The temperature was a balmy 60 degrees on a mid-November day and spirits were high on the sidewalks of New York City.
At the entrance of Central Park and 79th St., I held up a sign that read The Enormous Elephant Run, though most people were initially drawn to the soft gray elephant ears I wore upon my head. “Elephant Run?” they asked. I nodded, ears flapping and held the sign higher in confirmation. “That way!” I said and pointed in the general direction of the registration tables. “Balloons and people everywhere. You can’t miss it.”
Several other people stopped, curious about the run and the significance of the gray ears being worn by a middle-aged woman smiling and directing the steady of flow of people – young, old, thin and not, some pushing strollers, some with four-legged companions, even one man slowly making his way supported by a walker. The participants had come in ones, twos and tens to participate in the third annual 10K run to benefit the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, based in Nairobi, Kenya.
By raising money and awareness about the precarious position of savanna elephants in Africa as they teeter dangerously close to extinction, the wildlife trust is trying to ensure that the population not only survives but thrives — one baby elephant at a time.
Founded in the late 1970s in memory of David Sheldrick and honoring his passion for Kenya and the conservation of its wildlife, the trust has evolved into the most successful orphan elephant rescue and rehabilitation program in the world. It has reintegrated more than 150 elephants into wild populations.
But why would hundreds of people flock to Central Park from all over the country to run, jog or walk 6.2 miles to help save a handful of elephants when nearly 26,000 each year die at the hands of poachers? That is 85 per day, four each hour, one every 15 minutes. In a word — hope.
To understand the passion that wildlife advocates have for elephants, it is best to understand their nature. The largest land animal on the planet and a keystone species — playing a major role in the ecosystem — elephants are peaceful creatures that have strong family bonds, show deep emotion, solve problems, care diligently for their young, have complex and sophisticated communication abilities and long and textured memories. Elephants also are trusting, thoughtful and generous creatures not just with each other but with other species as well –including human beings. And in the case of the Orphan Elephant Project, that turns out to be the key to their fragile survival.
In the mid-20th century there were an estimated 1.3 million elephants roaming the lands of Africa, but since the 1970s that number has declined steadily primarily because of ivory poaching. The tusks of an elephant are worth thousands of dollars and they have become a commodity for poor communities and large-scale criminals.
In 1989, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species banned all sales of ivory in order to stop the bleeding, literally, of elephants. For just under a decade the elephant populations began to recover, slowly. But in the late 1990s and early 2000s, loopholes were found and exploited in the ivory ban agreement. The burgeoning middle and upper classes of Asia, especially China, created demand for what were considered luxury items – and ivory was at the top of the list.
There are two subspecies of elephants that call Africa home –forest and savanna. Forest elephants inhabit central and western regions and live under the cover of dense rain forests. Though they are harder to count, an estimated 100,000 remain.
Savanna elephants, with large ears and long, curving tusks, roam the southern and eastern parts of the continent. Once so numerous and with a range so vast, it was difficult to measure their foothold on survival. But, according to the Great Elephant Census of 2016, savanna elephant numbers are now at 350,000 — and falling.
That is why the work of the trust is so critical. While elephants bond as a family unit, often for life, it is rare for a nursing elephant under the age of 3 to survive without its own mother. In fact until the age of 10, a young elephant is rarely far from her side. Should tragedy strike, another nursing female will rarely be willing or able to take on the nutritional needs of another young elephant. Thus, if a mother elephant dies, the calf will soon follow. The damage of poaching is now doubled.
Work of the trust
When the trust receives word that a baby elephant has been found wandering alone, injured or at the side of its dead mother, teams are mobilized by land or air to collect the animal (no easy undertaking) and bring it to the Nairobi nursery unit. There it is housed with specialized nutrition, the company of other elephants and, most importantly, the 24-hour care of the keepers.
Despite the trauma, fear and loss that is experienced by this baby elephant, it soon learns to trust. It regains its strength. It leans heavily on its will to live surrounded by kindness, patience, deep love and commitment at the hands of the people dedicated to the elephants’ care, as well as the accepting nature of the other orphans that eagerly welcome the newcomer into the family.
And here is where we circle back to that one word — hope.
The work of the trust is based on the hope that it can get to the orphan in time. The hope that the calf will survive the journey to the nursery. That it will live through the first hour and every hour that comes after. That it is not too sick, too traumatized, too devastated to accept assistance.
The hope that it will take each day and each offering as a step toward a new life and among a new herd. The hope that after many years of committed care and rehabilitation that it will one day step back into the wild with a new herd of welcoming elephants and live its days as it should — roaming the plains of Africa, as its ancestors have done for millions of years.
These hopes have become reality for more than 150 orphans. Moreover, the trust has been gifted with former orphans returning with their wild herds to feed and drink, to find safe shelter and to simply pay a visit to those they remember as family. More often now those same elephants are arriving with their own babies in tow — and the efforts toward success now doubled.
This cause drew people hundreds of miles to Central Park on a November morning to raise more than $80,000, coming together to bolster the tireless work of those who hope to reverse the very real danger of elephant extinction. By raising awareness about the elephant crisis, people were encouraged not to throw their hands up in despair but instead to reach those hands out in hope.
The tide may be turning when it comes to global recognition that poaching must be stopped if the species is to survive. Historically, the United States has ranked second in the amount of illegal ivory crossing its borders, surpassed only by China. In an attempt to address this wrong, President Barack Obama recently signed a federal ban on its importation and a near total ban on the commercial trade of ivory.
Five states have passed laws banning the trade of ivory and many more have legislation in process. Massachusetts has a bill in committee but it has been met with opposition and a watering down of restrictions. A revised bill likely will be considered in the next session.
The elephant crisis is made by humans and must be solved by humans. Maintaining the status quo will mean that in 10 years wild savanna elephants could number as few as 100,000. The population would fall from “vulnerable” to “critical” — steps away from extinction.