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Today is World Elephant Day.  I love and esteem our great gray friends with all of my heart. Not only are they exceedingly intelligent, they also have human length lives and humanlike webs of lifelong social connections (to say nothing of their deeply heartfelt and entirely relatable emotional depth).  The conclusion that elephants are our peers and worthy of personhood (a strange word which has only existed since the 1950s, but which implies autonomy and legal rights) should be inescapable.  Yet a shocking number of people are incapable of seeing how much we share with our non-human fellow Earth organisms. Such folk draw a shining line around people (or certain categories of people!) which no counter-argument or evidence can ever seem to breach.  Perhaps this state of affairs was tolerable in the past when there were never-ending herds of elephants and humankind was trying to eke out a precarious existence–yet that is not the way of things today.  With our overpopulation, infinite appetite, and our grotesque battle for status in the eyes of other humans (which is how resources and hierarchy are allocated) we are causing the extinction of elephants.  We talk so much about seeking intelligent life in the universe, but we are killing off the intelligent life which is already right here on order to make ivory fripperies and unproductive farmland (which will all be desert in five years).

Worst of all, the remedies for this malady lie beyond the reach of people of conscience.  We cannot force people to stop trying to feed their families. We can’t allocate the affairs of impoverishes nations whose kleptocrat leaders are happy to trade away all of the elephants for predatory Chinese loans.  I don’t know what the solution is (although my private heart whispers that the proper home for tomorrow’s humans lies far beyond the beautiful fragile world which gave us life).  Yet world elephant day asks us to think about the problem before it stops being a soluble one and the elephants are gone forever.  I suspect that if we allow such a thing to happen, we will follow the giants in to the abyss not very long afterwards (if you doubt me, take a hard look around you).  Think about the problem as you gaze out at Venus and write down your ideas in the comments below.  In the meantime, to make up for this troubling post, here is a charming Chinese painting of a little elephant family together in the forest.  Look at how happy the little elephant is!

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Nothing irreversible has happened yet…at least on a planetary scale… but fixing the problems caused by humankind’s prolonged adolescent growth spurt is going to take self-discipline, cooperation, and imagination on an elephantine scale.

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OK, time to get 2017 started in earnest! I have some resolutions and ideas–and I’m looking forward to hearing your New Year plans too. But first there is extremely good news in the paper, so let’s lead with that:  the People’s Republic of China has announced that they are shutting down their national trade in ivory by the end of 2017.  The world’s most populous nation is by far the world’s largest ivory consumer: estimates suggest that it accounts for as much as 70% of ivory demand.  The tusks of slaughtered elephants reach the nation illegally and then become part of a vast economy of carvers, traders, dodgy antiques merchants, and suchlike sellers.  All of this is to feed the growing appetite of China’s new middle class, who are hungry for anything which confers status (but who do not necessarily understand just how sapient, compassionate, and irreplaceable elephants are).

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The ban is said to be a direct result of a meeting between the world’s two most powerful men, President Xi Jinping and President Obama, who laid the groundwork for a comprehensive ban when they met in Washington in 2015.  Obama tightened up surprisingly lax ivory rules in America in an effort to save the last proboscideans.  It is a great pleasure to see China’s leadership follow the same path.  The New York Times has noted that the ban is not just sound environmental policy, but also makes sense both politically and economically.  Perhaps other ivory-consuming nations will follow suite! I will be sure to praise their far-sighted leaders as well.

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However elephant conservationists must not pretend the Chinese ivory ban alone has saved our big gray friends. Elephants are in deep trouble. Climate change, habitat loss, and, above all, poaching still threaten the giants. Powerful forces in China (and even here, in the increasingly reactionary United States) will conspire to restart the ghastly trade.  Additionally the mayhem in central Africa which has allowed poachers to flourish is far from over.  Yet this unexpected boon from the Middle Kingdom is a cause for great hope. Let us thank our friends in China for their thoughtfulness and use their fine example as a cause to redouble our own efforts.  If we keep working together we can make sure elephants are still with us not just in 2017 but in all the years to come.

