Eye on Elephants

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Did you know?  Elephants have relatively small eyes for an animal of their size. Their eyes’ position on the sides of their massive heads produces better peripheral than binocular vision.  Elephants rely much more on their senses of smell and hearing than on their eyesight.  In fact, there have been reports of blind matriarchs leading their herds just fine.

You may think I have taken my eye off elephants since my last blog post was in June.  Between a gloriously long trip to Kenya this summer, followed promptly by a move from CT to AZ and all that entails, I have been negligent in posting.  The good news is that many others have kept their eye on the elephants, creating more awareness of their plight than ever before.

A landmark study, published in the August 19 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, led by George Wittemyer of Colorado State University,  concluded that three-quarters of local, African elephant populations are declining. The bottom line: in the past three years, at least 100,000 elephants have been killed by poachers. Combined with death due to natural causes, more elephants are dying than being born.  While the killing rate had been estimated by various NGOs, this is the first, scientifically-based study that quantifies births and deaths on a continent-wide basis.  For policymakers who had any doubts about the conservation community’s calls for action, this documentation should put those doubts to rest.

At the same time, several major, awareness-raising campaigns have been launched or are in the works.

WildAid has been particularly busy.  Working with Yao Ming, the legendary NBA Chinese national, WildAid has funded a documentary, “The End of the Wild,”  which chronicles Yao Ming’s 2012 trip to Kenya and South Africa.  A related PSA, “Say No to Ivory,” launched in 2013, while the documentary premiered this past August.  Both are carried by CCTV, China’s primary state-owned network.  A companion book, “A Journey in Africa,” is also being published in China. In March 2014, Yao delivered a petition during the opening session of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) asking China’s government to ban sales of ivory.

Yao has serious credentials as a conservationist; previously, he was the primary spokesperson for WildAid’s campaign against the killing of sharks for sharks’ fin soup.  A 2013 survey of major Chinese cities revealed an 85% drop in demand for shark soup; of those who quit ordering the delicacy, 65% cited public information campaigns as the reason.

Here in the US, which remains the second largest market for ivory (behind China), Academy award-winning producer, Kathleen Bigelow, premiered “Last Days” at this year’s New York Film Festival.  This three-minute PSA, also developed in conjunction with WildAid, delivers a message that carries the same impact as her films “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Hurt Locker” : When a person buys an item made of ivory in a market in China, it is quite possible that they are actually funding the next major terrorist attack somewhere in the world; based on strong evidence linking the illegal ivory trade to some of the most notorious terrorist groups in Africa. And it is certain that they are complicit in the illegal slaughter of elephants– which face imminent extinction in the wild if the demand for ivory in China and elsewhere is not curbed.

If that isn’t enough star power, Angelina Jolie recently signed on to direct “Africa,” a drama based on Richard Leakey’s fight against ivory poachers in Kenya. Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) wrote the script.  David Ellison’s Skydance Productions, known for blockbusters such as the “Mission: Impossible” series and the upcoming “Terminator: Genisys” trilogy, is behind the picture.  Meanwhile, back in Africa, Richard Leakey is still waging his war against poaching.  This has block-buster potential!

These efforts have the most potential to stop poaching — by killing demand, rather than elephants.  Keep your eye on the elephants and stayed tuned!