Amarula, a South African creme liqueur, chose me as the only USA delegate to help promote the #DontLetThemDisappear campaign. In partnership with WildlifeDIRECT, this is an effort to increase awareness about the plight of the African Elephant as well as to raise money to continue to fight illegal poaching in Kenya, the rest of Africa and the world.
I’ve always liked elephants. I’ve always liked Africa. Kenya is a country I have wanted to visit since I was a little girl. So when I saw an email in my inbox in late July asking if I’d want to be part of something with elephants in Kenya in August — of course I wanted to say yes.
I did say yes.
And I had no idea how that decision would change my life.
You see Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya — where our Amarula-sponsored group concentrated our efforts, as we learned about the #DontLetThemDisappear campaign — is home to an extraordinarily large number of African Elephants. They roam free and are not confined. They live in family groups with matriarchs who lead them from the shelter of palms and other trees over the flat plains of Amboseli to areas with water they can drink or bathe in, and back again, without fear.
It’s a sight that in all my trips to Africa, I had never seen before. On past trips to countries like Tanzania and South Africa, I had only seen an elephant or two. Never more than four.
The healthy elephant population that resides in Amboseli and the surrounding area, is due to the work of a few dedicated individuals at just a few organizations. AND the brave Rangers who work in Kenya’s parks, who are on the front lines of the fight against poaching.
We met many of the individuals involved in the fight to save elephants, including those who live in a camp in Amboseli and have been studying elephants for 20+ years. We spent the most amount of time with Dr. Paula Kahumbu, of WildlifeDIRECT, who has been successful in making sure that Kenya’s government passed very tough anti-poaching legislation. The legislation is helping to slow illegal poaching within the borders of Kenya and ensures that anyone trying to pass ivory through Kenya’s ports for distribution to other parts of the world, will face tough penalties or even fines, if caught. Together with other efforts, this has helped the population of Kenya’s elephants stabilize and swell and it is giving hope to the effort to stop poaching in other parts of Africa.
Yet the fight is far from over.
Every day in Africa, somewhere on the continent: an elephant loses its life to illegal poaching on an average of every 15 minutes. More than 90 elephants a day lose their lives for the ivory in their tusks. Because poachers don’t take tusks from living elephants. They kill them and then take only the tusks. Conservative estimates place the total number of elephants on the continent at less than 400,000.
I’ve read articles that say there are now less than 350,000. Everything I read points to the fact that if we do not stop the poaching, by 2030 there will be no more African Elephants.
Poaching!! It means that an elephant with tusks is killed so someone can cut the tusks off that elephant, ship them somewhere via the black market and then someone else can make the ivory in those tusks into trinkets, seals that are used with wax as symbols of prestige, home decor, and even powder to be ingested as a ridiculous home therapy meant to ward off all kinds of imagined health threats. YES. You read that right. In many parts of Asia, in countries like China and Japan, a rising middle class now has the money to drive up the price of ivory because they believe it’s a status symbol or they buy into the lie that ingesting ivory will save their health. Even as I type that, it sounds so insane I can’t take it seriously — and yet it’s happening.
At an alarming rate.
To give you some background, the African elephant population was estimated to be around 1.3 million in the late 1800’s but by 1989 only 600,000 remained. This drastic decline was mostly due to the international ivory trade. Estimates state that at one time more than 75,000 African elephants were killed for the ivory trade annually, at a net worth of more than 1 billion dollars. That increase in poaching is a result of the increasing demand and the astronomical amount of money that is paid for ivory on the black market. International criminals are even involved and money has been traced back to having funded terrorism. A total value of more than 20 Billion per year is what illegal trade is estimated to be worth.
I didn’t know any of this before I flew to Kenya with Amarula. I just knew I liked elephants. And I’d learned some facts about elephants being mistreated in Asia due to bad tourism practices. I’d even thought about trying to get involved in stopping that. I didn’t yet understand there’s a huge difference between African and Asian elephants. A problem that has just has one word:
African elephants have tusks that are made of ivory. Asian elephants do not have tusks.
So while it’s important to note that we should be trying to stop elephants from being mistreated in Asia, the actual threat to African Elephants is, I think, greater. If you care about elephants at all, both issues are important. The problem is the situation in Africa is more dire and has an invisible ticking clock that is running down every second of every day. Hence, Amarula choosing #DontLetThemDisappear.
There are countries in Africa where there are already no more elephants! There are countries where the population is so low, it’s almost at zero already. There are places with elephants but no elephants that have tusks.
I didn’t really need statistics to start to care. Having my other trips to Africa that I could compare to my time in Amboseli, I immediately understood the difference between a place where….
— the people place more value on the lives of elephants then their own greed and economic position
— a place where people only see dollar signs when they look at an elephant
Like I said before, I’d never seen more than 30 elephants at one time anywhere in Africa. I did see this in Amboseli.
I’d never heard Elephants call to each other. I’d never heard them answer each other.
I’d never seen a Mother elephant protect and shade her baby the way I did in Amboseli.
I’d never seen so many baby elephants.
I’d never been told the names of Elephants. I didn’t know Elephants could have names. They do in Amboseli. Every single one of them has a name; given to them by women such as Soila and Katito, [shown above] who have spent 20+ years studying elephants from this camp inside Amboseli National Park.
The elephants in Amboseli have names like Oprah. Here she is with her baby.
Then there is an elephant named Google. Another named Tim. And there is one family who all have names that begin with a P: Patience, Periwinkle, Placida, there’s even a Paris. (My favorite city!)
Elephants live an average of 65-70 years normally and during that time they may have as many as 6 sets of teeth!
They can communicate across great distances both in a way we can hear, and at a frequency we cannot hear!
I also never knew that elephants mourn their dead just like we humans do. They return to the graves of their loved ones just as we do. They grieve. Like we do.
As I stood in our jeep recording Dr. Paula Kahumbu in order to create this video for you, I started crying.
I will always like elephants.
But now, I also love them.
You can help save elephants even if you don’t visit Amboseli like I did. Even if you have never been to Africa! Start with the 6 ways I mention in this blog post and let me know in the comments what other ideas you have!!
If you’re in New York City, I hope to see you at World Elephant Day, TODAY August 12 from 8 AM to 5 PM, in Union Square. Amarula has flown Dr. Paula Kahumbu in from Kenya to be present to help promote #DontLetThemDisappear and to, I’m sure, inspire you as much as she has inspired me.