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My favorite elephant in the world.

 

The world’s appetite for ivory has, for years now, been the driving force behind the catastrophic decline in Africa’s elephant population. This problem is well documented and the struggle to stop it has been very public. What has been much less obvious is the accelerated rate at which the battle is being lost. A recently completed census revealed that Africa’s elephant numbers have declined by a full 30% over the past seven years. It seems that conservationists and wildlife lovers are overwhelmed with bad news on an almost daily basis, but this statistic is particularly unsettling. It confirms the possibility that the extinction of the species is, mathematically, not far distant. There are many angles to this tragedy, all of them ugly. There is the unfathomable but pervasive belief in parts of Asia that ivory trinkets are more valuable than elephant lives. There are the corrupt government officials who look the other way, turning a blind eye to the incessant slaughter and reaping enormous financial benefit in so doing. And there is the grinding poverty that forces people to illegal poaching to ensure the survival of their families. The challenges are huge, and there are no simple answers.

 
A couple of months back, there was another elephant story in the news that reflected the plight of the species in microcosm. Big Tim, the great patriarch of the Amboseli game reserve, was struck on the head with a large rock and pierced through the ear with a spear, the tip of which was embedded in his shoulder. Tim worked his way to the headquarters of the Big Life Foundation, a non-profit outfit dedicated to the preservation of elephants in southern Kenya. By all indications he had deliberately sought out humans who could assist him. He was sedated, treated, and up and on his way back to the Amboseli marsh in fairly short order.

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Big Tim in company with an elephant family en route to the marsh. Notice how he towers over everyone else.

Big Tim happens to be my favorite elephant in the world. I’ve been fortunate to spend many hours in his company over the years. He is huge. He is majestic. He is approaching 50 years of age, and his prodigious right tusk almost scrapes the ground with every step. It’s well documented that elephant families are matriarchal and males are expelled from the group when they reach sexual maturity. But Tim is always welcome to travel in company with the ladies and their families. He is unassuming, unpretentious and laid back. A scientist friend recently described him to me as “one cool cat.” Based on personal observation, I’d say that description is impeccable. The only time I’ve seen him even remotely perturbed was for the purpose of disciplining a younger bull who was stirring up a bit of a ruckus. He is the benevolent, slow-moving preserver of the peace at Amboseli. He is known and loved throughout Kenya. His portrait even adorns an entire wall in the baggage collection area at Jomo Kenyatta airport in Nairobi.

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Note the elevated area high on the right flank. This was where Tim was wounded with a poisoned spear.

Prior to this past February, I’d seen Tim most recently in November of 2014. At that time he was moving even more slowly than usual as he recovered from a poisoned spear wound high on his right side. After seeing news articles on this year’s attempt on his life, it occurred to me that the assaults and injuries he’s endured are in many ways emblematic of the attacks on the elephant species writ large. Some examples, like the random list below, are obvious.

 
• There have been multiple attempts on Tim’s life. Like the rest of his kind, his existence is at risk at all times and his enemies are relentless.
• The danger to the Tim and all elephants is exclusively from Homo sapiens. No other species poses a threat to him.
• The risks are particularly egregious where traditional wildlife territories conflict with human settlements. This has been the cause of Tim’s two most serious wounds.
• Elephants are poached for their ivory, and Tim’s tusks are among the biggest in all of Africa. This potentially makes him one of the most valuable targets.

But the most important parallel between Tim and all African elephants is illustrated with precision by his visit to Big Life headquarters just a couple of months ago. Tim had, not for the first time, been severely wounded by human beings. As a sentient creature, he was sufficiently cognizant to seek help from those who could best deliver it.

 

The salient point is this: As humans represent the primary threat to the existence of the species, so do they also represent the only hope for its salvation. It’s that simple. It’s a matter of will and commitment. In light of the disturbing numbers published in the recent census and for the sake of Big Tim and all of Africa’s elephants, I sincerely hope we are up to this most difficult task.

Big Tim of Amboseli ….

