Did you know that elephants rarely get cancer? For some time, scientists have been studying the incidence of cancer in various animals and have been baffled by the absence of cancer in African and Asian elephants. Recently, two independent research efforts have uncovered the reason for this. In simple terms, most species have a gene, TP53 (known as the “guardian of the genome”), which attacks damaged genes and keeps them from replicating. Cancer is an example of damaged genes growing, causing tumors and infecting large areas of their host, human or otherwise. Elephants, as it turns out, have 20 copies of this gene whereas humans have one copy. Researchers believe that this unusual abundance of TP53 is responsible for the resistance elephants have to cancer. Now, they are examining ways in which elephant DNA may be introduced into humans to help our species be more resistant to cancer. For a more detailed description of this research, click here. (The full scientific report is 028522.full.)
Cancer comes in many forms. All of us are familiar with its devastating effect. The slaughter of hundreds of thousands of elephants for their ivory is a form of social cancer that has spread across all of Africa and parts of Asia. This week’s carnage in Paris is symbolic of another virulent social cancer — terrorism — a disease which has destroyed not only lives but also the quality of life for millions of people.
We seem to be at a crossroads in our global society regarding how to value life. Terrorists, be they criminal networks responsible for wildlife trafficking or radical malcontents responsible for the death and displacement of millions, have one thing in common — they value their own selfish interests over the value of life, human, elephant or otherwise. The great majority of us want to find solutions, but feel helpless, frustrated and often discouraged.
Put in this context, the solution to elephant poaching is fairly straight forward: end the demand for ivory trinkets and the terrorists (those who kill animals illegally are indeed terrorists) will go elsewhere to fund their greed and warped agendas. Killing all the poachers won’t end it; arresting all the existing traffickers won’t end it. Others will replace them as long as there is a market for it. So ending this war could be almost bloodless.
The terrorism of ISIL, Al Qaeda and others is less straight forward and will almost necessarily be bloody. But killing won’t erase the roots of the rise of this terrorism. We need fundamental changes in economies, tolerance and political policy before we can even begin to combat this terrorism. This will take some time and very wise, brave and open minded leaders — in many countries — before Paris 11/13, US 9/11, and all the other unconscionable acts of terrorism become less and less likely. Perhaps elephant DNA will find its way into our bloodstream first. In any event, let us all pray for less violence against all species on this planet we share.