival.

A young elephant and its calf huddled together in the form of a giraffe. Mr. Créton says that they had been left behind by poachers who had killed another female.

We met Créton at his lab in Zürich, Switzerland, to discuss the poaching crisis in Africa.

Mr. Créton, 60, is a distinguished primatologist and pioneer in the study of human-elephant interaction.

Our reporting has prompted us to interview Mr. Créton and his colleagues from a variety of fields. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

Were you surprised by the scale of the ivory smuggling operation, which came to light earlier this month with the arrests of several people in Zimbabwe?

I was. The news spread like wildfire and overblown it because of the complex international connections that we now have. On Monday, I was in Tokyo, then went back to Zurich on the train to fly back to Washington. By Tuesday morning, the news had moved across the globe. It’s great that these guys were caught.

We were surprised by this. The jewelry industry has worked for a long time in Africa, but the ivory was for two reasons: People wanted to consume them, and be sure to purchase what is legal. And people on the other side of the map were just involved. There was no attempt to plan an elaborate scheme to export a lot of ivory back to China, where a lot of it goes already. The continent is not able to process it at the moment, so the smuggling of ivory was just a way to transport it.

What was the research you conducted on elephants before you joined the Swiss team?

There are two populations of elephants in Africa, which probably come from different regions. There are six species of elephants in all of Africa: the African elephant, the African savanna elephant, the Asian elephant, the bush elephant, the mountain elephant and the Atu, or African dwarf. They are related to each other. It’s really, really hard to separate them because they are growing in the same environments and in the same areas.

We are starting to understand better how the forest elephant is different, and how the Atu is different from the elephant at the ends of the savanna forest, and also different from the African elephant to the south. Elephants will be much more like us than thought. I think the world of conservation and the idea of preserving species is going to change very much. It’s going to become global.

We should not focus on just the ivory as a subject. It’s not going to just go on moving east and west for ever. We should think of species conservation more holistically. I think that elephants are going to play a part in this, but their role will be much bigger than we previously thought. It’s good for my job and it’s good for the research of the field.

What is your research about?

The elephant is a very complex social animal, with a whole host of different personalities, different behaviors. It’s something really strong. It’s the only mammal that can perform a leap, for example.

Many scientists from different fields — for example geneticists, veterinarians, and environmentalists — are trying to find out what is going on in the brain when an elephant takes on a human face shape. Can elephants have a head shape, or a sense of smell, or what else?

So many scientists are trying to do something to fix the environment. I don’t think that has to do with the elephants. This is a reaction to every single global event. It’s going to play out and there’s going to be a reaction. It’s a pity that we are killing each other like this.

Read more at The New York Times.

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