Saena comes to life with the Earth. The first few rays of the sun streak across the vast grassland, bringing it to life. There are a few rumblings already in the herd, Saena isn’t the first, but she is among the first to wake up to the glorious sight of an African sunrise. With the shake of her head and a soft grunt, Saena ambles along the thin tall Savannah grass, making a soft rustling sound. Saena is forty two years old, and if times had been simpler, she would have been sure to live for another thirty odd years. But times are no longer simple and Saena is wise enough to understand that. She is one of the roughly 600,000 African elephants that remain on the planet, and while Saena hasn’t been informed so by experts, thousands of years of evolution have given her the instinct to know that her kind is endangered.
Saena is not the matriarch of the herd, but she commands a lot of respect from the younger elephants, primarily due to her heroics three years ago. Her herd remembers the day well, for elephants are cursed with the gift of a very sharp memory. Saena wishes she could erase some memories, but nature will not have it so. A few dark memories should remain within us for us to truly understand the value of good times perhaps. Saena moves further along until she reaches her two calves, one male and one female. They are still asleep, still in their childhood years and Saena looks at them lovingly for a moment. A rustling to her left reveals another advancing adult female elephant, Saena’s sister. Saena angles her body to face her sister, and inter-twines her trunk with her sister’s.
Having said hello to her sister, Saena is glad she has family around her. Family will protect her and her young ones from the new threat that is picking up pace along the grasslands. She strokes her young calves across their backs with her trunk, urging them to wake up so they can join the herd and head to the lake for their first drink of the day. The young elephants of the herd move their feet quickly to keep pace with the larger and wiser ones of the herd. Saena is seven and a half feet tall, about an average size for a female African elephant. She weighs a little over five thousand pounds and moves swiftly with the herd. The matriarch leads them to the large lake, a little over a mile away. Through her grunts and soft rumblings, the matriarch is able to direct the herd in the right direction if they go astray, but most of them are now familiar with the path they take for the lake every morning, what with the razor sharp memory and all.
Saena moves briskly along the right periphery of the herd and on reaching the lake, nudges her two young ones into the lake and sprays gallon after gallon of water on them playfully. She is able to store two gallons of water at a time in her enormous trunk, but does not need to fill it to full capacity just yet. The water reaches halfway up Saena’s tree trunk like legs, and with a little effort she is able to move within the like. As her young ones play, Saena slowly moves away from the lake after getting her morning’s worth of water. She slowly walks away from the lake and stops, scanning the horizon. The world has changed fast in the last few years, Saena and her herd have been introduced to a new and unusual kind of threat.
The threat has taken many of her herd over the last few years, and the herd has mourned their loss. They have run their trunks over the carcasses and they have felt pain and grief, a grief that hasn’t left Saena for a long time. She is alert at every moment of the day, staying as sharp as she can, protecting herself and her young ones the best to her potential. This new threat is unpredictable and quaint, and Saena can only hope that she is up to the challenge. She scans the horizon once again, with her heart heavy, and knows that somewhere out there in the vast grassland, the threat lurks.
There are a few things in this world that are infinite. The size of the universe, a mother’s love, the hopes and dreams of a young man just starting out his life and as will be apparent by the end of this article, the power and the extent of human greed. The term ‘Blood Diamond’ was popularized by the 2006 Edward Zwick movie with the same title, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou. The film introduced the audience to the heart-breaking story of the reality behind diamonds in Sierra Leone, how the lives of many are lost each day in the hunt for diamonds and what human greed can make us do not only to one another, but to our own souls. National Geographic’s Bryan Christy is urging us to recognize another massive problem that has escalated in Africa and in the world over the last ten years, and he aptly calls it ‘Blood Ivory’.
