“They say elephant’s eyes speak the greatest language. Who else can make you feel so much without a word?”
~”The Legend of Tarzan”, John Clayton/Tarzan
In recent years, elephants have been reverently referred to in various sources: movies like “The Legend of Tarzan” and “The Jungle Book” as well as books like “Modoc”. For centuries before that, elephants have been hunted for their ivory, put to work in circuses, war, and commercial tasks: construction and tourism. Many stories are told, of fondness and awe. I, myself, have had the opportunity to meet an extraordinarily friendly elephant named George at the Wildlife Safari in Winston, Oregon. As part of the encounter program, a lot of discussion is dedicated to the protection and awareness of the elephant’s plight.
My friend George, from the video above, has his tusk filed down periodically in order to keep it healthy and prevent damaging it. These pieces are used as part of the demonstrations for the density of a tusk just a few inches in length and diameter. Imagine the weight of the tusks of a full grown African elephant. When George was only a few years old he cracked his left tusk. It cracked far enough to damage the nerve and so was removed in order to avoid pain in the future, not unlike humans going to the dentist for the same purpose. Ivory, tusks, they’re just teeth and yet they have become so valuable because of the risk of the rarity, but their monetary worth have put the lives of elephants in grave danger.
Elephant matriarchs are the storytellers of their kind. They are the elders of the herds, offering wisdom and guidance to their families. Like elephants, long before humans had a written language, we relied on oral traditions and elders to keep our people safe. A chosen few people were carefully taught the stories and rituals important to their culture. In each telling it is entirely possible that key parts were emphasized at different times, at specific places, in order to teach certain lessons: some for survival in times of hardship or lessons in morality.
The matriarchs of the elephant herds are targeted due to the size of their tusks – they’re worth more. A female elephant typically becomes a matriarch at around 35 years of age. With the poaching of these leaders, their daughters are forced to take up the mantle at 15 to 28 years of age. This begs the question: have they learned all they need to learn in order to help keep their families safe and well?
What can we do?
For starters, we can boycott all ivory products. They have no medicinal properties, overpriced decorations obtained in gruesome ways. You can spread awareness: they are more like humans than we ever thought possible with a larger hippocampus than any other creature on Earth which means that they have a greater capacity to feel emotions. They remember family members that have died, taking moments to pay tribute when they come to the place where they died. They recognize people they knew even if they’ve been separated for years.
What else? Have a genuine care for our wildlife as a whole. Poaching for sport is devastating, even more so when that animal is a keystone species – a species that shapes the course of their environment.
There’s an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai that I plan on volunteering at in the next year or so. I look forward to having first hand experiences with these amazing creatures and learning all I can.