The screening of the film ended and someone came up to me and asked: “Do elephants really have souls?”
I looked at him and considered my chances of getting into an argument over this. We were in Utah — Mormon country and I’m a little shaky on those beliefs on souls, but then launched into a case for elephants souls, the only thing I feel strongly about.
“If you tell me humans have souls then there is a good chance elephants may have as well.”
He smiled and shook my hand and said: “I agree. I’m Buddhist.”
We’ve spent the past 30 years of our lives working with big cats but it’s always been against the inevitable backdrop of elephants. In Botswana we have over a third of the entire world’s remaining population because of rational wildlife policies, great leadership and no corruption. You cannot wish for a better set of conditions for nature to thrive under, especially as we establish ourselves more and more as the custodians of nature.
But how secure is this all?
Well ivory has topped $2,100 per kilogram, and rising thanks to something quite disturbing we found out from a CITES official last week. Hong Kong stores are lined with ivory trinkets and carved tusks as are many all over the East.
I walked down 57th Street, near 5th Ave in New York today and stopped in my tracks, (or as much as that is possible with a few hundred thousand humans backing up behind me.) A respectable looking storefront window had a few intricately carved tusks from elephants openly displayed with some apparent pride. It’s a reminder that the USA is the second largest importer of ivory in the world.
The displaying of ivory or any other body parts of dead animals in living rooms and on mantle pieces will hopefully soon be considered terribly unethical and definitely obtuse enough to evoke a “Yuk, gross,” from visiting grandchildren. But there seems to be a different use for ivory that is blossoming as the price goes up. It reveals a much darker underbelly of the trade. Many ivory buyers are ‘investing’ in raw ivory and often don’t even see it. The traders lock away these teeth as an investment, banking, quite literally, on extinction.
Ivory is being used as a currency or commodity hedge. Of course conservationists cite the study that over 80% of people surveyed don’t know that ivory comes from dead elephants, (they think that their teeth simply drop out and are collected) but in reality this doesn’t actually matter. If you are investing in extinction, you don’t care and I am reminded of the saying that “you can’t wake someone who is only pretending to sleep.”
It dawned on me as I heard this that we are not even talking the same ethical, spiritual or value system language. If you cannot communicate, you quiet simply cannot get anything done.
So it was with some satisfaction that a few weeks ago, the impossible started to happen. A notoriously corrupt country arrested a women called the Ivory Queen for smuggling ivory, a major trading country seized a massive haul of ivory and rhino horn and two world leaders shook hands on stopping the ivory trade! If I look back a few years these events would have been something I may have written in to a ‘science fiction’ novel. But when the President of America and the President of China put ivory on their bilateral agreement agenda and do actually agree, the world suddenly halts and alters its rotation, clouds clear and the sun shines down softly on all of us, and on elephants in particular.
Wildlife Conservation Society has a campaign called 96 elephants that points to the number of elephants killed each day just for the ivory. Rhino and lion numbers are either crashing or declining. No one today really thinks it’s a good idea to slaughter animals, do they?
The reason we just did a film called Soul of the Elephant for PBS was to highlight exactly what we might be losing if we actually lose these animals, the richness of what they can lead us to. It is ironic that at the moment we agree to sign into law the protection of elephants, they reveal something to us that may even help us understand cancer in our own species more.
There is a tipping point approaching. Last year we saw the tipping point beyond which rhinos can no longer breed as fast as poachers kill them.
The new tipping point is one beyond which we don’t accept atrocities against animals, no more hunting of lions like Cecil, no more slaughter of elephants and rhinos for their tusks and horns, no more killing for fun, for myth for greed and ignorance.
Soul of the Elephants premieres on PBS on Oct 14th and I hope that it helps us refocus on what we might be losing unless this proposed ivory ban sticks and we all stop the trade in wildlife.
It’s not really ours to trade, is it?
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