Jumbo Mission

Tufts embraced the mighty pachyderm as its mascot more than a century ago. Now the university is rallying to save his species from extinction, and our journalists visit a sanctuary in Kenya that rescues the babies.
View a slideshow of elephants at the Nairobi National Park in Kenya. Photos: Alonso Nichols
March 6, 2017

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Jumbo the elephant was an orphan when he was plucked out of the Sudan and taken to Europe, where Tufts trustee P.T. Barnum purchased the pachyderm in 1882 to star in his circus. The mighty elephant—he stood 11 feet tall—lives on as Tufts’ mascot. Nowadays, orphaned elephants in East Africa have a better chance of surviving and returning to the wild, thanks to efforts like those at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi National Park in Kenya.

The trust is currently home to 28 elephants, many orphaned when poachers killed their mothers for their ivory tusks. The 2016 Great Elephant Census reported that 74 elephants are killed each day for their ivory, which is sold as “medicine” or carved into jewelry and trinkets. The largest market is China, followed by the United States and Thailand.

Each orphan usually stays at the park’s nursery for about three years, before moving to a rehabilitation facility and slowly transitioning back to the wild.

Orphaned elephants can’t survive on vegetation alone—they need milk until they are about 2½ years old. At the Nairobi sanctuary, each baby consumes more than six gallons of a special formula every day.

The sanctuary has rescued and returned more than 200 orphaned elephants to the wild. For most of them, it is a gradual transition—they stay out for a night or a week before joining a family of wild elephants at age 7 or 8.

Closer to home, a new group at the university is working to save wild elephants, which will no longer roam the earth by 2030 if poaching continues at the current pace of one death every 20 minutes, according to the Great Elephant Census. It found that the number of elephants has declined 30 percent over the past seven years. There are now 352,271 savanna elephants in 18 African countries.

“Saving these magnificent creatures will take untangling a web of social, political, economic and cultural forces—such a nuanced dynamic that it will require an intellectual army. Fortunately, we have that army right here at Tufts,” said Ellen McDonald, a reference librarian at the Fletcher School who helped found the Tufts Elephant Conservation Alliance.

Faculty members from across the university have devised a plan to attack the problem on several fronts—conducting conservation field research, hosting a conservation speaker series, studying acoustic equipment that can detect and protect distressed herds, and ensuring that the importance of biodiversity is reflected in the curriculum.

First up: the course “A Jumbo Imperative: On Elephants and Elephant Conservation,” offered this semester through the Experimental College. The lead instructor is Dale Peterson, a lecturer in English who has written extensively about threats to wildlife. He is joined by Felicia Nutter, V93, director of Cummings School’s international veterinary medicine program; Allen Rutberg, director of its Center for Animals and Public Policy; and Karen Panetta, a professor of electrical and computer engineering with expertise in using technology to promote the conservation and health of wild elephants.

Join the cause at http://go.tufts.edu/savejumbo.

Heather Stephenson can be reached at heather.stephenson@tufts.edu. Contact Alonso Nichols at alonso.nichols@tufts.edu. Genevieve Rajewski can be reached at genevieve.rajewski@tufts.edu.