The year I traveled to Spain and Italy over spring break, I purchased two small figurines as souvenirs for myself. One was a colorful mosaic tile elephant, inspired by Antoni Gaudí’s style, from Barcelona and the other, a bright blue Murano glass elephant from Venice. The following summer, I inherited an elephant charm from one of my best friends and hung the beaded strand from my car’s rearview mirror. There was never one particular thing that made me fall in love with elephants. It just happened. Elephants are known to be kind, playful, loyal, and empathetic. They are the epitome of “gentle giants.” And with every new thing I learn about them, I love them even more.
Elephants are one of the most intelligent creatures on the planet. Their immense capacity for emotion allows them to have complex social relationships and familial bonds, as well as an incredible memory. They can use tools, paint, and cover themselves in mud to protect their skin from the sun. They will mourn elephants who have died or been killed and, for years, revisit them to smell and feel their bones—to remember.
The Ivory Game, directed by Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson, is a 2016 documentary film that exposes the dark, dangerous world of ivory trafficking. For decades, poachers have hunted and slaughtered millions of African elephants in pursuit of their tusks. Ivory is illegally sold and traded through countries like Vietnam and Hong Kong until it ultimately ends up in China, where it is a prized status symbol. As elephant populations decrease due to poaching, the “white gold” becomes more and more valuable in the multi-billion dollar industry. The documentary follows wildlife activists, investigative journalists, and rangers as they disrupt some of the trafficking and corruption, and work to create a safer environment for African elephants.
Beautiful images of wild elephants playing and living in the wild are juxtaposed with piles upon piles of ivory husks. Each piece represents an elephant that was killed. The rangers are unsettled each time they discover a carcass in the Kenyan, Tanzanian, and Zambian reserves they are trying to protect. Often, the tusks have been removed and the animals are left to rot like garbage. In one scene, they discover that poachers have removed the entire head of an elephant they murdered. It’s a startling sight, even as I view it through a screen from my warm bed, and I can only imagine the horror of experiencing it in person.
Over the past five years, more than 150,000 elephants have been killed for their ivory. Heavily flawed systems in many Asian countries allows poachers and traffickers to import ivory and rhinoceros horns, where they are painted, carved, or turned into jewelry or chopsticks. These giant, magnificent creatures, who once roamed freely through savannas and deserts and rainforests, are reduced to a pair of earrings or a piece of “art.” Thankfully, organizations like the Kenya Wildlife Service are working toward removing ivory throughout all of Africa. Kenya destroyed it’s entire 105-ton-stockpile of ivory in April of 2016, but more than 600 tons remain in government stockpiles across the continent.
“I’ve heard stories about elephants hiding their tusks, and I’ve seen [One Ton] do it once, specifically when they know humans are watching them. They know their tusks are valuable, and they’re definitely intelligent enough to figure it out.” – Craig Millar
“I see that we’re at a watershed on the elephant crisis. With all of the energy and the best resources in the world, we can’t win this war. There’s simply not enough men to patrol the ground or cover the ground. We need a political solution to this problem” – Ian Craig
“A one-man war can never be won. But if I can convince other persons to join me in this fight…we can see the number of these endangered animals growing again.” – Elisifa Ngowi
“These aren’t just elephants. These are individuals with families and relationships, and so, killing an elephant out of herd is much more than just killing an individual animal. You’re destroying a family.” – Ian Craig
“Are we really, in our generation, going to allow the biggest mammal on earth to disappear? Losing elephants from Africa is just slow erosion of humanity. Then what’s next? We lose the rhino…the giraffe. Suddenly we’re going have an empty world—full of people, but nothing wild.” – Ian Craig
“Many of these tusks belong to elephants which were wantonly slaughtered by criminals. We want future generations to experience the majesty and beauty of these magnificent animals. Poachers and enablers will not have the last word.” – Uhuru Kenyatta, President of Kenya
“Maybe we are very close to a big change. [The total ban of the legal market of ivory in China] is the only decision that can save the elephants…For the first time in years, I have hope.” – Andrea Crosta
For African elephants and activists, the development of fences is the future they need. Electric fences can help keep elephants out of farms and villages, where people feel threatened by their presence. However, the fences can only help keep elephants safe from locals who are trying to protect their crops. The threat of poachers and traffickers still looms.
In July 2016, the United States officially banned all trade in ivory, while Hong Kong plans to end it by 2021. Still, an elephant is killed approximately every fifteen minutes. The hard work is not over. We must pass legislation that can protect the elephants. We must expose the criminals who encourage and enable this market. Until the ivory trade ceases to exist worldwide, we must continue to fight. For the elephants.
“I can make some difference. I can be part of the change makers.” – Hongxiang Huang
Update: As of December 30, China has officially banned the trade of ivory and hopes to end all commerce in the ivory market by the end of 2017.