Last month wasn’t a good month for the elephants in Mali. As the herd moved north into the most dangerous part of its migration route, 16 were slaughtered, taken by poachers exploiting a momentary gap in armed government patrols.
The news hit the WILD office with devastating effect. Like many of the people in Mali who treat the elephants as a baraka, a blessing, and a national treasure, the staff at WILD has come to view this herd as a part of our extended family. These aren’t just elephants we are saving; these are our elephants. When one is taken, let alone 16, and despite all the care and attention, sweat and tears we’ve lavished on their protection, it feels like someone special died.
Almost as bad is the knowledge that you failed this time. And for 16 elephants, it was a catastrophic failure.
With news like that, it’s easy to give way to despair. But if despair, what then?
No one ever said that protecting elephants in the remote deserts of Mali – in the face of rebellion, jihadist insurgency and trans-Saharan trafficking – was going to be child’s play. Poignantly, this week, it’s the children who have united in this far-flung alliance of ours to ensure that this herd survives for another generation. And it is children and elephants who have reminded me that giving up is the most irresponsible alternative of all.
Two children, in particular, have been some of the strongest partners of the Mali Elephant Project. Abby, aged 9, and Theo, aged 13, who combined have raised close to $10,000 for the Mali elephants.
These kids are conservation all-stars, and I’m betting I’m not the only one who will discover immense riches in the lessons they, and the animals they are trying to save, have to teach us. Here’s what I learned from Abby, Theo, and the elephants in the last two weeks:
1. Complaining isn’t productive. After a tragedy like this it is necessary to assess and reassess what went wrong. It is of equal importance not to obsess over what is outside of your control, and instead, look for alternative solutions as opposed to pointing fingers. No one knows this better than Abby, who was persuaded by her mother and teacher to hold a school fundraiser for a cause important to her after months of, as Abby put it, “brooding about how the world was going to end because nothing I did made a difference.” After choosing to organize a fundraiser to benefit the Mali Elephant Project and learning more about all the project has accomplished over the years, Abby discovered a sense of pride for what she achieved for the elephants, and a sense of hope for the future.
“To those people who complain about the world,” Abby recently wrote WILD, “well, you’re not helping anything by complaining. You at least have to try to help a cause you hold dear.” To learn more about Abby and her new-found passion for anti-poaching projects, by visiting this news article and watch the YouTube video she created herself!
2. Relationships are at the root of the problem and the solution. We live in a techno-centric world, and therefore it can be easy to forget that the accomplishments of technology are meaningless in a network of broken relationships. Imagine a society full of people with the latest gadgets and devices, but lacking in respect for each other and the planet. Such a place might be terribly, awfully, devastatingly efficient, but not very nice at all. That’s not the world most of us would choose to live in, including Theo, who held a bar mitzvah fundraiser for the Mali Elephant Project in lieu of receiving personal gifts. “I wanted to get at the root of poaching,” Theo told WILD. “The Mali Elephant Project does that by working with local people. It doesn’t ignore people or relocate them. Instead, it helps them protect the elephants.” Because people are part of the landscape too, working with them to support a local vision of a world with healthy and diverse ecosystems is essential, as is forging synergistic relationships with government that support and facilitate their efforts.
3. You’ve got friends: use them. The elephants, incredibly, know who their friends are and as I write this blog, have changed their migration route to remain close to areas of greater security! International trafficking networks and bandits are responsible for the elephant poaching and they operate almost exclusively in the wild, away from the villages. Recent reports from the field indicate that the elephants comprehend this fact and are avoiding these areas. This may be because they can detect explosives, ammunition, presence of bandits hiding in forests and/or they remember where the killings happened last year and are evading those areas. For the first time they are staying close to the communities that have committed themselves to protecting this precious herd. It is inspiring, after so much senseless death, to learn that the animals themselves are not resigned to a violent end; they’re adapting instead!
We are at a bizarre moment in human history when this planet’s most precious and irreplaceable treasure of all – its biodiversity, its living natural wealth – is being uprooted and slaughtered for abstract and short-term gain. We are also living at a time when even children and elephants can contribute to a solution. The first duty of those of us responsible is to be humble enough to receive the lessons they have to offer. And our second duty is to apply them.
Now, more than ever, the future needs us and so do the elephants. It’s time to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and get back to work, carrying in our hearts, always, the torch of headstrong and obdurate hope. Together, in Mali and with the help of Abby, Theo, our local villagers working every day to watch over the elephants, and people like you, we will persist so that the elephants may prevail.