The elephants of Africa have have a fix on family values. They look out for their calves and each other. When an elephant dies, often from a bullet, the herd tries to raise the fallen animal; to lift it back on its feet; to make it whole again. They do not appear to understand death, these the largest and most glorious of land mammals.
They walk their young much as human families do, often the adults sheltering the young'uns between them. Soon there may be no African elephants left in the wild.
The great, kindly beasts are facing a holocaust. They are being slaughtered on an industrial scale by poachers for their ivory, which is fetching record prices in Asia. A similar extermination of the rhinoceros is taking place, but it is to the elephant that I feel an affiliation, an affiliation tinged with guilt.
My mother and one of her brothers hunted elephants in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, the 1920s. She was proud, and as time passed, a little ashamed of her hunting days. It may even have been that she liked to be thought of as a retired big game hunter and had never actually pulled the trigger. As elephant became more endangered, she clammed up.
My own sin is that in Kenya, at the Nairobi airport, I once bought a small ivory pendant for someone. It had a government certificate of guarantee that it was made of “old ivory” that had been taken – I find it hard to say harvested — when it was legal. I wanted to believe that and I did at the time, but I doubt it now. I wish, to my soul, that I had not bought it.
That piece of ivory, my mother and life in Zimbabwe all came back to me with pain when I learned of the latest, greatest, most ghastly slaughter of elephants – and, in the course of it, many other innocent creatures and maybe people, too – the poisoning with cyanide of the watering holes of 41 elephants. Cyanide is widely available in Zimbabwe, where it is used in gold mining.
It happened in the Hwange National Park southwestern Zimbabwe. There are photographs of the carcasses on the Web. They died horribly and, because of their size, probably slowly.
The thought of those magnificent animals, bellowing in pain, trying to save each other and writhing as the poison did its atrocious work has been with me for days. I cannot shake the horror of the holocaust in the bush.
There is a horror aplenty to go around, from Syria on down. But the gross indecency of the slaughter of the Zimbabwe elephants and the way it was done; cow and calf and bull alike going down in agony for money.
There is blame to go around for the elephants' poisoning outside of the lawlessness of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe. There is the unfettered trade for rhino horn — Didn't Viagra take care of that? I had hoped so. — and for the ivory used in jewelry and fine furniture. I have seen, in my youth, elephant tusks mounted just for show. And their feet, after treatment, used as indoor planters. Deadly decorations.
There is an international regime to intercept and prevent the looting of Africa but, like many international agreements, it is underfunded. It has also fallen prey to, of all things, sequestration on Capitol Hill.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service mans the front lines in persuading other governments not to allow trade in ivory, rhino horn and other products from endangered species. Most importantly though, this small but critical corps fights the use of the United States as a transhipment point. Yet, according Daniel Ashe, writing in Scientific American, there are only 216 agents covering the global movement of animal contraband and there are 63 vacancies that cannot be filled because of budget sequestration.
I wonder if any members of Congress can hear, in the far recesses,of their minds, the ghostly trumpeting of 41 beautiful giants as they go down to cyanide poisoning? I can, and I always will. — For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate