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Books Globe Book Club: Biologist and author Britt Wray examines the plight of the elephants from The White Bone to today

Even though the sheer numbers of elephants being poached has dropped dramatically since the 1980s, African elephants were being killed faster than they were being born as recently as 2016.

Baz Ratner/Reuters

Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone is Margaret Atwood’s choice for our new Globe and Mail Book Club for subscribers. Every week, Globe Books has looked at themes drawn from the novel to spark discussion among readers, from anthropomorphism to matriarchy. Tell us your thoughts in the comments section.

If animals could obtain passports, elephants would have 50 – one for each country they inhabit across Africa and Asia. You might think this symbolizes that they’re living well, roaming free and eating plentifully. But the distribution of ele-passports says nothing about how many hold them. Africa’s elephant population has fallen from 1.3 million in 1979 to what the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates as 415,000 today, and it is believed there are only about 40,000 Asian elephants left in the wild.

Like the nearly one million species being driven to extinction by humans according to the UN-backed Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report, elephants also face serious threats to their future. Poaching became a significant problem in the 1970s and 1980s, long before Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone was published in 1998. Roughly 100,000 elephants were being killed per year in the 1980s, and some areas lost 80 per cent of their herds. Today, 20,000 African elephants are still being poached a year, according to the WWF, a haunting 55 per day. In The White Bone, human “hindleggers” mow down whole families of African elephants in order to take a chainsaw to their valuable elongated teeth. Often, they hack off their feet too.

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Globe Book Club, hosted by Margaret Atwood: Readers discuss Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone and ask the authors questions

Even though the sheer numbers of elephants being poached has dropped dramatically since the 1980s, African elephants were being killed faster than they were being born as recently as 2016. Those ratios simply don’t work for long-term survival.

That same year, a landmark elephant census estimated that there were 352,271 Savannah elephants left in 18 African countries, which represents 93 per cent of their range. Savannah elephants – like the ones in The White Bone – are the largest subspecies of African bush elephant. When the census findings were compared with historical estimates, they found that populations are shrinking at a startling average of 8 per cent per year. Some countries and organizations have addressed this crisis by starting at its root: ivory demand.

China – once the world’s largest legal ivory market – outlawed all domestic trade in 2017. Yet, neighbouring countries like Vietnam and Myanmar keep the legal trade alive. Currently, Hong Kong is the city with the largest legal ivory trade, though a Legislative Council vote declared that they will outlaw it by 2021. The difference between writing a law and fidelity to it will mean an immense amount for the elephants.

Since The White Bone was published, dozens of campaigns, crisis funds, wildlife ranger units and internationally co-ordinated efforts have been created to continue the fight against the ivory trade. Then there are also the bold individuals who take matters into their own hands. Australian ex-sniper Damien Mander, now based in Zimbabwe, directs an organization called the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, which uses military intelligence such as thermal cameras, night vision and drones to fight poachers in the bush. His most effective weapon, however, is women.

Since August 2017, Mander has been training and deploying an all-female militia of antipoaching rangers, called the Akashinga or “the Brave Ones.” They’ve proven to be more effective at stopping poachers than any male militia Mander has led in the past because “the women are incorruptible” he says. The Akashinga are recruited from other parts of Africa so they won’t be tempted with bribes from someone they know who might have ties to a poaching ring. They’re also particularly good at gathering information about poachers’ whereabouts from people in the community and de-escalating conflicts. When I last spoke to Mander in February, they had made 91 arrests without a single shot being fired.

But the dangers don’t all come down to the horrors of poaching. Climate change is making elephant habitats hotter and drier, which in turn makes it tougher to forage and keep calves alive. And even in countries where poaching is now under control, such as Kenya, human communities keep expanding into elephant territory. When an elephant meets a human up close, they may swing their trunk and deliver a fatal blow, or raid a farmer’s field, jeopardizing their earnings for the season. In both cases, people often retaliate with a revenge killing. As human populations rise and convert elephant habitat into agriculture, they physically fragment the areas in which the elephants can go. As long as this continues, expect human-elephant conflicts to continue.

One proposal to solve some of the threats facing elephants is to turn them into pseudo-mammoths. At a Harvard Medical School lab run by renowned geneticist George Church, a team is editing the DNA of Asian elephants to express a few characteristic woolly mammoth traits – the shaggy mane; fatty insulating skin; smaller ears that allow less heat to escape in cold environments; and, crucially, the ability to bind and release oxygen in their blood at freezing temperatures. The goal is to create and introduce a herd of 80,000 of these creatures into Siberia. If genetically-modified elephants with weird haircuts can survive in the Arctic, according to Church, this translates into elephant conservation, since it will expand their habitat range.

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My own book, Rise of the Necrofauna, is about de-extinction, the fringe scientific movement to which this project belongs. With de-extinction, researchers try to revive extinct (or functionally extinct) species – not just the mammoth, but also the passenger pigeon, the gastric brooding frog, the northern white rhino and more – using biotechnologies such as gene editing, cloning and stem-cell engineering.

It sounds like a mad approach to the biodiversity crisis – like something straight out of a Margaret Atwood novel – and I spend much of the book critiquing it. But while I sincerely hope we ramp up working on the roots of the problem rather than turn toward techno-fixes, the severity of the biodiversity crisis demands an all-hands-on-deck approach. Now is the time to be bold in the face of ecological uncertainty and demonstrate technological restraint where it is due.

On Friday, Barbara Gowdy will appear in conversation with Margaret Atwood at The Globe and Mail Centre in Toronto at an exclusive event for subscribers. For the latest on the Book Club, go to tgam.ca/bookclub and sign up for our weekly Books newsletter.

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