There are two images that have haunted me recently. One appeared in the New York Times, reported by Maggie Shipstead. She describes a mother elephant running across a road in West Bengal, India, head down, desperate to reach the safety of a nearby forest. A ball of fire clings to her right foot, its tail singed. The baby’s hindquarters are engulfed in flames. In the background, Shipstead describes, a group of men is watching, cravenly mesmerized. They were the ones who had thrown firecrackers and fireballs of tar at the elephants.
The other image is one of the Trump brothers, Eric and Donald, Jr., on safari, kneeling in front of two recently shot big game African animals. Don Jr. is holding an elephant’s severed tail, the dead elephant lying nearby. The looks on the brothers’ faces are ones of triumph, each holding a high-powered rifle, their smiles conveying the pride taken in killing these magnificent creatures.
This leads me to a recent decision by president Trump who is at this moment considering eliminating an order put in place by the Obama administration outlawing the importation of African wild animal trophies into the United States (apparently there was sufficient blowback that Trump has put his decision on hold – briefly).
Initially the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service stated it would once again allow the importation of body parts from elephants shot for sport in Zimbabwe and Zambia, proffering the rationale that encouraging wealthy big-game hunters to kill threatened species would help raise money for conservation programs.
That singular statement, with which Trump agreed at the outset, is Orwellian: kill the animals that you hope to protect.
I know, such decision-making makes you want to slump forward, put your head in your hands and wonder, “What are they thinking?”
Pause and consider the facts: Over the past two decades, the global populations of both Asian and African elephants have declined precipitously due to poaching and habitat loss.
Domestic sales of ivory had been restricted as a result of the previous ban but are now held in abeyance awaiting Trump’s final decision (is there really a decision to be made?) The reality is that between 1979 and 1988 more than half of Africa’s elephant population has been killed – some 700,000. Think of it. This represents a massive assault aimed at a species about which we still know very little, a slaughter perpetrated by greed, fueled by the rising Chinese middleclass coveting ivory and the involvement of organized crime.
Money involved in the sale of ivory is no small thing: $1,000 for a set of chopsticks and hundreds of times that amount for a set of tusks. As a result, between 2002 and 2011, 62 percent of all African forest elephants have vanished. Between 2007 and 2011 Savanna elephants have dropped by a third with tens of thousands killed each year: their water holes are poisoned; they are shot from helicopters; and many are killed with automatic weapons. Tuskless elephants are merely collateral damage.
The elephants are killed with an abandon that is relentless and completely devoid of remorse.
Elephants are among the most intelligent and complex animals on the planet. Matriarchal in social construct, they care for one another, make group decisions, and are unyielding in their protection of their young.
There is implicit in the above a question that searches for an answer that remains ever elusive and transcends the base motivation for killing elephants. What causes us to venture forth into the forest with the sole purpose of killing a wild animal? What is there about causing the death of an animal that instills satisfaction?
We no longer hunt for survival. It’s a hard case to make that venison is necessary to satisfy a hunger that isn’t available in any market. If it’s about wandering the forests and mountains, then take a camera, breathe deeply and find refuge in the natural beauty. Death does not have to be part of the experience; rather its presence only diminishes what should be an incomparable experience. I am at a loss.