As I mentioned in my first, introductory post on this blog, I wrote a column on Facebook on World Elephant Day — August 12 — about my favorite animal, elephants, and the plights leading them towards extinction. Since my desire to share that post with a wider audience spurred me to start this blog, I thought I’d make it my first column here, with a few edits befitting its new publishing date.
Enjoy, and if you learned something, please share.
When I was one year old, my parents played the movie “Dumbo” for me. “Dumbo,” one of Walt Disney’s first creations, ranks among the few perfect films — especially for young children — and stars a darling, big-eared baby elephant. Depicting an outcast’s journey to gain confidence and free his mother, “Dumbo” became my favorite movie, and elephants my favorite animal as a result.
As I grew older, I continued to love “Dumbo,” but I also learned more about elephants. I began loving them not because of how cute they look animated, but because of their character as animals.
Elephants are some of the world’s most intelligent, emotional creatures. When a herd passes a deceased elephant’s bones, they stop to mourn their departed sister or brother. When an elephant calf falls, not just his mother but his aunts and cousins come to help him up, too. When an elephant dies, her fellow herd members — her family — sit by her corpse, swatting away vultures to protect the body, taking time to grieve until the herd must keep moving to survive. As keystone species, elephants’ mere existence contributes to Africa and Asia’s wide varieties of flora and fauna. Elephants walk over fences to minimize destruction, love to swim and roll in the mud, communicate across miles through vibrations in the ground, cry when they are sad, form long-lasting friendships and familial bonds, actively love one another —
Elephants are going extinct.
Poaching elephants for their ivory tusks has reached epic proportions. From 2011 to 2014, poachers slaughtered 100,000 African elephants. Roughly one out of every 12 African elephants was killed in 2011 alone. In central Africa, the hardest-hit region, the African elephant population has declined 64 percent in the past decade; in Tanzania, the population has fallen by 60 percent in just the past five years. Due to poaching and habitat loss, the total population of African elephants has decreased from 1.3 million in 1979 to just 500,000 by most recent estimates.
Asian elephants, despite having shorter tusks and thus less ivory, are also threatened by poaching. That, along with habitat loss and human-wildlife conflict, has affected Asian elephant populations for the worse. At the start of the 20th century, more than 100,000 Asian elephants lived in the wild. Now, less than half that population exists: there are only 40,000 Asian elephants left, and they are restricted to just 15 percent of their original range.
The habitat loss, the murder — their effects are grand and horrible. Experts and conservationists agree that unless we enact major change in both areas — especially poaching — wild elephants could be extinct within decades. Some estimates hover around 2050; others, as early as 2020 — just five years from now.
What can we do to save these species?
Enacting the ivory regulations President Obama proposed a few weeks ago in Kenya would be a start. The United States is the second-largest ivory market in the world — meaning that we are a main cause of elephants’ barbaric, needless slaughter. The regulations President Obama outlined would shrink our ivory market and the parameters of trade allowed. However, because it still allows some ivory sale — however little — it still holds loopholes, which are fatal for elephants. These new regulations mark progress, but they may not be enough. I would advocate outlawing America’s ivory market altogether and banning all parts of our ivory trade: no loopholes, no exceptions.
We also have to pressure China — the world’s largest ivory market — to enact regulations of their own. Economic sanctions would force Chinese politicians to create and enforce policies limiting ivory’s import and sale. Moreover, we should help create a public awareness campaign informing the Chinese that ivory does not, in fact, have medicinal powers. Much of China’s ivory trade stems from that incorrect, traditional belief, and it is directly causing elephants’ mass murder.
The U.S. and other first-world countries should also help fund protections for elephants, such as ranger programs, natural reserves and stronger anti-poaching prosecution in Africa and Asia. These defenses allow elephants to live in their normal habitats while protecting them from poachers. Rangers also need access to weapons equivocal to poachers’ — it’s hard to fight an AK-47 with a spear or even a rifle. In addition, Western countries should pressure African and Asian governments to care for their elephant populations in humane, practical ways. Kidnapping baby elephants from their mothers to sell to China, as Zimbabwe has done, does not count. Economically developed nations should form a coalition, dedicating money and other resources to preventing elephants’ and other animals’ extinction.
More than anything, we — the U.S., China, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, every country in the world, politicians and civilians alike — have to start caring. We have let poachers monopolize elephant populations for their destructive, immoral, money-grabbing means for too long. Soon, unless we act, elephants will die out. Our children or grandchildren will only know them from photographs, faded in books or preserved with unnatural virtual light. We cannot let elephants — loving, thoughtful, hard-working, protective, tenacious, beloved elephants — disappear. Doing so will destroy Africa and Asia’s wild habitats; what’s more, it will mark the departure of human conscience. If we choose apathy and laziness over protecting and restoring elephant populations, we have sunk too low to ever rise again.
I discovered my favorite animal in a movie 17 years ago, and since then, elephants — through books, films, photos and adorable online videos — have given me joy. Now, I aim to return that favor by giving elephants life. We must use today and every day to raise awareness of elephants’ plight and work together to save them. That task is neither quick nor easy, but with patience, vigilance and hard work, we can do it.
I want to see elephants in their natural habitat one day. I want my children and grandchildren to have that privilege as well. For future generations and the earth’s wellness, we must save the elephants.