MY cabin stood beside a water pool, and each morning I awoke to the sound of an elephant family snorting and spraying and splashing. During my several-week stay, Tanzania's Lake Manyara National Park was fairly replete with elephants: some on the move, others standing on their hind legs feeding on high acacia branches, others camouflaged by tree shadows and looking like so many boulders. One night a young bull faced off with our Land Rover in the middle of the road. We stopped and turned off the engine and lights. The huge black specter walked toward us, knocking his tusks against the vehicle as he glided the tip of his snout over the hood and windshield. The sound of his heavy, hollow breathing filled the air. Suddenly, he turned and pounded down the road in front of us.
That was in 1983. On a return trip to Manyara in March, I expected similar close encounters. There were none. In fact, I saw but a handful of elephants, always in the distance. The population had dropped from 485 to 181 - just in the last two years.
The African elephant may become a memory before this century closes.
Studies show devastation on the order of 50 percent throughout the continent in only 10 years, as the ivory trade thrives in the shadow of corruption and upheaval. But a plan is taking shape that would do for the elephant what was done for the whale.
Today marks the start of the ``Year of the Elephant,'' a campaign to educate Americans (who purchase 30 percent of the world's carved ivory) about the elephant's plight.
``At least 80 percent of ivory on the market today comes from poached elephants - even if it comes with all the correct papers certifying it as legal,'' says researcher Cynthia Moss, author of a captivating new book, ``Elephant Memories.'' Ms. Moss, who spent the last 20 years in East Africa studying elephant behavior, is a senior research adviser to the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), and was on hand at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., yesterday to help launch the foundation's Year of the Elephant project.
The campaign is a direct response to the findings of a new study by the well-known elephant specialist, Lain Douglas-Hamilton, for whom Moss worked as a research assistant when she first went to East Africa. The study focuses on elephants in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, where the numbers plunged from 253,947 to 108,615 between 1977 and 1987.
``The figures are devastating,'' says AWF's vice-president, Diana McMeekin. ``The working estimate is that there are now 700,000 elephants on the continent, compared with 1.5 million 10 years ago.'' David Western, chairman of the Elephant and Rhino Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), says Mr. Douglas-Hamilton has shocked people ``who didn't want to believe that the offtake was so great in Kenya.'' The survey showed that in Kenya, whose second-largest industry is wildlife tourism, the elephant population dropped 57 percent in protected areas and 73 percent in unprotected areas during the last 10 years.
While drought and human encroachment on elephant habitat have contributed to the creature's demise, the ivory trade is the most acute threat. The IUCN reports that 825 tons of raw ivory, with a market value of $50 million, were traded in 1986. The raw ivory, sold mainly in Asia, was converted into carved ivory worth about $500 million on the world market. The death toll among elephants for the trade: 89,000 - at least 80 percent (71,200) of them poached.
So many adult elephants have been killed in recent years that the average tusk size has dropped from 21 pounds in the mid-1970s to 12 pounds today. Numbers don't tell the full story. ``Fifty-five percent of elephants shot are reproductive females,'' says Mr. Western. Moss says this hampers the survival skills of the remaining population. ``Elephant know-how is passed on primarily through teaching, not instinct. The slaying of mature females for their larger tusks destroys the respository of knowledge about such things as migratory routes, water sources, and mothering skills.''
All but three of the 31 East Africa elephant habitats Douglas-Hamilton surveyed aerially showed vast declines. The few protected areas that showed increases are in Kenya and include the Masai Mara Reserve, Marsabit National Reserve, and Amboseili National Park, where Moss led the Amboseili Elephant Research Project for more than 12 years.
One of the most startling declines occurred in Tanzania's Lake Manyara National Park, where both Moss and Douglas-Hamilton spent time studying elephants, and where my own encounter with the night stalker occurred.
``I find the drop in Manyara particularly sad and startling,'' says Moss, ``not only because I knew those elephants by name, but because the park is small and very manageable in terms of its layout and its high tourism. If elephants can't be protected there, where can they be?'' She speculates that the poaching in Manyara is happening at night and ``within the system'' - suggesting that rangers and officials are involved in some way.
Conservationists agree that in the 36 African nations with elephant populations, park managers can be part of the poaching problem rather than the solution. ``Wardens and rangers are pitifully underpaid and underequipped,'' Moss writes. ``When the price of tusks is equivalent to an officer's yearly salary, the temptation to poach is overwhelming.''
Unfortunately, the temptation is growing - right alongside increasing ivory prices. In 1960, ivory sold at about $2.35 a pound. By 1978, it had climbed to $35, and this year it soared to $68. Says the AWF's McMeekin: ``Ivory is increasingly being purchased as a hedge against inflation, saved against the day it is no longer in supply and prices hit the sky.''
Civil wars in Uganda, the Central African Republic, Sudan, and Somalia have compounded the poaching problem. ``Not only are more automatic weapons readily available to facilitate poaching,'' says McMeekin, ``but in the turmoil of war, civil systems have broken down and law enforcement is lax.''
IUCN is now forming a special commission to review all aspects of ivory trade. Regulation options include (1)revising the current unverifiable quota system, asking each nation to determine how much ivory it can afford to export without threatening the its elephant population; (2)setting a minimum tusk size; (3)establishing management systems such as those in South Africa and Zimbabwe, where ``elephants are controlled like herds of cows - they're culled to keep them at a sustainable level, and limited hunting is allowed,'' says McMeekin; (4)identifying a benchmark population of some 200 elephants in various habitats, and pouring resources into the protection of them, rather than trying to oversee every corner of elephant country; and (5)encouraging external sanctions from countries that import ivory.
While respecting the rights of African nations to make their own decisions about use of their resources, Moss sees elephants as an international treasure, and hopes to prod people beyond Africa to do their part to ensure the survival of the species. ``Developed countries could help African conservation areas by contributing far more to their maintenance,'' she says. In addition, Moss says she ``would like to see a temporary moratorium on buying ivory by the American market - until the time comes when one can be sure that the tusk is either from an elephant killed legally, or one that has died of natural causes.''