It could be said that an elephant's trunk is the most useful part of its body. As both an upper lip and a nose—and containing more than 4000 muscles—the trunk comes in handy for so many tasks. Elephants use their trunks for eating and drinking, of course, but they will also entwine them in greeting ceremonies, hold them high to signal danger, and use them to caress or assist a calf.
On a recent trip to Murchison Falls National Park in northern Uganda, WCS staff photographer Julie Larsen Maher watched with amazement as elephants put their trunks to all these tests. But her delight faded when first one—then three—elephants walked in front of her lens with parts of their trunks apparently lopped off. One had only a stub remaining.
It's a casualty that happens all too often. Even in national parks, poachers hide thick loops of wire in shrubbery near watering holes. The snares are meant to trap game species, but any animal that approaches is at risk. The unlucky elephant that pokes its trunk into a rusty manacle while foraging in the foliage may receive a life-threatening injury.
But elephants, even wounded ones, are extraordinarily adaptable creatures. As WCS conservationists have learned, many of the animals that suffer trunk injuries are able to adapt their feeding styles and heal. Some may stoop down on their knees to graze, or browse on easily accessible bushes.
Still, as WCS elephant conservationist Charles Foley noted, without their most precious tool, some may not survive through lean times. “Obviously they're going to be very susceptible during times of drought, when they would have to feed exclusively on leaves and bark,” he said.
This problem and other threats to elephants are not unique to Uganda. Throughout Africa, elephants are in trouble, whether caught in a snare lair, poached for their ivory tusks, or at odds with people for space.
WCS works throughout much of the elephant’s remaining habitat to monitor, manage, and support the protection of elephant populations and find novel approaches to reduce human-elephant conflict through sustainable livelihoods.
Read more about WCS's elephant programs >>