World Elephant Day August 12th

World Elephant Day is a reminder of our moral duty to care for nature

Paula Kahumbu: Ending ivory trafficking should be at the heart of a new vision for Africa’s development

African elephants socialising in Amboseli National Park, Kenya.
 African elephants socialising in Amboseli National Park, Kenya.
Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Today a life-sized ice sculpture of an African elephant will be placed in Union Square in Downtown Manhattan. Over the course of the day, this massive ice sculpture will gradually melt, symbolizing the alarming rate in which African elephants are continuing to disappear at the hands of poachers.

The event is one of many being organised across the world on 12 August to celebrate World Elephant Day. It is part of the campaign #DontLetThemDisappearlaunched by Amarula Trust in partnership with the Kenyan NGO WildlifeDirect to raise global awareness of the plight of Africa’s elephants.

To reinforce the message, bottles of Amarula liqueur will be released for sale without the iconic elephant on the label. The trust will donate $1 for every bottle sold between now and the end of the year to support anti-poaching efforts.

Initiatives like this are vital to focus the world’s attention on elephants. Across Africa, it is estimated that one elephant is killed by poachers every 15 minutes. The global demand for ivory is still the principal driving force that is pushing elephants to the brink of extinction.

As recently expressed by one of Kenya’s foremost supporters of elephants, the First Lady of Kenya, Margaret Kenyatta, only a sustained global effort can save them:

Elephants have lived in coexistence with human beings in Africa for millions of years. They are part of our natural environment our culture, our identity and our heritage. We are alarmed that trade in ivory in other parts of the world threaten the very existence of this majestic species and we call on all citizens of the world to celebrate World Elephant Day on 12th August, by renewing their commitment to end trade in ivory. The only place that it belongs is on the elephant. Let’s play our part in keeping them alive.

The event in Union Square is intended to highlight the critical role that America and other consuming countries have to play, both by reducing its own ivory consumption and by building pressure for a global ban on ivory trade.

On an African level, poachers can only be defeated by adopting a continent-wide approach. Otherwise, when controls are tightened up in one country, poachers will simply relocate to neighbouring countries to continue their gruesome work.

Anti-poaching efforts, like other actions to protect the environment, will have to be sustained on a timescale that is much longer than the election cycles in democratic countries. Elections are a reminder to defenders of wildlife of just how fragile our ‘victories’ can turn out to be.

Americans will not need to be reminded how, in just a few weeks, Donald Trump has not only reneged on the global climate change treaty but also set about dismantling domestic environmental protection measures that took decades to put in place.

Here in Africa, it is not only the outcome but also the process of elections that gives cause for concern. All too often elections take place in a climate of uncertainty that allows unscrupulous people to plunder the natural environment, without fear of redress, with dire consequences for elephants and other wildlife.

During the current election campaign in Kenya, armed invaders have wreaked havoc in some parts of Laikipia, undoing years of patient wildlife conservation work. Not a single arrest has been made.

African elephants are the largest terrestrial animal left on the planet. They live in close-knit families, and develop lasting friendships. They mourn their dead, meet up for reunions, and go to extraordinary lengths to protect other, young and vulnerable elephants from harm. To know elephants is to fall in love with them.

It seems unthinkable that wild elephants should disappear. How can we make sure it doesn’t happen?

Care for the natural environment should be understood as a moral duty, as it was in the past by cultures with close bonds with nature. Our ancestors recognized springs, trees, animals, forests, reefs and caves as sacred and considered desecrating them to be a sin.

Most people in the modern world are only dimly aware of how our destinies are intertwined with those of wild creatures and natural resources. But science has revealed that modern humans are no less dependent on the natural world than ‘primitive’ societies. It has debunked the delusion of ‘human exceptionalism’: the idea that humans can somehow escape the constraints that nature imposes on other species.

Once we acknowledge that our natural heritage should be protected at all costs it is obvious that this truth should transcend politics and differences among political parties. Non-political organisations such as businesses and civil society organisations have a key role to play in maintaining this long-term vision in the face of political short-termism.

In Africa, this understanding should inform our vision of national development. People in developed countries are rich in many ways. But visitors from developed countries who spend large amounts of money for a few moments in the company of elephants are searching for something that their societies, for all their material wealth, cannot provide.

We in Africa have the opportunity to map out a different path. We can devise ways of creating wealth that leave our natural environment intact, as a continuing source of wonder and inspiration for future generations.

Support for this vision came last month from an unlikely quarter. Speaking in Nairobi on his first visit to Africa, Jack Ma, the Chinese billionaire, argued passionately that Africa should not try to be like China.

The founder of the e-commerce giant Ali Baba might have been expected to argue that Africa should go for growth at any cost. Instead, he urged Africa to learn from the mistakes of developed economies and develop its own model of development, using technology to protect our unique wildlife and the environment:

Where else can you find elephants roaming around except in Africa? Where else can you find fresh air that is not polluted except here? When I landed here and I was hit by fresh air, I understood why people come here. It’s a business opportunity, so leverage that.

This statement from one of the world’s most successful businessmen underlines what a terrible mistake it would be to allow development to destroy our natural heritage. It should also remind us that Africa has a unique role to play in solving global conservation challenges.

This is one reason why the collaboration on World Elephant Day between two African organizations, Amarula and WildlifeDirect, is significant. We, as Africans, must be ready to assume responsibility for mobilising global support to protect our elephants and defeat the illegal wildlife trade.