In the last forty years, our planet has witnessed a decline in the African elephant population by close to 50%. The current population has become extremely fragmented, and experts believe that these fragments by themselves are not truly sustainable. Expert estimates state that in the early 1970’s, the African elephant population was easily close to 1.3 million, whereas now it stands a little higher than the 600,000 mark. Each year at least 25,000 elephants are killed in the African wilderness by poachers to supply prized ivory to collectors to sell in foreign markets, primarily Asia. While most countries of the world agreed to ban international ivory trade in 1989, demand has grown in Asia due to the fresh wealth available in China and Hong Kong.
An increasing trend that has been witnessed in China is the public display of wealth. After all, mankind stopped earning money to live a happy and comfortable life, and turned its attention more to find ways to flaunt wealth. A country that has come into a large amount of money often shows these signs, and the Chinese do so by flaunting exotic automobiles and ensuring that they have the latest and most cutting edge gadgets. Dig deeper, and you will see that those who consider themselves truly elite take pride in going to a luxury goods shop, and acquiring something a lot more exclusive, something that you cannot find in retail stores around the world. Elaborate ivory carvings sell for tens of thousands of dollars, and for the super-rich, this is a must have.
Additionally, the role of ivory is not only limited to a show of wealth, but has also been a long-standing show of power. While the world has found alternatives to the practical uses of ivory such as in billiard balls, piano keys or brush handles, its role as a religious and political symbol persists. Leaders of many African countries take pride in gifting the Pope with elaborate ivory work, or in the case of Kenya’s President Moi, an entire tusk. Humans have a habit of considering themselves on the top of the food chain which is as far from the truth one can wander, of holding on to a fake belief that the planet is ours and we can do with it as we please. After all, if we get to make an impression on someone deemed important by society, does it matter if lives of animals are lost in the process?
Nine months ago, in January 2012, Chadian poachers on horseback raided Cameroon’s Bouba Ndjidah National Park and slaughtered in excess of 300 elephants. Witnesses who visited the site later described the sight as not only a tragedy, but also heartbreaking. Young elephants lay slaughtered next to their mothers, a group of as many as 50 elephants lay together in a huge heap, implying that they had been so terrified that they didn’t know what else to do except stick by each other. It’s a trait very popular with humans as well. It was apparent to see among the dead that some mothers died trying to protect their young, while a few valiant ones actually put up a fight before going down.
My apologies for the graphic nature of the image, but this is the harsh reality. A picture of a herd of massacred elephants may be too much to take, for only one is a sight that wrenches the soul. After reading the story on Blood Ivory, I set out to find out just how different elephants are from us, and what I learnt was numbing. After four decades of research at Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, researchers have come to the conclusion that not only are elephants highly conscious creatures, they have the ability to empathize with one another and go as far as to wince at each other’s pain.
Elephants are able to recognize their family members, and even after being separated for a decade they are able to recognize one another. They say hello by inter-twining their trunks together and both parents, the male and female elephant play an equal hand in bringing up the young ones. What I wrote about Saena in the beginning is all true, elephants mourn their dead and through a string of complex mechanisms are able to communicate with one another. A wild elephant expert, Daphne Sheldrick, claims that elephants have nightmares as well. Sheldrick and her team rescued a young elephant and recuperated him at a zoo, and said that often at night the young elephant would wake up screaming, terrorized.
On your last visit to the beach, or perhaps just on a sunny afternoon, those of you with sensitive skin probably applied sunblock. Elephants do exactly the same, except that they don’t squeeze cream out of a bottle, they simply coat themselves in dirt or sand to avoid getting sunburned. Apart from being extremely docile and gentle creatures, elephants hardly ever come into an altercation with another animal. They’re also vegetarians.
Elephants are able to feel stress, just like you and me, but lately their stress comes not from the inability to find enough food to feed themselves and their young ones, but a stress of being captured by humans and being brutally slaughtered for their ivory. Why is it that we take pride in objects that are obtained from slaughter? Why must ivory be a symbol of wealth and prosperity? Human beings are differentiated from the rest of the animal kingdom by superior brain power, surely logically the symbol of wealth and prosperity in such a society should be something based on intellect?
