What’s the link between elephant poaching and terrorism?
Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow wants you to know. In her powerful animated short titled “Last Days,” Bigelow shows how terror groups such as al-Shabaab and Boko Haram profit enormously from the ivory trade. Bigelow wants to stop wild elephants from disappearing while also cutting off funding for some of the world’s most violent groups.
About one elephant is killed every fifteen minutes for the global ivory trade, leaving behind broken communities and families, and orphans who must fight to make it in the world. Many of these orphaned elephants end up trapped in captivity.
Fortunately, more and more people are focused on the plight of elephants living and dying in the wild. The Clinton Foundation has even taken an interest in saving elephants in Africa, vowing to “stop the killing,” “stop the trafficking,” and “stop the demand.”
Unfortunately, far less attention has focused on the plight of captive elephants – those living in zoos, circuses, safari parks, and other captive environments. Right now, thousands of elephants live in captivity. As Joyce Poole, co-founder of ElephantVoices, has pointed out, “It’s a fate worse than death.” Poole has studied the communication systems and emotional lives of African elephants for 40 years.
In zoos and circuses, elephants are held in lonely quarters and chained and confined for hours, days, or longer. They are beaten into submission. In the circus, the bull hook is one of the most notorious weapons used against elephants. It is a long, thick pole with a sharp metal hook on one end and it is used on elephants’ sensitive skin. Elephants are often brought to their knees because the pain is so severe.
These conditions are thousands of miles away from their normal lives. Elephants naturally live in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. They have a fission-fusion society, similar to that of chimpanzees, in which multiple family groups come together and socialize. They can live for up to 70 years in the wild and traverse long distances, sometimes up to 100 miles.
Elephants are some of the most intelligent beings on the planet, and they communicate through touch, visual displays, and sounds including rumbles and infrasonic calls for long-distance communication. They also communicate seismically, through vibrations produced by stomping the earth’s surface. Elephants are self-aware and have very long memories. In fact, their tremendous capacity for memory sets them up to suffer from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Two of my friends, Scott and Kat Blais, have worked with elephants for years. Scott started as a trainer at a safari park when he was just 15 years old. After a few years, as Scott puts it, he began to open his eyes and heart to the elephants he came to love.
Rasha was an elephant at a safari park who helped Scott open his eyes and heart. Rasha showed Scott how powerful his gentle words and touch could be. Rasha resisted a bath one day because she would need to lie down for the bath. Elephants like Rasha are often laid down before they are beaten. Scott talked gently with Rasha and told her he was just going to give her a bath. He asked her to help him, and she did. To Scott’s surprise, Rasha went even further – she gently wrapped her trunk around him and began a dialogue of squeaks and rumblings with him, all signs of trust, respect, and affection.
For Scott, that was the beginning of the first chapter on the real lives of elephants. He described it as awakening to a truth that all elephants like Rasha need and deserve more. Soon after, he and another former elephant trainer started a sanctuary in Tennessee. It was there that Scott met his wife and partner Kat.
Over the years, Scott and Kat fostered many elephants’ recovery after they were chained, confined, malnourished, beaten, abandoned, and repeatedly ripped away from their families and friends. From Winkie to Misty to Flora to Shirley to Sissy to so many others, Scott and Kat have been amazed by the elephants’ incredible resilience. As Scott pointed out to me, their ability to live through fractured lives in captivity and make it to sanctuary is a testament to their resilience.
Scott and Kat’s desire to give back to the elephants, to give them more, has driven them to co-found the Global Sanctuary for Elephants, with their first sanctuary in Brazil. They are responding to a tremendous need – countries across Central and South America have begun to ban and phase out the use of elephants in zoos and circuses. Kat and Scott know that – without sanctuary – these elephants will be stuck in dire situations with nowhere else to go. Elephants are already waiting in the wings.
Scott and Kat aim to help elephants around the globe by creating an international network devoted to respecting their need for space, a safe environment free of abuse, elephant companionship, autonomy, and opportunities to explore life in they ways they’ve deserved all along. Only then will elephants be able to discover and express who they truly are.
As Scott and Kat said to me, up to this point, we as humans have treated elephants and other animals as if they are merely here for us – whether for our greed, amusement, or even for their labor.
Now it’s time for us to be there for them.
If you’d like to support the chance for elephants to live a better life, go to The Global Sanctuary for Elephants.