I love to photograph the wildlife I encounter on my travels, but the most memorable moments are inevitably those that I didn't observe through a lens. While sitting on the top of a 4x4 in Botswana, waiting for elephants to emerge from the trees as the hottest part of the day passed, the battery on my camera ran out. Just at that moment the herd, led by a magnificent matriarch, appeared. Younger females immediately surrounded several tiny calves who skipped beneath their legs as they passed us. The matriarch was behind a large bush and hadn't spotted us yet, but as soon she did she stopped in her tracks and our eyes met.
Her eyes glowed an impossible electric orange in the afternoon sun - a sharp contrast to the surrounding mass of deep grey, wrinkled and dusty skin. And I'll never forget her expression. At first there was a surprised, almost vulnerable look in her eyes, which changed to a more defensive, fierce gaze. Neither of us took our eyes off each other in those few seconds and as she took in my own expressions (which must have contained fear, awe and shyness in equal measure) her stare changed again and there was a softness in those eyes that moved me beyond measure. I like to remember it as an incredibly special moment when two different species made a connection and in some way understood each other's intentions.
Elephants are supremely intelligent, sentient and social animals that are capable of complex emotions much like our own. Their social structure is so multifaceted that the depth of their associations quite likely surpasses ours in many ways. And, as a keystone species, they are vital to the health of entire ecosystems in which they live and therefore to the health of the planet itself.
But despite the long history we share with these incredible animals we still have a shocking disregard for the value of their lives and are willing to inflict unbelievable pain and suffering for a body part. It seems to me so absurd that elongated incisors - essentially made from the same enamel, dentine and pulp as our own teeth - should ever have become the reason for an insatiable demand for overpriced trinkets - a trade in ivory worth 1 billion dollars a year. And yet as of 2017, still more African elephants are being killed for ivory than are being born. An elephant is killed every 25 minutes.
Less than 400,000 African elephants and 40,000 Asian elephants remain globally. And they're not just threatened because of our thirst for ivory - they are also killed for meat and other body parts (parts of 4,600 African elephants were imported by trophy hunters between 2005 and 2014 in the U.S. alone) and in Asia, calves are still captured from the wild and sold into the tourism industry.
But even if poaching were to become a thing of the past, there are greater problems to overcome if elephants are to survive for generations to come - the most pressing of which is the loss of precious habitat and our ever growing human population. So what is the solution if we are to prevent what some scientists predict - that elephants will become extinct in 20 years?
Organisations such as Save the Elephants, Tusk and the Environmental Investigation Agency are moving mountains to curb the elephant genocide and there have been some promising developments in recent times: China has announced plans to ban its domestic trade in ivory, which has sparked a drop in ivory prices; two tonnes of illegal stores of carved ivory (the equivalent of 100 slaughtered elephants) were publicly crushed in New York this month to send a clear message to poachers and traffickers - to date 270 tonnes of ivory have been destroyed in this way around the globe; notorious ivory smuggling kingpins in Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique have been arrested; and numbers of elephants in some regions are reported to be increasing - in Kenya's Tsavo range, numbers have apparently increased by 15% in the last 3 years.
But the rate of poaching is not dropping in parallel, many traders are stockpiling their ivory waiting for prices to go up again and Vietnam is increasing its production of illegal ivory items faster than anyone else in the last decade. And if other countries are taking similar positive action as China, the U.K. lags behind - it quietly dropped its previous commitment to ban the trade, despite a very public and popular petition calling for our domestic ivory market to be shut down. Meanwhile a shocking report out last week documents that the U.K. is the world's largest legal ivory exporter, with more than 36,000 ivory items being exported between 2010 and 2015.
In the words of Max Graham, CEO of Kenyan-based conservation charity Space for Giants: "We are very far indeed from calling the poaching crisis over. At the same time elephants face multiplying problems... Finding the best answers to those knotty problems will not be achieved by governments alone, or scientists alone, or by celebrities or philanthropists or businesses alone. It will be done by all of those people working together"
We can all be part of the collective will needed to save the elephant. World Elephant Day was on the 12th August. This day and everyday is a chance to inform ourselves, share our knowledge and make our voices heard to support the protection of these magnificent animals. What would it say about us as a species if we allowed them to go extinct?
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