Twas a rainy afternoon in the Ngorongoro Crater’s Lerai Forest, an ancient-looking place. This old tusker seemed to relish the serenity brought about by an unexpected shower, continuing his perpetual quest for nourishment without any acknowledgement of our presence. The scene transported all of us to another era, thousands of years ago, when elephants reigned over all of Africa. As the largest land mammal, elephants had no natural predators, other than the rare, hungry human and Mother Nature when she withheld her blessings of rain and good forage. But the human threat was benign and ancient migratory paths led the herds to other habitat, perhaps hundreds of miles away, when their current domain could no longer sustain them. Life was good. Then.
Our view of this old bull became less romantic and more poignant as we quietly discussed that the scene — a lone bull — could also portend what lay ahead. The Crater’s resident elephant population is unique in that it consists only of older bull elephants. The walls of the caldera are nearly 2,000 feet high, and comprised mostly of dense forest. As a result, breeding herds avoid the arduous trek in and out of the Crater. Given the relative protection of the Crater, the old bulls of Ngorongoro could indeed become the last wild elephants standing in Africa if things up above in the real world don’t change soon.
On June 6, writer Matthew Scully addresses “the African elephant’s last stand” on the The Atlantic website. “Inside the Global Industry That’s Slaughtering Africa’s Elephants” is lengthy and borrows much from the fine reporting that journalists such as Jeffrey Gettlemen of The New York Times and Bryan Christy of National Geographic have done this past year. In the end, he concludes that if the “West” doesn’t do much more, the ivory trade will win. Scully calls upon our leaders to demand more from Japan in abating the demand for ivory and upon our private sector to contribute more for on the ground and in the air patrol of elephant habitat. Like others, he wants the UN to put more teeth into CITES and opines that President Obama should be discussing this with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
I tend to tune out whenever I hear “the West needs to. . .” as though the West is somehow perpetually aligned with respect to the rest of the world, but I digress. Even if, and it is a big “if,” China were to prohibit the legal sale of ivory, illegal markets would likely continue. Look no further than the drug trade for proof that demand overrides diplomacy. As long as there is a market for ivory, elephants will die. All governments have a role to play in terms of regulating and policing. But market demand is an individual — and societal — matter. You cannot convince people through legislation that owning an ivory trinket is not worth the death of a living creature. The groundswell of public opinion should be the weapon of choice when it comes to consumer demand. Unless we all do what we can to make buying and owning ivory unacceptable, the wild elephant is doomed. And should we as a global society decide that a world without wild elephants is acceptable, then we may be talking about humanity’s last stand.