Elephant in a Roman Mosaic

Elephant in a Roman Mosaic

It is World Elephant Day! August 12th is set aside for the contemplation of the greatest land mammal (and maybe the greatest animal overall) the wise, compassionate, beautiful, imperiled elephant.  Elephants are my favorite animals! I truly love them so much (admittedly at a distance)…yet I only just got home and I have to get to bed so I cannot write the story I want to tell—of heroic Yao Ming trying to save the world’s elephants.  Instead I am going to save that story for a day when I have more time and just do a gallery post of elephant mosaics.

Mosaic elephant from contentinacottage

Mosaic elephant from contentinacottage

Elephants in a replica of the Woodchester Pavement

Elephants in a replica of the Woodchester Pavement

Mosaic Flower Elephant by Diana Jane Designs.

Mosaic Flower Elephant by Diana Jane Designs.

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Indian Elephant Mosaic Sculpture

Indian Elephant Mosaic Sculpture

Mosaic Brown Elephant - Mosaik Elefant - Mosaique Elephant - Micro Ceramic Tiles - Craft By Alea Mosaik

Mosaic Brown Elephant – Mosaik Elefant – Mosaique Elephant – Micro Ceramic Tiles – Craft By Alea Mosaik

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Some of these tile artworks of the noble beasts are pretty good, but none of the works really do the great proboscideans full justice.  Clearly there are going to have to be more elephant posts before next August!  In the meantime, keep talking about elephants and campaigning for them among your friends and peers.  A world without elephants would not be a worthwhile place.  They are a critical piece of the great mosaic of life!

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Guangzhou China

Guangzhou China

I love China. During five millennia of continuous civilization, the Chinese people discovered many of the most fundamental breakthroughs which have propelled humankind forward: today the Chinese government is rapidly pumping money into research (even as our own leaders decide to turn their backs on science and discovery).  Chinese literature and art are hauntingly ineffable—the saddest and most beautiful in the world.  China is huge and gorgeous and bewildering.  It is its own world of peoples, sweeping vistas, and wonders! Today China is rapidly becoming a paramount global superpower—as befits a nation which contains a fifth of humankind.

A scroll painting of an elephant and scholar from the 1920s

A scroll painting of an elephant and scholar from the 1920s

Yet modern China has been a poor neighbor (!) and an absolutely terrible steward of nature and the environment. I will leave out details about local wars, nightmarish buffer states, and wholesale toxic pollution of entire regions to instead concentrate on markets for traditional medicine, cuisine, and craft—where so many of the world’s endangered animals vanish for no good reason.  Chinese leaders are quick to point out the high environmental costs of rapid modernization and point fingers at the western world’s excesses during the industrial revolution and the gilded age (and today).  But what do foolish superstitions and flagrantly useless status symbols have to do with these arguments? If contemporary China wishes to be taken seriously as a conscientious nation, it needs to at least take steps to reduce the endangered animal trade which is needlessly driving so many wonderful creatures extinct.

They are so beautiful--and they are going extinct.

They are so beautiful–and they are going extinct.

That actually happened today (also known as yesterday on the Chinese side of the globe)!  China is the world’s largest consumer of ivory.  As tens of millions of consumers become middle class (or affluent…or rich) the demand for intricately carved elephant tusks has risen meteorically.  Africa of course has its own troubles and a small amount of money can seem like a great deal there.  In practice this means that the last great herds of elephants are swiftly being poisoned or shot so that their tusks can fetch a premium in the rising cities of China. It is a heartbreaking tragedy that an animal which lives as long as a person (and seems to feel emotions just as deeply) should be killed for two of its teeth. How absolutely horrifying it is to imagine the extinction of all elephants for petty vanity. What would be the purpose of a world with no elephants?

Yao Ming--hero to elephant lovers (even though he is very small compared to the great animals)

Yao Ming–hero to elephant lovers (even though he is very small compared to the great animals)

The Chinese are not monolithic and educational quirks (excesses?) of the Cultural Revolution generation have meant that many people are ignorant of elephants’ magnificent nature (and slow reproduction).Yao Ming who played basketball or something in America has unexpectedly become one of my greatest heroes by spearheading a public awareness campaign to teach people about elephants and to prevent their extinction. Other pachyderm crusaders have also taken up the cause (along with international NGOs) and the central government has finally taken notice.  Authorities crushed six tons of confiscated ivory into powder in Dongguan, China, on January 6, 2014.

