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Do We Love Elephants Enough to Save Them From Extinction?

07/02/2015 05:30 EDT | Updated 07/02/2016 05:59 EDT
Datacraft Co Ltd via Getty Images

Everyone loves elephants. Actress Meg Ryan adores them. So does Goldie Hawn. Both celebrities have been on television specials telling us how much they love their elephants. Meg Ryan went to the jungles of Thailand and informed us how magical and mysterious they are. Goldie Hawn fulfilled a childhood dream by visiting India in search of her beloved Asian elephants. Both actresses have put their clout and support behind the cause of saving these magnificent animals.

Barbara Gowdy, Canadian author of The White Bone, took the reader to Africa to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that elephants are so much like us. In her highly acclaimed novel the lovable pachyderms speak to one another with anthropomorphized personalities. But the irony is not lost as the current downhill plight of the elephant is due in large part to human meddling. Yes we do love our elephants. Unfortunately we also love them to death.

In March 1992, the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) conference was held in Kyoto, Japan where the future of the African elephant was debated. The main issue was whether to allow the international trade in ivory to open up legally in key African markets.

But now there is an overwhelming urgency to save the world's largest land mammal from extinction. Quite simply, there are less of them around than when the world community agreed to create CITES. Today, there are 500,000 African elephants left whose future hangs in the balance.

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Photo by Lisa Abram

Poaching elephants for ivory was unheard of until the demand was created with the advent of mass tourism. Historically, hunters on safari would only seek to kill an elephant for trophy purposes. But when the tourism infrastructure became more sophisticated, ivory was sought to feed an overseas market for ornamentation and tourist trinkets. As a result, elephant numbers have dwindled dramatically.

In the early 90s, environmentalists formed an uneasy alliance with the travel industry in the hopes of reversing the elephant's downhill plight. Elephants are worth more alive than dead, they reasoned, while searching for just cause to secure a partnership that often promoted conspicuous consumption.

Tour operators rationalized that Westerners would pay large sums of money for a dream vacation and then head home self-satisfied. This euphoria encouraged subsequent visits and added to the coffers of African countries. It was argued that each elephant was viewed as a renewable resource, responsible for bringing in much needed tourist dollars. Today, ivory from one elephant sells on the black market for about USD $21,000, while a live one generates about USD $1.5 million through tourism, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust found.

In 1991, Toronto was the darling of the conservation movement. Back then, an upstart NGO called Kenya Wildlife Fund Canada took to the stars of Hollywood to bring attention to the issues and planned a fundraising event. Movie legend Jimmy Stewart and animal-rights activist/actress Loretta Swit were called upon to make an appearance along with celebrity conservationist Richard Leakey. It was a Canadian who's who in attendance with actresses Sheila McCarthy and Cynthia Dale supporting the cause, among many notables. The evening was a financial success and monies raised were to purchase surveillance aircraft.

But in 2015, we are no further ahead. Fundraising dollars and tourism to Africa cannot be seen as a panacea for the ills of the continent. African countries and its citizens continue to face food security of famine proportions. As the African population increases and the arable lands diminish, a struggle is ensuing between humanity and wildlife. According to CITES, over 20,000 African elephants were killed for ivory in 2013.

On a recent visit to China, Prince William took the rare step by declaring the elephant in the room, so to speak, in boldly stating there is currently a war on wildlife.

In December 2014, Academy-award winning director, Kathryn Bigelow took a creative gamble and launched an online three minute animation film called Last Days to raise awareness of ivory-funded terrorism. Bigelow informed Variety magazine that an elephant disappears every 15 minutes. Wildlife conservation needs its allies and someone of her celebrity and stature gets the message across to a wider audience.

In fact, power-couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie just announced a new blockbuster film called Africaabout the life of famed conservationist Richard Leakey. Their movie will highlight Hong Kong's role in the illegal ivory trade, and the sobering fact that elephants could become extinct in the next decade. Indeed, the business of saving elephants has now gone Hollywood. This could be the pinnacle moment the wildlife conservation movement has longed for.

But we cannot blame ourselves for wanting to assume the larger role of Noah and his ark -- determining which species shall live and which shall be thrown off the side of the boat. Is it not better to protect the few than to risk losing them all?

Since 1989, when stockpiles of ivory were first burned in Kenya in a pyrotechnic display, Canada has produced a steady stream of wildlife conservation groups whose raison d'être is to raise public awareness and halt the public's demand for ivory. Some of the well-intentioned volunteer organizations have unfortunately fallen by the wayside, in part because of the steep amount of resources, financial and personnel, needed to combat these weighty concerns.

Today trekking outfitters are finally putting some financial muscle behind their actions after reaping rewards on the backs of tourists for decades. One B.C. based travel company is promoting their 100-miles for Elephants Trek -- a fundraising walk in Africa by asking participants to raise dollars for community anti-poaching efforts. It's a win-win for anyone wanting to make a global difference by leaving a footprint of a different kind.

There is no doubt we love our elephants. But the bigger question remains. Even with Meg and Goldie's help, will Babar survive into the 21st century? If the answer is not a resounding "yes," then our priorities cannot be in the right place!

Lisa Abram attended the CITES conference in Santiago, Chile in 2002 as a delegate with African Elephant Foundation International.

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