The Elephant’s Child


The baby elephant rushes screaming after its terrified mother, its back legs being consumed by flames. Its mother, her own feet burning, rushes into the forest.  Around them, humans laugh, shriek with savage delight, and throw more flaming tar balls which stick to the elephant’s skin.

The baby – product of a two-year pregnancy, child of a species which nurtures infants to adulthood – cannot survive such wounds and will surely die an agonised death watched by its helpless mother.

baby elephant

Biplab Hazra’s photograph, which won the Sanctuary Wildlife Photography Award, is simply entitled “Hell Is Here.”  In his entry, Hazra wrote ‘In the Bankura district of West Bengal this sort of humiliation of pachyderms is routine, as it is in the other elephant-range states of Assam, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu and more.’

Elephants are being driven down the path to their extinction. What Hazra shows us is a barbaric triumph of humans.

The habitat of the mighty pachyderm grows ever smaller: in all Asia now there are fewer than 50,000 elephants left, half of them in India where the booming rural population sees them as competition for land, and drives them out with great savagery, as in Hazra’s photograph.

Historically, European settlers killed Elephant herds for sport, and were responsible for an initial decline, but it is since colonisation of Africa and Asia ended that the number of Elephants killed has been described as a Holocaust: the disaster began in the 1970s in the chaos of the independence movements, since the 1980s, numbers have declined by 60% – and the decline continues.

Over 20,000 Elephants are killed for their tusks annually in Africa alone, and this is far more than are being born. Despite a ban on the ivory trade, supervised by the UN, the illegal trade has exploded, fed by new Chinese wealth, and a huge smuggling industry has grown around it. In Asia, in addition, farmers poison Elephants and shoot them, as well as burning them.

It is likely that within the life time of an adult reading this, the Elephant may be-come extinct in the wild.  The question is, do we want to live in a world without Elephants? And if we do not, what are we going to do about it?

Currently, the answer is ‘very little’.  Of the European nations, only the UK has fully banned the trade in Ivory.  The EU has even suggested that states with “stable” populations be allowed to “harvest” limited tonnage of ivory: critics of this claim that this merely contributes to the survival of the market, and given the vast sums to be made from the trade, and the notorious corruption of African administrations, the ‘stability’ of each herd would be unlikely to be accurately re-ported. The EU dither as if enforcing the ban will do nothing to close markets and save Elephant lives, and yet, a fully enforced ban worked in Japan, which had previously been one of the biggest markets.

But what must be accepted is that this gallop toward extinction is not the responsibility of the west.  This is due entirely to the behaviours of African and Asian states, and to the wide-spread mentality of African and Asian individuals, who put short-term greed and self-indulgence before any notion of responsibility to wildlife, or the environment.  Their guilt must be fully confronted and all self-effacing belief that the West is the big, bad wolf, while Asia and Africa should be given a free pass on destructiveness, must end.

It will be an uphill battle: these are continents which are not hot on taking responsibility for their own failures.

We are not, however, entirely powerless: when it comes to dealing with the source of the ivory trade, we have the cards of aid, trade, and immigration to play.  If we are to be serious about preventing the Elephant becoming, like the White Rhino, a species of three members, under armed guard, then we must play them hard and make them hurt: no aid of any kind, stringent trade tariffs, and zero immigration from any nation which kills Elephants for ivory; given the UN resolution this could surely be legally policed, and offenders brought to book under international law.

As for aspirational India, with its booming population, while such horrific images exist to be captured, then we should consider whether they have any place as equals among western nations.  If their government wish to take seats in the First World, then they must end the two-tier society which permits all manner of backwardness to flourish out in the sticks, and confront the problem of rural communities which overlap with the lands grazed by the Elephant herds. Police them systematically, provide reserves for the pachyderms – and destroy the culture of mindless cruelty which takes pleasure in watching flames consume an Elephant’s Child.

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