Their numbers were once as large as they are: in 1979, there were about 1.3 million African elephants. By 1989, the population had dropped to half that. Even though an international ban that same year slowed the poachers, in 2012 they killed 35,000 elephants.
Currently, about 96 elephants a day are killed for their tusks, or one elephant every 15 minutes. The street market value of the tusks can reach $15,000. In China, the largest market for illegal ivory, that value explodes to $100,00-$200,000.
Today, August 12, is World Elephant Day.
“World Elephant Day was launched to bring attention to the urgent plight of Asian and African elephants. The elephant is loved, revered and respected by people and cultures around the world, yet we balance on the brink of seeing the last of this magnificent creature.” *
The World Elephant Day organization is dedicated to not only preserving these beautiful animals but also to assuring that captive elephants are treated properly or released into protected sanctuaries.
At this point, you may be wondering why I, a fair trade retailer, am writing about elephants. My fascination with elephants began many years ago when I saw a short documentary about them. A herd of elephants was walking through a jungle forest and came upon a pile of bones, clearly elephants bones from their size.
The herd immediately stopped and began lifting each bone with their trunks, almost as if they were caressing them. This continued for at least an hour, according to the film, and it felt to me like the elephants were grieving for this dead animal. It was so touching watching this memorial service of sorts, that the image has stayed with me for years. This short National Geographic video is similar to the film I saw:
When I started Fair Trade Designs, I discovered another connection with elephants. Fair trade, in its own small but not insignificant way, is doing its part to steer consumers away from elephant ivory products to those made with “vegetable ivory.”
Vegetable ivory is the common name for a tagua nut, the seed of a rainforest palm tree fruit. Its feel, color, and carvability are remarkably similar to elephant ivory. South American fair trade artisans transform the nut into creations ranging from the stunning Rainforest Jewelry that Fair Trade Designs sells to carvings and figurines, such as the meticulously carved little elephant statue sold by One World Projects.
Because these artisans are working under fair trade conditions, they are paid 2-4 times more than the average wage in their local economies. This in turn minimizes their need to work on plantations and cattle ranches, both of which require clear cutting rainforests. So this small but significant fair trade tagua industry has a triple positive impact–it helps lift indigenous South Americans from poverty, aids in saving rainforests, and reduces the market for animal ivory products.
Skeptics may scoff that fair trade’s impact on the elephant population is negligible. But my thinking is that if even one elephant is spared because consumers turned to tagua rather than animal ivory products, it’s more than symbolic.
So on this day dedicated to saving these towering, fascinating creatures, please support the efforts of organizations like The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which is doing so much to save elephants orphaned by poachers, the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation, major supporter of World Elephant Day, and the many other non-profits working to save and care for a fast-disappearing natural wonder of the world. You can also go to the Facebook page of World Elephant Day for more information and to sign the pledge to support save the elephant efforts.
Statistics courtesy of WorldElephantDay.org.