There might still be hope for humanity though, even if it is a very dull one. In 2011, Kenyan authorities burnt 5.5 tons of smuggled and illegal ivory as a show of anti-poaching activism. It’s about time that ivory trade is marked as a major environmental issue. What will it take? In 1989, what ignited the flame to pass the international ivory trade ban was a statistic. An elephant was being killed every ten minutes. If that’s what it takes to raise human consciousness on an issue as serious as this yet gain, the planet is doomed.
What will it take for the world as one to recognize this problem as not just perceived but real? The Lord’s Resistance Army, the Shabab and the Darfur’s Janjaweed, some of the most notorious groups of the African continent are hunting down elephants, seizing the ivory and selling it to traders for exorbitant prices. If ever you’ve wondered where a huge chunk of the funding for these terrorist organizations comes from, you now have an answer. I wouldn’t be going too far if I said that each ivory ornament bought, is money that goes into a terrorist’s pocket in a corner of Africa. If you are buying ivory, you are responsible for the terrorism, you are funding it.
The price of a single pound of ivory in the streets of Beijing is $1,000. Each individual involved in the selling and buying of ivory is contributing not only to an extremely illegal underground and militarized network, but also to a terrorist network. Putting those numbers to perspective, consider this. The average weight of a tusk is 11 pounds. Each elephant has two tusks, which means a combined weight of 22 pounds of ivory on each elephant on an average. The street value for the ivory on each elephant therefore is $22,000. And if you consider that in one mass murder poachers killed close to 300 elephants, that’s $6.6 million worth of ivory on the street. The figures are staggering, and if they aren’t enough to push you over, consider the following.
In Western Africa, 84% of deaths of elephants were through poaching in 2011. And by deaths, I mean deaths of any and all causes, including natural deaths. Which means out of 100 dead elephants in Western Africa, only 16 died of natural causes, whilst 84 were slaughtered. If we were to apply that to the current death rate of the human population, it would tell us that out of the estimated 55 million people that die each year, 42.6 million of those deaths would be murders. The statistics for Central Africa are even worse, where 90% of deaths of elephants in 2011 were pinpointed to poaching.
It is easy to be divorced from reality, with the technology around us we’re able to do so effortlessly. To continue to live our lives like nothing is happening or will happen shall be easy, mankind has become an expert at turning a blind eye to such issues. During the course of obtaining the latest phone, the most exclusive watch or the most fashionable sunglasses, we have also imbibed in us a knack for ignorance and negligence.
Time and time again, the entire human species is given a chance to redeem itself, to prove its worth not only to ourselves but to our own existence. The time is now, the threat is real and it is upon us. Saena lives in terror and it is not due to the threat of a natural predator. The trials and tribulations faced by Saena and her herd, and herds all over Africa are impossible to capture in words, but I have tried and perhaps I have come close enough for it to at least have an effect on you as an individual.
The killing must stop. Blood Ivory can no longer be a badge of prosperity of wealth, the cost is far too high. The only beings on the planet that truly need ivory are the elephants themselves. The fate of the elephants, of an entire species lies in your hands.
The day is not too far away when elephants shall remain only as memories, as tales and as a reminder of nothing more than sheer human greed.
Saena trudges along the vast grassland, hoping that she is able to survive another day. The world was not always this way, she has a clear memory of better times, of happier times. Of times when the only thing to worry about was foraging for close to two hundred pounds of food, and hoping that her young ones grow up to be strong. She once had dreams that her young ones would perhaps become the matriarch of a group. But now, Saena can only desperately pray that she is able to help her young ones survive another day, yearning for good times to return.
She knows that her kind is being hunted, she has seen the killings, the capturing and the merciless hacking. But Saena holds on to the belief that there are good humans out there too. She must believe, for they are her only hope. The only question, is when will the good humans begin to act.
Saena lifts her head up and scans the colossal Savannah, and hopes that the answer is soon.