Have-a-go heroes: the women saving elephants in their free time.


Christine Ottery, The Guardian

Date Published

See link for photos. 

If dedication and hard work were all it took, Maria Mossman would have saved every last elephant by now. Despite having two children, aged five and seven, and a part-time job for a large corporation, she also spends 35 to 40 hours a week as an unpaid activist. It was even more time when the children were younger. “I used to come home from work at about 4pm and then sit on my computer, networking with other groups and activists until two o’clock in the morning,” she recalls.

Mossman, 41, got heavily involved in elephant activism in 2013. As well as founding Action for Elephants UK (AFEUK), she’s one of the key organisers of the global elephant and rhino marches. “It’s really hard work,” she says. “Really stressful. Just before the marches you say: ‘We’re not going to do this again.’ And as soon as one is over you start planning the next one.”

Is she committed? Definitely. Unusual? Perhaps not.

“If I am off work, then I am working on my volunteer stuff full-time,” says 42-year-old Salisha Chandra. By day she is communications manager at the Lion Guardians conservation group. By night, she is managing director of the volunteer-run Kenyans United Against Poaching (KUAPO), a board member of Friends of Nairobi National Parkand a core member of the global march team.

“I prioritise and reprioritise constantly,” she says. “There are times when sleep is minimal and more often than not weekends are forsaken – I really do not take much time off. I know I annoy everyone around me with the amount of time I spend at social occasions staring at my phone, trading WhatsApp messages or texts with other fellow activists because we are working on something important. It is a constant battle.”

Val Green, 55, is another activist working a full-time job on top of multiple volunteer positions. As well as her civil service job, she is a fundraising ambassador for the conservation charity David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation(DSWF) in Scotland, and one of the core organisers of the Scotland for Elephants and Rhinos group. Somehow, at home in South Queensferry, Scotland, she still finds time for her 21-year-old daughter and their pets, a cavalier King Charles spaniel and two guinea pigs.

Although elephants are still in a precarious situation, with one killed every 25 minutes, there is enough good news to keep campaigners motivated. The rate of killing is slowing down; China’s ban on the ivory trade will be in place by the end of the year; Thomas Cook recently announced it won’t be selling elephant rides on its holidays; and poachers in Africa are getting tougher punishments.

Green, Mossman and Chandra are part of a global network that is dominated by women. An estimated 80-95% of elephant conservation activists worldwide are female. “I think it has something to do with matriarchy,” elephant campaigner Rosemary Alles told the Invoke website. “Elephants are a matriarchal society – it all depends on the mother, her longevity … If she’s killed, it’s not just losing one animal, it’s like someone just burned down the library. So they are all left chaotic, unable to find their way in droughts, not knowing where to go to find water … I think there’s a bond between women and elephants.”

Thailand’s “elephant whisperer”, Lek Chailert, founder of the Save Elephant Foundation and the Elephant Nature Park sanctuary in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, says: “When I see the animals get abused, I have a mother instinct. I want to work for them, I want to protect them from harm.” And there is no shortage of strong female role models in conservation, from primatologist Jane Goodall to Animals Asia founder Jill Robinson.

Mossman’s activism started when she was watching the news on TV in January 2013 and saw the corpses of 12 elephants that had been poached in Kenya. Then there was another incident in which 89 elephants were slaughtered in a week in Chad. “Thirty-three were pregnant. They were wiping out entire herds. There were reports in other poaching cases that the bullets came down from above, so that meant there were helicopters involved. It was a nightmare.”

Chandra had a similarly emotional awakening in 2013, when poachers slaughtered a family of 11 elephants in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park. “It lit a fire in me,” she recalls. “The barbarism of the act was so horrifying that I could not sit back and stay quiet.”

In 2013 the first International March For Elephants and Rhinos was organised by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and took place in 15 cities around the world. It sparked the creation of dozens of local groups, and a network to co-ordinate them internationally. Off the back of this the Global March for Elephants and Rhinos was founded in 2014 by Rosemary Alles, Denise Dresner and Maria Mossman as a grassroots movement, which took over the reins of organising subsequent marches. Last year, they brought together demonstrators in 140 locations in 40 countries. Mossman describes the annual marches as “really powerful and really emotional”. In 2015, some poachers in Uganda were reportedly moved to hand in their spears afterwards.

It was at the marches that Mossman and Green met the women who now help them to organise events, write letters, raise funds, liaise with the media and create posters, literature and websites. For both women, their core teams are 100% female.

It was the connections made at the 2013 march that led to one of the notable victories in elephant conservation: reducing the demand for ivory from China. The combined forces of grassroots activists, NGO campaigns such as the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s iworry campaign, and Prince William’s awareness-raising work with Tusk put pressure on China to end its ivory trade. But China’s decision was at least partly prompted by a series of protests outside its embassies.

