A young man recently asked, “Why save the elephants when there are children dying of hunger?” It’s not an uncommon question.
How do we begin to explain why elephants are worth saving? Do we begin with the interconnectedness of all beings? Do we use mutually assured destruction to advance the argument? Do we explain that in every environment there are keystone species whose impact is so significant the ecosystem will be dramatically altered without them. Humans are a keystone species; so are elephants.
If these approaches don’t work, then perhaps the most persuasive argument is a more practical one: What can humans learn from an animal whose evolutionary history on this planet dwarfs our own?
In the film, When Giants Fall, Dame Daphne Sheldrick — who raises orphaned elephants in Kenya believes, “They are just like us, but better than us… It takes two years to make an elephant in the womb and only nine months to make a man… and I think that says it all.”
And maybe, it does.
Over the millions of years of their complex evolution, elephants learned to get along. Together, these mighty packs charted migratory paths travelled for millennia. Compassion, devotion, empathy — these are the qualities which held herds together, the secrets of their long survival.
Elephants celebrate life and mourn their dead. They protect injured calves, they rally around the most vulnerable among them, loyal until death. They do not divide. Elephants do not rape, murder, steal or deceive.
They are master gardeners. As they migrate, their dung fertilizes and spreads seeds that restore health to the Earth and create a vast biodiversity. Even an elephant’s footprint creates vital habitat for smaller creatures. Elephants are stewards of their environment, living without violence in their natural state.
By contrast, since the advent of agriculture just over 12,000 years ago, humans have altered nearly every ecosystem on the planet. Our lust for fossil fuels and the growth it creates has led to an extinction rate 1000 times greater than the background extinction rate of nature. We are watching the glorious diversity of our planet collapse, yet we refuse to halt our growth.
Sadly for the elephant, their fate is tied to our own. They are now refugees surrounded by human violence. Many on the ground who risk their lives to save elephants call the massive scale of their slaughter a holocaust. Elephants look to the sky where helicopters carry poachers with AK-47s. Rain turns to bullets. Terrorists groups buy arms with the proceeds of blood-ivory, making it an immensely valuable commodity so long as there are buyers.
The Chinese, Africa’s most recent colonizers, have built hundreds of new mining operations across the continent — leading to the pollution of watering holes. In Zimbabwe, cyanide was thrown into elephant watering holes in an effort to kill entire herds without ever firing a shot. Robert Mugabe’s government sells orphaned calves to Chinese zoos.
In the town of Lewa, Kenya, conservationists built a safety-corridor underneath a roadway that blocked the elephants’ migratory path from Kenya to Tanzania. His elders all dead, a young elephant named Mountain Bull met a daunting challenge. He had to lead. That meant he had to go under the roadway first. Waiting on the other side of the protected corridor were three poachers hiding in trees high overhead. They dropped poison spears with heavy weights on Mountain Bull’s back. He fought so hard to get the spears out, the thrashing knocked down full grown trees. This is how he was found: His tusks chopped from his body. No elephant is safe.
Just one hundred years ago, an estimated ten million African elephants roamed the continent. Today, after a century of war and “progress,” less than four hundred thousand still roam free. The toll of this indiscriminate slaughter has been severe for the herds that remain. In the film, When Giants Fall, one conservationist laments, “They are like the kidnapped children of The Lord’s Resistance Army. In many cases, they are psychologically dead already.”
But we can stop this.
On Sept. 24, in more than 130 cities across six continents, thousands of people will take to the streets to raise awareness about elephant and rhino conservation. The Global March for Elephants and Rhinos will happen on the same day as the opening of the CoP17 conference in Johannesburg, South Africa. The Conference of the Parties is the world’s largest and most influential meeting on international wildlife trade. They cannot keep blood ivory out of the hands of poaching syndicates and terrorist groups, but they can give elephants in all 54 countries greater protection.
Let’s take to the streets here in the United States, so the world knows we care about keeping this magnificent species on the planet. Here is a list of continents and cities where marches are scheduled on September 24th.
Meantime, the next time I’m asked, “Why save the elephants?”, maybe I’ll try this one: Because our world will be a lot less interesting without them.
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