“The elephants can’t speak for themselves. It’s up to us to speak out for them.”
I am haunted by the fact that every day I read more terrible news about the escalating slaughter of African elephants for their ivory; the increasing and senseless market demand for ivory by avaricious consumers who are unaware of the bloodbath their purchases are encouraging – or who simply don’t care; the depth of corruption across international borders that enables this illegal trade; the tragic deaths of both humans and elephants due to conflicts resulting from the loss of wild habitat; and most recently the awful poisoning of 14 endangered wild pygmy elephants in Borneo – the most endangered elephants of all. It’s a startling fact that on every front the elephants, and their pachyderm cousins the rhinos, are the victims of an unprecedented genocide driven by humanity’s materialistic lust and greed. What can any of us do about this?
While the dedicated, brave conservationists and anti-poaching squads work on-the-ground in various African countries doing their best to fight the poachers and protect the elephants, they still must watch powerlessly as the elephants they can’t help in time get gunned down by people who are driven by other agendas. These articles written by Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton of the Save the Elephants Foundation in Kenya passionately express the tragedy of this reality.
There are groups and individuals who work quietly and tirelessly behind the scenes trying to investigate and dismantle the corruption that enables this illegal trade to occur. This corruption is riddled with complexity. It spans between countries. It involves governments and enforcement agencies whose efforts are hobbled by secret grafts that exchange hands and entice many to turn a blind eye to ivory passing through whatever border, port or airport, en route to the shops of Thailand, China, and beyond. But it’s not just the mainstream ivory collector who drives this market demand. Recent reports by journalist Bryan Christy expose that religious icons carved from ivory are highly coveted by the Catholic Church.
And what about the poachers, who are they? In more and more cases they are trained militia who see ivory as currency, a means by which they or their leaders can acquire what they really seek – arms, drugs, power, control. They are outfitted with the most sophisticated killing gear – hi-powered scope rifles, machine guns, helicopters, night vision cameras and the like – moving expertly in the night slaughtering herds of elephants in one spree. But in other cases these killers are lowly impoverished hunters operating at a small scale to cull a few elephants to sell the ivory to local dealers for a fraction of its trading price, making just enough money to keep them, their families, their villages sustained for several months. It’s true that in some of these cases these people too are the victims of exploitation and corruption. Yet for all of the poachers who are arrested or killed, and for all of the ivory that is seized and stored in warehouses around the world from Tanzania, to Thailand, to Rome reports show it represents a mere fraction of the ivory and the killers that get away. And the ones who really pull the strings – the international smuggling overlords and kingpins – they remain untouchable because there is simply too much money to be made. The economics of extinction are high with raw elephant ivory now worth over $1,000 a kilogram. The resulting carvings created by skilled artists in workshops supported by the Chinese government can fetch tens of thousands of dollars or more.
Again, what can we do about this? Many of us in the media have been documenting and following the escalation of reports coming from the conservation front lines of Africa and Asia. As filmmakers, my team and I are trying to do our part by communicating these issues to a broader audience. Mass mainstream awareness and education about the issues is the first step to bringing global change. It is still a shocking fact to me that many Asian consumers don’t realize that most of the carved ivory available to purchase comes from wild African elephants that have been illegally killed. A wild elephant will not just stand by idly while its tusk is removed. The small amount of legal ivory that enters the market from legitimate sources, such as the trimmed tusks of captive elephants, elephants who have died of natural causes, or from the prehistoric mammoth carcasses unearthed from Siberia’s permafrost, represents a mere fraction of the tonnes of ivory from illegal sources that is sold to uninformed consumers. In 1989 the ivory trade was banned but this hasn’t seemed to matter much. In 2008 a one-time sanctioned sale to China and Japan of legal ivory stockpiled from elephants culled in South Africa is believed to have triggered the frenzy of poaching that has been escalating ever since.
By communicating these stories about what is happening to the world’s elephants we are igniting a much-needed international outcry. We need to generate mass awareness during this most significant time in history for the elephants’ survival. Public pressure is critical and it can make a difference at the CITES Conference taking place in Bangkok March 3 to 14. Representatives from 176 countries will meet on the issues, the laws and provisions for wildlife trade, wildlife products, and if the ivory trade should be legalized or not. It’s very fitting that this year the CITES Conference is being held in Thailand – the land of elephants. As we’ve been filming for Elephants Never Forget we have learned that Thailand has an old law that allows the trade of “legal” ivory from “domesticated” elephants – a legal loophole that has made Thailand the hub of ivory smuggling, permitting illegal poached ivory from Africa to be feigned as “legal” ivory and moved through Thailand and onwards to other Asian countries. Read more about this issue here.
Why should we care? Because the genocide of elephants is not just a local or regional issue. It is a global issue. Elephants belong to this world as much as we do. And by losing elephants we are losing one of the key pillars in the matrix of life on this planet. What happens to elephants is what happens to us.
It’s important to remember that elephants play a significant role in nature. As a keystone species, they are the caretakers of vast ecosystems – from the forests and savannah of Africa, to the lush green jungles of SEAsia where they still roam. Elephants shape and manage these habitats, creating biodiversity and making it possible for other plants and animals to live there. Without the elephants these habitats would topple. But there is another reason we should be concerned about the plight of elephants. It’s because elephants are a lot like us.
As a filmmaker I have spent most of my career in nature filming wildlife and I’ve learned to respect and observe animals as wild. I believe that all nature is sentient and essential. But after four years of filming elephants under many different circumstances I’ve come to believe that elephants are more than just animals. They are special. They possess many of the higher qualities that we aspire to have ourselves. I’ve seen elephants mourn their dead, care for each other, exhibit empathy, joy and sadness, and remember. Science has shown that their large brains are comparable to ours, and they exhibit social behavior and empathy that is very human-like. Elephants feel emotions like we do. Their long memories suggest that they have an understanding of their environments and relationships with each other, and with us, which are more profound than we can imagine. Their memory is their survival, and that’s why elephants never forget. But when the magnificent bull and matriarch elephants who lead the social groups are killed for their tusks, their precious elephant memory banks are lost forever, leaving traumatic impacts on the memory and survival skills of the younger elephants who remain.
So what can any of us do? On August 12, 2012 we launched World Elephant Day with a list of elephant organizations and things that we can all do to help elephants. Support the elephant conservation organizations that are doing the on-the-ground work to fight poaching. Support the organizations that are protecting wild habitat where elephants can continue to live. Support the organizations that are lobbying for new and stronger laws and enforcement measures to protect elephants, rhinos, and all wildlife from poaching and extinction. Help us continue to get the word out through supporting the completion of our feature-length film Elephants Never Forget, which explores the deeper issues that affect the future for elephants and us. We have launched our Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign to raise the funds we need to finish this independent film that has been four-years-in-the-making.
Take action in any way you can. Because if we lose the elephants, we will lose the greatest battle of all – the battle against greed and corruption. And in doing so we will lose our humanity.
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