By Daphne Sheldrick
Elephants have captured the imagination of individuals across the world. Majestic beings, they have enthralled even those who may never have enjoyed close contact with them.
It’s this empathy that has led thousands of people worldwide today to join the International March for Elephants organized by iworry, a campaign by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, to sound the warning that the future survival of elephants is in serious jeopardy.
Some may wonder why elephants matter. I have been privileged to live amongst them and have nurtured a lifelong passion to protect them for over 55 years. My team and I have hand-reared more than 160 orphaned elephants to date, some from the day they were born. It’s a long-term commitment, and I have known them intimately throughout infancy and childhood into their teenage years and beyond.
Scientific studies of elephants have now led to the acceptance of abilities that we have witnessed on a daily basis for many years. Elephants share the same emotions as ourselves, with a strong sense of family and the same sense of death. Like us they mourn the loss of loved ones. Each has an individual personality just like us. They can be mischievous, playful, hold a grudge or feel slighted.
In many ways they are better than us, and they have attributes that we humans lack, such as the ability to communicate over distance using low range sound hidden to human ears. They have telepathic capabilities, as well as being sensitive to seismic sound through their feet. Yet for all the worldly reverence for elephants, they are today being hunted and killed at a catastrophic rate for something as simple as a tooth.
The phenomenon of poaching elephants for their tusks is not new. Ivory poaching in the 1970s and 80s meant that we have recently weathered a similar crisis.
It was only through awareness campaigns and international pressure that a ban on the international sale of ivory was enacted in 1989. This ban provided a brief respite for elephants by halting a rampant trade that in some regions caused the loss of up to 80 percent of herds.
However, following two “one-off” sales of ivory in 1998 and 2008 to Japan and China respectively, poaching has escalated in already shattered populations. These sales stimulated demand, and the result is that elephants are now being poached at the highest rate since records of their numbers began. Current estimates put the figure at 36,000 elephants killed annually, which equates to one elephant dying every 15 minutes.
We witness the terrible impact of the ivory trade in our work every day. Since September 8, we’ve been called on to rescue 14 orphaned elephants in just 18 days.
To date we’ve arrested 1,406 poachers, and our veterinary teams have successfully treated over 500 wounded elephants.
But it’s not just elephants that are the victims of this catastrophe. Plants and other animals unique to the African wilderness are dependent on elephants for survival, from spreading seeds to sculpting habitats that are essential to the long-term survival of both grazing and browsing species. The extinction of wild elephants will have severe repercussions on entire ecosystems.
Recent terror attacks in Kenya, my home country, claiming the lives of 67 people further highlight the need for international action by governments now. The tragic overlap is that the illegal ivory trade is known to fund terrorist groups linked with other illicit activities such as drugs and arms trafficking. The illegal trade in wildlife exploited by criminals is valued at US$19 billion a year.
As long as any trade in ivory remains—legal or illegal, global or domestic—elephants will continue to be cruelly killed for their tusks.
If we want to save elephants, we must act now. The International March for Elephants aims to draw attention to this crisis and call for immediate global action to protect the world’s largest land mammal.
Among the demands of the International March for Elephants are: a strengthening of laws and penalties associated with wildlife crime in countries where poaching and ivory trafficking occurs; increased levels of investment in anti-poaching initiatives by international governments; increased diplomatic pressure on countries where elephants live; and pressure on those nations that fuel the demand.
A permanent global ban on all ivory sales, domestic and international, must be imposed now. We desperately need the leaders and people of China— the largest consumer of ivory—to say no to ivory and instead help us to save this iconic species.
These demands can be achieved if enough voices come together and governments take concerted action to save elephants. The International March for Elephants is the first and biggest demonstration of support for elephants—an example of one species marching to save another.
Today, we are at crossroads for the future of wild elephants. I believe that it is necessary for the human spirit to protect our wildlife, and I urge you to join us to save this ancient species, because, ultimately, their loss will have an impact on each and every one of us.
Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick, DBE, is the founder of the conservation charity, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.