I recently returned from a three week safari in Botswana, a beautiful country in Southern Africa where the dawns break pale lavender and the golden sunsets fill the sky with flaming orange clouds. In other times, people used to go on safari to hunt and kill wild animals. I would never do that. Never. The purpose of my safari was just the opposite—to observe African animals in their native habitat, to admire them, to pay them my deepest respect.
Every day, we’d go out with a licensed guide in our four-wheel-drive jeep and roam the bush. We were lucky enough to see many of the native species as they went about their day: lion, leopard, cheetah, giraffe, impala, hippo, hyena, kudu, baboon, crocodile, monkey, birds of prey like vultures and eagles, and birds of beauty like storks and lilac-breasted rollers. But of all the creatures we saw, it was the elephants that touched my heart the most. These gentle giants made me feel how closely we creatures of the earth are bound to one another.
The African elephant is the largest living land mammal on Earth. When you observe one up close, you are awed by its massive size. As a relatively small two-legged creature, at first I didn’t feel like I had much in common with the elephant—those grey wrinkly giants spraying water and dirt on their backs with their muscular trunks, gobbling down 300 pounds of grass and bark a day, flapping their ears to keep cool in the blazing African heat. But the more I sat and observed the elephants, the more I lost sight of the external differences between us. They began to feel so human to me. Or maybe I began to feel more elephant. I couldn’t help but immerse myself in their experience, their communities, and yes, their feelings.
As a mom myself, the first thing I noticed was the way they care for their young. Elephants travel in maternal herds, with the young calves always on the inside, being guarded and protected by the other females. The matriarch, or dominant female, is the backbone of the family. You can actually see the elephants interacting with one another, sharing duties. If a calf becomes orphaned, the others will adopt it. If they come across the bones of a dead elephant, they will stop and fondle them, in what seems to be a process of grieving, or at least, remembering. In so much of how they behaved, I saw our human behavior at its best.
That made it even more shocking to discover that the African elephant—these wonderful, sensitive, robust creatures—are in grave danger, largely from two sources. The first is the destruction of their habitat. Elephants require a great deal of space to graze and find sufficient food. As the population grows, and as industrialization spreads, their habitat is being eroded by human development. Simply put, they are running out of land to find food so that they can survive.
The second threat to the elephant population are the huge scale losses they have suffered at the hands of poachers, who slaughter them for their ivory tusks. Many societies admire ivory for its beauty and for its supposed medical uses (although there are no proven medical benefits from ivory). Consequently, there is a huge demand for ivory, and illegal poaching is still prevalent. We have evidence of poachers engaging in mass shootings of herds of elephants, of using poisoned arrows, of cutting off the elephant’s faces to retrieve their tusks which are partially embedded in their heads. How cruel! How useless! How unthinkable!
Elephants are crucial to life in Africa. They are known as a keystone species, which means they play a critical role in maintaining a whole environmental community. Known as the “megagardeners” of Africa, elephants dig water channels for other animals, disperse tree seeds, and clear grasslands for firebreaks. If they disappear, the ecology of Africa, as we know it, will be severely compromised.
And think of it. The extinction of elephants means that none of you will have the opportunity to see and experience for yourselves the wonderment that these creatures provide.
No. No way. That can’t happen.
Say to yourself, “That won’t happen, not on my watch!”
To protect the future of the elephant we have to do four things:
(1) Stop the ivory trade.
(2) Protect the elephants’ environment to give them adequate room to feed and survive
(3) Make and enforce the strongest possible anti-poaching laws
(4) Let everyone know how important elephants are in our world, and how we have to protect these intelligent, emotional, social and necessary creatures.
You can help with this. Check out organizations that protect wildlife, like the World Wildlife Fund or The African Wildlife Foundation. Donate some money, no matter how little, to a group that protects elephants and other wildlife. Read about elephants. Tell everyone you know about the poaching problem. Write to people in power. Speak up!
Remember that everything you do makes a difference.
Oh, and if you ever get a chance to see elephants in the wild, and I hope you do, please tell them I love them.
Lin Oliver is a children’s book author and writer-producer of television series and movies for children. With Henry Winkler, she writes the New York Times best-selling book series, Hank Zipzer: World’s Best Underachiever, which is also a hit television series on the BBC. She is also the author of the Who Shrunk Daniel Funk books, Sound Bender and The Shadow Mask, middle grade novels she coauthored with Theo Baker. Her latest works are the Here’s Hank chapter book series (with Henry Winkler) and the highly praised Little Poems for Tiny Ears, illustrated by Tomie dePaola. She is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Learn more at www.linoliver.com