BENEFITING: Wildlife Conservation Network, Inc.
EVENT DATE: Nov 18, 2017
People always ask me why I collect elephants (like really, really collect them) and spend my free time running an elephant instagram account with 20,000 followers. Family members insist I must have lived as an elephant in a past life, while those who don’t know me quite as well assume I collect elephants because of their reputation as good luck charms. While there is certainly a level of truth to both explanations, I have come to see a deeper connection between my extensive collection and the elephant species itself. The cliché of “an elephant’s memory” does not exist without reason; it is biologically proven that elephants have miraculous memories. In fact, elephants have been known to leave the burial site of a stillborn calf (elephants are the only other animals other than humans that bury their dead -- they use their tusks to dig) and return to the exact spot as many as twenty years later to grieve. They cry real tears. Elephants remember immaculately. To me, my collection is just that: a compilation of memories of my moments in my own life (shoutout to everyone who's contributed to the collection over the years!) that make up a larger reminder of something extraordinarily important to me: keeping elephants around as an existing species. Unfortunately, the prospect of extinction is not far off.
Elephants could very well disappear within an estimated ten years—and not from natural causes, but rather at the reckless and brutal hand of humans.Both species of elephant (African and Asian) are incredibly intelligent, self-aware, and emotionally mature. Studies have proven their miraculous human-like tendencies time and again. But, ironically, humans are the ones that will soon wipe them out altogether.
The plight of the African Elephant is due primarily to illegal poaching for their ivory tusks. Constant brutal murder of these animals—estimated to take place every fifteen minutes—is perpetuated by an insatiable desire for ivory figurines, jewelry, and other decorative items with no practical use. Despite varying degrees of legality on the buying and selling of the commodity, the ivory trade is present in most countries—including the United States. Data recently showed that ivory sales in Washington, DC have actually increased three-fold over the past decade. Thousands of ivory items were sold in antique shops, at flea markets—all more or less in the public eye. Laws that ban the trinkets from sale are rarely enforced. In certain countries, the trade is all but encouraged.
The ivory trade’s detriment goes beyond the beautiful animals themselves. The violent conflict between humans that occurs on account of the ivory trade has been described as equally destructive to drug and human trafficking. At this year’s International March for Elephants in DC, Congolese park ranger Adams Cassinga, representing the nonprofit organization Conserv Congo, gave poignant remarks on the 500 park rangers that are killed annually trying to save elephants from poachers. “They have become soldiers,” he said, explaining how the murders go underreported, and usually the rangers are not even named. “They are just part of the statistic—there is no doubt that the time to act is now.” If this rate of poaching continues, elephants will disappear in a decade, and thousands of rangers will have died in a futile effort to protect them.
Asian Elephants, though slightly less at risk for illegal poaching due to their naturally shorter tusks that only exist on males, face an equally devastating human-driven extinction—habitat loss. Asian elephant populations now total an estimated 30,000 or less, and few of these animals live in the wild. This is due to the fact that these elephants’ home is in Asia—the most densely populated continent on the planet. They used to be able to roam free throughout the continent, consuming their required elephant-sized portions of vegetation. But humans have taken the land, industrialized it, and devastated the vegetation. In a horrible stroke of irony, Asian Elephants were also captured and abused during the very deforestation that has stolen their habitats—and were forced to pull large masses of logging materials for many years.
Today, many of the elephants that were once used for logging are like retired workers with no social security, if you will– they are too old to continue working, and have no source of sustenance. Elephants can live to be 80 years old if healthy, but many of these Asian Elephants are injured, diseased, and starving. They are dying. Most of these elephants live in the “elephant camps” which are popular destinations for tourists today. While some are quite spacious and excellently run, with full staffs of mahouts and veterinarians to care for the elephants and ensure that their lives in the camps mirror that of the wild, many other elephant camps are unfortunately brutal. The “rescued” elephants are given little space, and are used as tourist traps to rake in money. They are forced to perform tricks (which of course they are smart enough to learn quickly) and carry heavy chairs full of tourists on their back. The importance of supporting the former type of elephant camp cannot be overstated—false advertising can make it easy for a foreign tourist to accidentally visit one of the inhumane camps. Since there is no official “we are humane” approval process for these camps, a visitor should dig carefully through visitor reviews and external information about the elephant camp before deciding to visit. (One option that is confirmed to be humane is the Elephant Nature Park in Chang Mai, Thailand).
While the state of both African and Asian elephants is dire, not one of us is helpless when it comes to making a difference and preserving them for years to come. I'm not an environmental scientist or a lobbyist. I don't work at an elephant conservation center. But I'm constantly searching for ways to support these organizations and spread awareness of the phenomenal species and their plight, and will continue to do so for my whole life.
There's a run/walk this weekend (Nov. 18, 9am) in Central Park organized by SaveTheElephants. It's only 10k (6ish miles) and it's not too late to sign up! Please consider joining me (my team is called phantastic phants :) ) if you live close or can make it to NYC -- if you can't make it, please consider donating! Every dollar helps save the phantastic gentle giants.