A synopsis of PBS’s Battle for the Elephants

Taken in the Ngorongoro crater, Tanzania

Taken in the Ngorongoro crater, Tanzania (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tonight I watched the excellent and thought-provoking program featuring journalists Bryan Christy and Aidan Hartley and produced by J.J. Kelley for PBS. As an activist for elephants I was very interested in how the message of elephant poaching would be conveyed to a general audience. Here are some of main points that struck me:

805 of Chinese middle class owns ivory and China does not have a history of valuing the elephant as a live animal. The art of ivory carving has been flourishing in China for over 2,000 years and has become a perverted symbol of Buddhism as many of the elephant tusks are turned into buddhist icons in factories set up by the Chinese government.

The program followed Hartley as he traveled in Africa, mainly in Tanzania, to investigate the ivory trade on the ground with Christy who was stationed in China investigating the demand at the high end ivory shops which often sell pieces worth over one million dollars.

In 1800 there were 26 million elephants in Africa. The early 1900’s led to a large demand for ivory, not only for piano keys and pool and billiard balls and combs but as a symbol of manliness when wealthy men went on safari and killed an elephant. By 1979 there were only 1.3 million elephants left. By 1989 there were only 600,000.

Richard Leakey convinced Kenya’s president at that time to publicly burn the accumulated ivory which then evaporated the demand. With little killing over ten years the elephants rebounded to 1 million but decisions in 1999 and 2008 with CITES allowed two sales of stockpiled ivory. These sanctioned a legal trade in the tusks and has made a cover for all sales of ivory where sellers can claim that their ivory was legally acquired.

Only 16 percent of the ivory shown in China is legal.

The program spent a short segment detailing the wondrous qualities of elephants – that they mourn their dead, that they have rich social lives and communicate through their feet with subsonic sound. They showed elephants fondling the bones of fallen family members.

The program delved into the corruption with high level diplomats who apparently purchase ivory (Rhino horn and elephant tusks) from traders and take it back to China on diplomatic planes that are above being searched.

One of the most poignant moments was an interview with a man in China who owns a huge collection of ivory sculptures. When asked how he felt about the elephants he replied that he believed that the elephant smiled and gladly gave its tusks in the service of Buddhism. An example of the willful blindness that people have to justify their actions in spite of clear evidence of the cruelty and suffering behind them. Brian Christy looked at the camera and said “The elephants are not smiling.”

Ivory seized in Cameroon

There were some examples of positive efforts which nevertheless can’t withstand the rising demand for ivory and the illegal encroachments with helicopters and machine guns that have decimated elephant populations in other so-called protected areas. Most recently there were over 200 elephants in Cameroon gunned down in one day in 2012 which were in a protected area.

Hartley managed to convince a Tanzanian ambassador to allow cameras in to the largest stockpile of ivory in the world which houses over 50 million dollars worth of ivory. He suggests that Tanzania which is one of the poorest countries in Africa might be willing to burn its stockpile if someone was willing to donate that 50 million to help Tanzanians regain a financial foothold. The tension is ever present as Tanzania has asked for an exception to the ban from CITES which will be voting March 30-14 in Thailand which has been found to be a nexus for the illegal ivory trade.

The solutions

In a climate where both the black market price for ivory and its demand are so high, elephants’ lives are put at risk by the mere prospect of a sanctioned sale of ivory. If the poaching of elephants and ever growing trade in illegal ivory is to be seriously addressed, part of the solution to this complex problem must be a return to the full ban on the sale of ivory established in 1989.

The following is taken from www.bloodyivory.org/stop-the-ivory-trade

Other measures which must be taken with urgency include:

  • Address the involvement of international criminal syndicates by means of strong law enforcement at both national and international levels along the full extent of the supply – demand chain. The effectiveness of this measure should be judged not only by ivory seizures and arrests recorded but also by convictions with proportionate penalties and the disruption of the implicated trade networds.
  • Close down domestic (national) markets in ivory, to accompany the trade ban instituted by CITES.
  • Educate consumers in order to stem the demand for ivory. A survey in China found that almost 70% of the public thought ivory did not come from dead elephants but that it fell out naturally, like teeth.

The alternative to taking the bull by the horns? Some countries continue to report localised extinctions of small vulnerable elephant populations, a number of others edge closer to losing all their remaining elephants and the larger ‘safer’ populations start or continue their own downward spiral.

Read more and sign the petition to stop the ivory trade.

About Naturestage’s Elephant Project

We are seeking producers to help create a series of short films that will be geared for viewing by high school students around the globe that use short true stories about people and elephants to evoke emotional reactions and responses in various art forms. These would then be used by the students to start a dialogue about how to manage other species and to look at human nature as a way to start to solve what is the largest species extinction currently underway, not just for elephants but for myriad other species. The series would be a gateway to looking at ourselves as well as finding solutions that stem from a heart connection. You can read more about it on the naturestage website and at www.theelephantproject.com

About naturestage

Miranda Loud is the Founder and Artistic Director of the non-profit NatureStage based in Waltham, MA, and is an interdisciplinary artist - classical singer/organist/filmmaker/photographer and environmentalist. She writes about the vital need for education to include a more heart-centered approach to studying other species that leads to a sense of stewardship. Naturestage creates works that foster empathy and kinship with other species, using the emotional power of storytelling in different art forms, mainly film, photography and music. She is also a public speaker on art and social change. Her current projects include The One Language Project, Park Dreams, The Elephant Project, and Elephantasia which all use different art forms to encourage a mind shift in how we relate to other species by asking "How would the world be different if we viewed other species as someones instead of somethings? If, instead of drawing lines, we drew circles?"
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