September 10, 2013

The Secret Life of Elephants.

It is acceptable for humans to participate in animal massacres because we are a superior species,—well, think again.

I’ve heard this argument a few times and it makes me wonder about the reasons we would think that as humans, we are ‘superior.’ I believe in animal equality—humans included, so I see no reason to make a differentiation among animal species—but that’s just me.

Elephants are amazing, lovable creatures. I admire their sense of togetherness and how sensitive they are.

Elephants have been proven to show a wide range of expressions to show their emotions; it goes from happiness, joy and playfulness, to anger, even grief.

From the moment an elephant is born in a herd, it is welcomed by signs of happiness—not only from the mother, but from the whole pack. In the same way, the new member is raised and protected by its fellow herd companions, until—depending on the sex—it’s to find their own way. If the calf is male, he’ll go off on his own at between the age of 12 to 15 years. A female elephant will stay in the pack and wait for her appropriate age to mate.

By now, you may have sensed a matriarchal group. Indeed, they form deep family bonds who are carried through generations by the oldest, biggest female elephant—the leader. During her time, she carries a big responsibility that includes taking care of the lives of eight to 100 elephants in her herd—depending on the family size and terrain.

To help her with this task, elephants are equipped with an extremely good memory.

Their intelligence serves them well in times of drought; when the matriarch leads her herd to different water holes where she had been before when younger and sometimes, to far lands at tens of miles away from their usual path.

However, even in these moments of confidence and leadership, they might feel unsure or uneasy. When that happens they have been seen giving herself a piece of reassurance by  touching their face or “self-soothe”. This happens also, when they are going to change course; they tend to accompany the touching, with subtle movements that mean “let’s go together.”

We as humans could learn from their behavior.

Although some people might think the movements elephants make don’t have a purpose, I find interesting the methods of communication they use. Joyce Poole and her husband Petter Granli have particularly amazed me. Even though they have been observing elephants for over 20 years, they recently developed a gesture database where a minimum of nine emotion categories have been described.

We are not even aware of some of the sounds they create because we are not as sensitive. Research has shown that they produce sub-sonic rumbles to communicate over long distances. This rumble can be traced over the ground by other elephants, even faster than through the air. They can sense it on their feet, but also through their sensitive skin and trunk. This is one of the ways they call for mates over long distances—better than an Alicia Keys love song, isn’t it?

Elephants have shown signs of considerable cognitive thought, like attentiveness; the leader tends to stop cold when she needs to make sure the road is safe, she’ll lift her trunk in an “S” form or even straight forward to the direction she wants to consider.

They pay homage to their losses. When a member of their herd dies, the rest of the elephants may use their trunk and tusk to try to feed or attempt to carry the fallen soul, this also happens when an elephant gets sick and starts falling behind.

Sadly, they don’t always have the chance to pay their respects. African and Asian elephants are being hunted for their tusks: the ivory issue. Even though poachers have argued that the fast decline of elephant numbers are a consequence of hotter and dryer environment, which decreases forage and calf survival—true, but not the only reason. The illegal ivory trade is the primary issue that threatens elephants survival. To keep this way, would end elephants on earth within 10 years. 

25,000 elephants are killed every year because of ivory trade.

From 1980s to 1990s, African elephants alone decreased from 1.3 million to 600,000; Asian elephants don’t fall far behind. Because of this concern, the global ivory trade was banned in 1989.

But as in everything, corruption plays a role. Some African groups opposed the ban and supported the trade between them, Hong Kong and Japan. The African supporters included South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Swaziland.

The reason for opposition: the trade of weapons and ivory between Africa and Asia.

The use of ivory goes from small pieces of jewellery, chop sticks, ornaments, hair accessories, to any size of art pieces. China is well know for their ivory carvings. They claim to be legal, but when it comes to certified such claims, it is extremely tricky. Traders use cards to identify the pieces, but such cards have their own black market.

“Battle for the Elephants” from journalists Bryan Christy and Aidan Hartley is a documentary that explores the depths of  this African and Asian bloody trade. You can see the trailer here:

Is it really worth a piece of carved ivory the life of one of these amazing creatures?

Some art critics say that we should not discuss the ivory pieces made before 1989—back then, the issue of elephant treating was not as dangerous as it is today. Religious institutions that use ivory pieces to worship say the killings are in the “name of God.”

In terms of help, there is plenty we can do—from writing letters, donating time and money, avoiding the purchase of ivory products. Do some research and pass the voice around. Here are a few resources that can help you.

Joyce Poole and Petter Granli’s Elephant Voices. They have a lot of research and ways to support them.

National Geographic’s A Voice for Elephants blogs. A lot of writers contribute to raise awareness and divulge research. Here you can find projects like “Don’t Buy Ivory” and can get inspired to do the same in your area.

The Environmental Investigation Agency. Not only for elephants. Can give you insights from the two sides of the coin.

The Elephant Diaries. Read about their lives and contribute.

The Stop Ivory Trade. An interesting fact sheet that discusses the different arguments from the vast points of views in the ivory matter.

Animal Rights Action. You can find information on different animal topics and donate.

Defenders of Wildlife. As its name states, they cover different species and you can help them.

Like elephant readers for animal rights on Facebook.

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