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Yesterday I visited the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, Kenya. Watching the elephants play and dunk in the mud was very different than seeing bored elephants in the zoo or even watching the Ringling Parades that take place in Washington, D.C., when the circus is in town.

These elephants were orphaned after their parents were killed by poachers. They are infants, and children in elephant years and are well cared for. They don’t behave like elephants in captivity. They frolic and have fun and interact with each other. They played with a soccer ball very much in the same way that humans would. Elephants are known to also have emotions similar to humans, and there are quite a few publications revealing how they mourn their dead. A well-known story in Kenya is that one orphaned elephant became so attached to its keeper that it died of a broken heart when she left to attend a family event in another country.

There has also been quite a bit of controversy about “culling” elephant herds, but one thing is certain: There is way too much poaching elephants for their tusks. According to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, there is still an active ivory carving industry in Asia. When I was growing up, going on safari meant shooting animals and bringing home gifts, often gifts of ivory. Fortunately, things have changed since the mid-20th century and most people in the United States would be horrified to receive a gift of ivory. Hunting in all of Kenya was outlawed in 1979.

The numbers are staggering, not only for elephants but for other animals as well. Sheldrick’s statistics are sobering. Thirty years ago, there were three million elephants in Africa. Today, there are about 400,000. Lions have not faired much better. The science had the African lion population at about 100,000 but more recent work has shown that the lion population is about 30,000. With poaching, disease and encroachment of their habitat, that number will most like further decrease.

There has been some hope. CITES, the acronym for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species has put an embargo on selling ivory. At the time, the idea to reduce killing of elephants did not work. Hong Kong was allowed to sell its stockpile of ivory. Afterward, elephants were killed again since it was impossible to tell old ivory from new ivory.

Like many international efforts, the CITES program has come under fire. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has been quite critical of its work. The trust it says that the CITES Conference in 2000 was “quite openly biased in a further demise of elephants, being biased in favor of the Southern African protrade (Ivory) lobby, and Kenya and India found themselves alone.” The Sheldrick paper continues, “The message was out – elephants were up for grabs. With the selling of southern stockpiles, illegal ivory could again be ‘laundered’ into the legal system.”

I have spent quite a bit of time in Africa, and the corruption and failed state problem is huge. The issues of enforcement of laws and poaching are huge. Without a worldwide ban on ivory, as well as other wild animal products, it is going to be very difficult to stop the killings.

Other than the pure enjoyment we all get from seeing, touching and learning about elephants, we now know that bio-diversity is also a very important. We get important clotting agents from horseshoe crabs and their unusual blue blood. We have used swine for their thyroid hormone. The list goes on and on. One visitor at Sheldrick noticed the way the elephants propel themselves up is similar to the way children move in an early diagnosis of muscular dystrophy. Who knows if something in their genetic makeup may unlock the secrets of that horrible disease?

Africa is our heritage, our treasure and the place that we all came from. We need to not destroy our home, our roots and the animals that grace the continent. It is our duty, and preservation of the wild-elephant population is part of that obligation.

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