“At the end of [the 2013 march] I was talking to all the people there and everybody was saying that they wanted to be able to go to the Chinese embassy,” Mossman recalls. “There were so many passionate people.” She created AFEUK, together with Denise Dresner, who edits the organisation’s letters; Joanne Smith, who takes care of networking; and Maria Ibrahim, who does the team’s graphics. Their first act was to demonstrate outside the Chinese embassy in London. “We were six weeks old and we were novices, and not really sure what we were doing,” Mossman says. However, they still received “incredible” support from established NGOs.

Care for the Wild helped with media work that landed AFEUK coverage from ITV news, the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail, while the protest featured speakers from the Environmental Investigations Agency and Born Free.

In 2015 AFEUK wrote an open letter to the Chinese prime minister Xi Jinping, calling for China to consider its legacy where ivory was concerned and shut the trade down. David Attenborough co-signed the letter, and it was published everywhere from China to Australia.

“When we started our campaign, China was in absolute denial about its role in elephants being poached across Africa,” says Mossman. “Three years on, it’s banning ivory by the end of this year, and closing down its ivory carving shops.”

“No matter how small a thing you do, whether it is signing a petition from home, writing letters, going to see your MP to marching on the street – every single action helps,” she says.

“I have no doubt,” Chandra adds, “that the work and the voices of so many people across the globe helped push China to stop the domestic ivory trade. Even just a few years ago, the general awareness of what was happening was so limited – people had no idea what it meant to own or purchase an ivory bangle.”

Chandra’s own work in Kenya – where elephant numbers are relatively stable – has been focused on collaborating with the various parts of society that have an interest in elephant conservation. KUAPO has influenced the Kenyan government to get the country’s Wildlife Act passed sooner, bringing in stronger laws around poaching. The trust is also working to help the judiciary “see the worth of wildlife” and make sentencing tougher and more consistent. It has even reached young boys from the Nairobi slum of Kibera, who joined the 2016 protests outside the Chinese Embassy.

Bringing together the political and traditional aspects of Kenyan society, KUAPO has also convinced the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) to meet community elders to foster co-operation on conservation issues, after which the two groups gave joint talks on conservation ethics and the new wildlife law.

“For aeons KWS and Njavungo [Council of Elders] had not sat down in the same room,” Chandra says. “KWS had felt there was no role for elders in conservation management and the elders had felt ostracised by KWS and the laws of the country that forbade them from going into protected areas where their shrines were, for example.”

Val Green, meanwhile, has been pouring her energies into Auction Rangers, a crowd-sourced project whose members report suspicious-looking listings on auction websites that have policies banning the sale of ivory. The concept was roadtested in January by members of the Scotland for Elephants and Rhinos group, with encouraging results.

Over the course of two days, Green and her colleagues searched auction sites and reported 57 items that they strongly suspected of being ivory to sites including eBay, Preloved, Gumtree and Etsy. Of these, 19 items – with a combined value of £10,569 – were immediately taken down. Most auction sites have strict rules about ivory. eBay, for instance, does not allow bones from elephants, walruses and whales; carved and uncarved ivory; fossilised ivory or mammoth tusks; or manufactured items with 5% or more ivory.

According to Green, suspicious items can be identified by searching for terms such as “bovine bone”, “deeply carved Chinese antique”, “faux-ivory”, “cow bone” and “ivory-coloured”, and then sorting by the highest prices. In some cases, photos will make it clear that the rules are being breached; in others sellers will privately confirm that they are selling ivory.

Campaigners have also been targeting other materials derived from endangered species, such as rhino horn, tortoiseshell and leopard fur. ”It’s not just the elephant items that are so upsetting,” says a US-based activist who asks to be identified only as Trudy. “It’s the vintage ocelot coats, the rhino taxidermy head, it’s the lamp with four rhino feet used as its base, it’s the river otter coats, the skins from the coyote heads that ‘can be used as a fun mask on Halloween’, on and on and on.”

In her opinion, very few people uploading items to online auctions have the “age authentication documentation” required to prove that the goods are antiques and therefore exempt from strict anti-trafficking laws. And auction sites rarely ask to see it. “The sellers are counting on this,” she says.

But Trudy, like other activists, is aware that it’s not healthy or sustainable to spend all of her spare time advocating for wildlife. “I am one person,” she says. “I have one computer. I have an eye condition that precludes me from spending extended amounts of time on said computer.”

And Chandra? “I always make sure that I have one hour in the morning to myself,” she says. “Normally it’s when I walk Misty – my labrador retriever – in the forest and gather my thoughts for the day.” Ultimately, no matter how passionate the activists are, they need to take care of themselves if they are to continue to be a voice for the elephants.

• The next Global March for Elephants and Rhinos is on 7 October 2017

• Correction: an earlier version of this piece stated that DSWT had organised the first Global March For Elephants and Rhinos. In fact they organised the first International March For Elephants and Rhinos. We also incorrectly stated that Rosemary Alles was a NASA scientist: in fact she worked as a software engineer through USRA and Caltech for NASA missions. This has now been corrected.