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September 18, 2017

It’s Not Enough to Love Elephants—we Need to Protect Them Too.

I first fell in love with elephants when one came to visit me.

I was 11, and my family was staying in Sangli, India, while my father did missionary work. The biggest attraction in Sangli was the ancient Ganapati temple, which honored the Hindu god, Ganesh (also called Ganapati).

Ganesh is part elephant, part human, and known to be the remover of obstacles—like traffic—which is why I keep a tiny Ganesh statue in my car.

There was an elephant living at the Ganapati temple that we tried to see several times, but every day we visited, he was not available for view. Being a preteen, I was melodramatically disappointed.

One day, my mom came running up the stairs of the missionary house yelling that the temple elephant was outside. I quickly unwound myself from the mosquito net I was reading under and went to the street-facing balcony. There was the elephant, surrounded by crowds of people, cows, and chaos.

It was surprising to see this massive animal unruffled by the commotion around him. He was a gentle giant—and he reminded me of my father, who was over six feet tall, broad-shouldered, and strong. He was also kind, calm, and soft-spoken.

Looking back, I am sure the elephant didn’t come to see me in particular. But the experience, and the elephant’s likeness to my father, made me an elephant-lover from then on.

Years later, while searching for information on yoga and wellness as part of my yoga teacher training, I found Elephant Journal. I researched the story behind the publication’s name and discovered it came from an elephant parable my yoga teacher had coincidentally shared during training. The universe seemed to be leading me to this publication.

I began following the site’s Facebook page, submitted stories for publication, and eventually enrolled in the Elephant Journal social media and writing apprenticeship program.

As part of the apprenticeship, each student chooses a Facebook page to help curate. My love of elephants led me to the We Heart Elephants page and put me at the center of a group of enthusiastic elephant lovers. I began to research why we, as humans, are so drawn to elephants.

When did you fall in love with elephants?

I began my research by asking the We Heart Elephants followers when they first fell in love with elephants. The question received more than 180 responses falling into four broad categories:  

>> Most fell in love with elephants between the ages of 3 and 11.

>> Many believe they fell in love with them as infants; they either had a stuffed elephant as a baby or rooms decorated with elephant themes.

>> Some fell in love after watching a conservation documentary or reading an article.

>> And finally, a smaller number felt drawn to them after the death of a parent or sibling.

Why do you love elephants?

In a separate post, I asked our readers why they loved elephants. This post received more than 100 responses.

Many couldn’t understand why I was even asking the question—loving elephants was like breathing to them.

Others shared that they love elephants because they are so similar to humans, in the following ways: 

>> They are family-oriented and matriarchal—elephant families are led by their eldest female. Male elephants leave their family around the age of 12 and primarily participate in future family activity through mating.

Families are typically comprised of four to five females and their young, making them an animal version of single moms. These units are part of larger clans that have loud and boisterous reunions.

>> They grieve their dead, even if they are not related. A National Geographic piece titled, “Rare video shows elephants mourning matriarch’s death,” displays three separate elephant tribes stopping to inspect the carcass of another familiy’s leader. Similar to the way humans hold viewings after a death, these elephants stopped, one-by-one, to touch the bones with their trunks and then move on.

This phenomenon has been observed multiple times. George Wittemyer, a Colorado State University Conservation Biologist, states, “Every time it happens, it’s not the same, but it is striking behavior—not based on survival or necessity, but based on some sort of emotion.”

>> They have impressive memories. Elephants can remember family and even non-family elephants they haven’t seen for decades. Researcher Richard Byrne of the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland says, “Most animals that hang around in packs, such as deer, probably have no idea who the other animals in their pack are, [but elephants] almost certainly know every [member] in their group.”

Their memories are the key to their survival. For example, because their matriarchs remember alternative food and water sites, they survive droughts that often threaten other species.

Why should we protect elephants?

As I continued to work with the We Heart Elephants page, it was clear that elephant lovers feel very strongly about keeping these animals in their natural habitat or in sanctuaries where they can roam free. They are against them being relegated to zoos, temples, or circuses.

They are also concerned that elephants may become extinct. And this fear is warranted.

African elephants are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) 2016 study. There are only 415,428 African elephants—which is a reduction of approximately 118,000 since 2007.

Asian elephants, the kind that visited me as a child in India, are classified as being in grave danger with only 40,000 remaining.

How can we help?

It is not enough to love elephants—we need to protect them too. To learn more about getting involved in elephant conservation, visit the IUCN website or the World Elephant Day website.

I also found the following Elephant Journal articles particularly helpful in teaching me about other ways to help and what organizations to support:  

>> Meet the Elephant Conservation Heroes of the Congo Basin.
>> How to Save the Elephant With Our Wallets.
>> We’re Killing the World’s most Soulful Animal—Here’s how to Stop.

I’d also encourage anyone who feels drawn to elephants to join our community of gentle, giant-hearted elephant lovers on the We Heart Elephants Facebook page.

Because if we love our elephant kin, we must work together to protect them.

 

“The question is, are we happy to suppose that our grandchildren may never be able to see an elephant except in a picture book?” ~ David Attenborough

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Author: Donna Yates Kling
Image: Tambako the Jaguar/Flickr
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Copy Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Social Editor: Yoli Ramazzina

 

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