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petition photo

 

“Indifferent land, red with dust

Lost gray souls flee a world unjust … “

In January of 2013 my son and I visited the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s orphanage in Nairobi.  His adopted elephant, a beautiful 15 month old calf named Quanza, had just arrived back in her paddock after spending the day in Nairobi National Park with 25 other orphans.  Little Quanza was a recent addition at DSWT and had not yet learned to hold her own bottle.  But she was animated and comfortable in her surroundings, and the affection she obviously felt for her keeper was touching and reassuring to see.  That’s because the events that ultimately delivered her to the Sheldrick orphanage were a series of traumas that no living creature should ever have to endure.

 

Just three months earlier, on a dry plain near Amboseli and slightly north of the Tanzanian border, her mother and aunts had been slaughtered in a storm of gunfire by poachers as she stood trembling and bewildered near by.  Her cousins disappeared into the dust and were never seen again.   Within 48 hours the angels from DSWT were airborne to save the terrified baby.  Their miracle now stood before us in the paddock, exultant and healthy.  But it was impossible not to consider the reality than this animal belonged in the wild … with her mother and extended family.

 

The orphanage is a loving sanctuary, the nearest thing to heaven an elephant baby could ever experience.   But I have a dream … and that dream is to see many an empty paddock in the DSWT compound.  I’d like to see the occupancy rate drastically reduced … restricted solely to those youngsters orphaned by accidents or natural causes.   And that can only happen if elephant poaching becomes a thing of the past.    I dream for the human realization that elephants do not exist to be destroyed for purposes of entertainment, and their body parts are not designed to serve as decoration for our homes.  My friend, the great rhino conservationist Raoul du Toit, tells me that we’ll never completely eradicate poaching.  I suspect he’s right, but the fight must continue on every front … in Asia where the appetite for ivory is the strongest, on patrol in the shadows of Kilimanjaro and in the courtrooms of the world.

 

We tend to see the poaching scourge as an issue that primarily extends on an axis between the plains of Africa and the markets of East Asia.   But the problem is most certainly global, and its tentacles are embedded here in the United States as well.  Even with new and more restrictive regulations in place, ivory commerce is still permitted under federal law and elephant parts are still imported to gratify the senses of trophy hunters.  Considering the rate at which Africa’s elephant populations are being decimated, the time has come to ask the question … should any elephant trophies or tusks be allowed into the U.S.?

 

The continuing trade and transport of ivory in this country does indeed help drive the market, and it definitely impacts the lives of elephants on the African continent.  The head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently wrote, “We believe a substantial amount of elephant ivory is illegally imported and enters the domestic market. Our criminal investigations and anti-smuggling efforts have clearly shown that legal ivory trade can serve as a cover for illegal trade.“  Criticizing those who violently destroy these great animals is a fairly simple matter, but there are substantive near term actions we can take here in the United States to affect the ivory market.   And the most logical and immediate of these is to shut down ivory commerce completely.

 

There is a petition for a 100% ban on ivory trading in the United States on the White House website as I write this.  It must be signed 100,000 times by the end of this month in order to earn a place on the President’s desk.  It’s incumbent on those of us who are passionate about wildlife to see that these animals receive all the protection we can give them.  As of 11 May, we’re over one third of the way through the month and we still have less than 10,000 signatures.  I respectfully ask that you take five minutes of your time and read, sign and share this petition.  It can be accessed at this link:

 

http://wh.gov/lGl3J

 

The elephants are surely worth the few simple steps it takes to add a signature.

 

These iconic animals cannot speak for themselves, but the facts and numbers do.  Reliable estimates place the African elephant population at between 250,000-400,000 animals.  If poaching rates continue on the current trajectory (35,000 of them killed each year), they risk extinction in the wild within 10-15 years.  Blood ivory is taking a keystone, ancient species to the brink of extinction.

 

Dame Daphne Sheldrick, founder of the orphanage now entrusted with the care of little Quanza and others like her, has stated unequivocally that ivory trade and trafficking should be universally outlawed.  This petition would help realize her dream … and mine.   Please join the fight by adding your name.

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