Authorities in Guangzhou with the captured ivory (which equals one fifth of the illegal ivory taken last year)

Authorities in Guangzhou with the captured ivory (which equals one fifth of the illegal ivory taken last year)

Of course it is a bit of an easy question: should the world’s other great order of immensely intelligent social land mammal be killed for stupid ornamental knickknacks? But China has answered it properly (finally) and I offer them my unreserved respect and admiration.  With their growing space program, their rapidly improving universities, and their new environmental awareness, China truly is improving and growing very quickly. Hopefully it isn’t too late for the poor elephants which are still left alive.

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African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) with calf

African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) with calf

Today is World Elephant Day—a one-year old holiday dedicated to the preservation of the world’s two remaining species of proboscideans (a great and ancient order of mammals which over tens of millions of years has included 161 different species that we know of including elephants, mammoths, mastodons, stegodons, deinotheres, moeritheriums, and all sorts of other amazing animals–which we will talk about later).   To mark this day and do my part for elephants (which are quickly vanishing from Earth due to insatiable Chinese lust for ivory) , I have spent hours and hours writing the beginnings of various essays about elephant cognition, their importance as a keystone species wherever they live, and their history and attributes.

I have abandoned each of these essays because they have lacked visceral power which I want to bring to the subject of my favorite animal.  Instead of providing a laundry list of astonishing things which elephants share with humankind (things like altruism, awareness of death, grieving, knowledge of medicine, tool-use, comprehension of music and the arts, and the ability to mine salt and clay) I have decided to instead present an anecdote about actual elephants which I have taken from Cynthia Moss, a researcher who has spent her life observing elephants and researching their family structure.

Since 1973, Moss has watched the family of one matriarch, Echo, an elephant living in Kenya. The story of Echo’s extended family reads like Russian literature in complexity and richness (although the reading is much sadder since elephants seem to be living through the agonizing death of all their kind).  Elephants live human-length lives and have intricate social bonds in their own herds and with the herds they encounter.  They bond deeply with their families over the decades they share together and they help each other out even at the risk of death or terrible injury.

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One day a group of poachers ambushed Echo’s herd.  After killing several elephants outright (including a cow who charged straight into the guns in an attempt to save her calf), the gunmen shot a 13-year old cow named Tina in the lung.  Tina’s mother Teresia and her sisters helped her escape, but she was mortally injured.  Moss describes Tina’s death in the book “Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family”

[Tina’s] knees started to buckle and she began to go down, but Teresia got on one side of her and Trista on the other and they both leaned in and held her up.  Soon, however, she had no strength and she slipped beneath them and fell onto her side.  More blood gushed from her mouth and with a shudder she died.

Teresia and Trista became frantic and knelt down and tried to lift her up.  They worked their tusks under her back and under her head.  At one point they succeeded in lifting her into a sitting position but her body flopped back down.  Her family tried everything to rouse her…and Tallulah even went off and collected a trunkful of grass and tried to stuff it in her mouth.  Finally Teresia got around behind her again, knelt down, and worked her tusks in under her shoulder and then, straining with all her strength, she began to lift her.  When she got to a standing position with the full weight of Tina’s head and front quarters on her tusk, there was a sharp cracking sound and Teresia dropped the carcass as her right tusk fell to the ground.  She had broken it a few inches from the lip and well into the nerve cavity…

Elephant use their tusks for everything (and tusks certainly do not grow back).  Just as most people tend to favor one arm,  elephants favor one tusk over the other–usually the right.  Moss goes on to describe how Teresia and Tina’s sisters spent the night with Tina’s body, tenderly covering their fallen family member with sticks and dirt.  In the morning the other elephants reluctantly left, but Teresia was unwilling to depart and kept gently touching her daughter’s body with her foot.  Only when the other elephants repeatedly rumbled to her did she finally move on.

You can find the entirety of Moss’ book online here, but be warned, it is tremendously sad—like an elephant version of “The Road” except with more likeable characters.

Elephant Mother & Calf (photo by Douglas Aja)

Elephant Mother & Calf (photo by Douglas Aja)

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