Travel is not only broadening I’ve realized, but burdening too. I carry these lives and places with me but I’m grateful for the ballast. It’s keeping me from tipping into total complacency. Judith Stone
It’s been almost ten years since I saw my first wild elephants in Kenya. They took my breath away. Having only been exposed to Asian elephants chained to a concrete floor in the zoo, I had no idea how magnificent and utterly charming they would be. They had me enchanted and are one of the major reasons I keep going back to Africa. Listening to the quiet generated by these enormous animals is a lesson in humility. Elephants, for all their size and strength, are subtle on a scale impossible for humans to understand. Their communication with each other and their obvious love of family are nothing short of inspirational. They have touched me in an unexplainable way and earned my respect and support for my lifetime.
In 1989, trade in African elephant ivory was banned. Like most people who care about wild animals, I cheered when it seemed that elephants, as a species, were beginning to recover from the devastation of poaching and habitat loss that threatened to wipe them out before the turn of the century. In my trips to Africa, talking to elephant researchers, guides, and park rangers, I was certainly aware that the occasional poaching incident was still taking place, but I was under the impression that the 1989 ban had worked its magic and that elephants were safely ensconced in national parks, game reserves, and still roaming wild and free, without any significant danger to their numbers. I contribute to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s elephant orphanage in Nairobi, and I read the stories of the orphaned elephants that live there with great sadness. Some of the orphans are clearly the result of poaching (female elephants in Africa have tusks, unlike their Asian cousins), but many come to the facility because they were abandoned after falling into a well or after their mother dies from natural causes.
I consider myself a fairly well-informed citizen of the world, and I thought I was paying attention to elephants, so I was shocked to read the latest issue of National Geographic’s article “Blood Ivory.” Bryan Christy’s heartrending report estimates that at least 25,000 elephants are killed every year, left to rot after having their tusks hacked off for the illicit trade in ivory. With a world population of perhaps only 500,000 (after an estimated 1.3 million in 1979), that’s an appalling number, especially when it is completely unnecessary. Apparently, I haven’t been paying enough attention. Aside from wondering how on earth people could be doing something this repulsive, I wonder how on earth I didn’t know about it. I actually seek out information on elephants and I had no idea of the magnitude of the problem or that some wildlife organizations that should be helping to stop this slaughter may actually be complicit in the crimes.
It makes me wonder what else I don’t know about. How easy it is to get complacent about what’s happening in our world, our communities, our neighborhoods. How many organizations that do good things aren’t getting their messages out? How many get ignored? We live in a world that requires us to process information at an alarming rate just to keep up – the messages that matter to us may get lost amidst it all. Making your message heard isn’t necessarily about how loud, how clever, or how often it gets repeated, it’s about whether it connects with the intended audience. In short, an interpretive approach to communication that forges both emotional and intellectual connections may have better success.
Bryan Christy and National Geographic convinced me I need to pay better attention to my beloved elephants. It’s not just about the numbers of elephants in peril, it’s about what they mean to me. If it matters, then complacency is not an option. I’m not sure what I can do, but I intend to start figuring that out. I hope other science organizations, social organizations, and individuals with important messages to share will find better ways to keep us all from slipping into total complacency.