We may very well be responsible for the extinction of this majestic animal because of our region’s growing demand for ivory. Founder Tan Lili speaks to Let Elephants Be Elephants (LEBE) founders Nadya Hutagalung and Dr Tammie Matson to find out more.
Photo: Let Elephants Be Elephants (LEBE)
Fact #1: Two-thirds of African forest elephants were killed in the last decade.
Fact #2: Some 30,000 elephants are being slaughtered illegally every year.
Fact #3: Most of the ivory cruelly derived from Africa’s poached elephants end up in Asia, especially China and Thailand (it’s common to see ivory for sale on the streets of Bangkok).
Fact #4: By 2020, large groups of elephants could be extinct – that’s just six years from now.
The list could go on, but the most important point is that we are wholly responsible for the future of elephants in the wild. In the 1980s, the main markets for ivory driving a devastating poaching spree on elephants were the US and Europe. Today, it’s Asia, particularly China and Thailand. Vietnam and Cambodia are also emerging as ivory transit and consumption hotspots, according to WildAid, an NGO dedicated to ending illegal wildlife trade.
While it’s great that authorities across the region have tightened ivory trade controls – in April this year, Singapore authorities intercepted $2 million worth of illegal ivory – the demand for ivory is still on the rise. However, according to a recent study in China, all that could change – we just have to actively raise awareness of the way ivory is brutally sourced. Of the survey participants, 70 percent of them reported they would not buy ivory had they been aware of the cruelty behind poaching.
Meet the inspiring faces behind LEBE, Nadya Hutagalung and Dr Tammie Matson. Photo: Let Elephants Be Elephants (LEBE)
And herein lies the purpose of the Let Elephants Be Elephants (LEBE) campaign. Co-founded by the multi-talented artiste Nadya Hutagalung and elephant expert Dr Tammie Matson, LEBE hopes to raise awareness of poaching in Asia and reduce the number of people buying ivory. Last April, the two embarked on a mission in Africa to experience first-hand the devastating impact of elephant poaching. Their journey was documented and aired on National Geographic channels in Singapore and Indonesia, and will be shown in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines later this year.
To understand the issues of poaching better, we spoke to Nadya and Dr Matson about elephant behaviour and the impact of illegal ivory trade. Read on.
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges of this mission?
Dr Matson & Nadya: “Overcoming ignorance is one of the biggest challenges. To reduce demand for ivory, we need to let people know that the consumption of ivory in Asia is what is causing the epidemic of elephant poaching in Africa. I think a lot of people think this was a problem in the 1980s that went away when the international ivory ban came into place, but what people don’t know is that there are now new markets for ivory in different parts of the world, and the main culprit today is Asia. Most of the ivory from poached elephants goes to China, and much to Thailand (the largest unregulated market for ivory globally), but it moves between other Asian countries illegally to get there, including Singapore, which is why we all need to work together to get on top of this problem.”
Photo: Let Elephants Be Elephants (LEBE)
We know elephants live in tight matriarchal family groups, and that they “never forget”. What is the impact of poaching on a typical herd?
Dr Matson & Nadya: “Poaching has a devastating impact on the families of the murdered elephants. Can you imagine how it would feel if you watched your mother and sisters or aunties killed right in front of you? Sometimes the elephants are still alive when their faces are hacked off to get the ivory. You’d be traumatised if this happened to your loved ones – and it’s exactly the same for elephants. Babies orphaned by poaching experience a kind of post-traumatic stress. Poaching of the famed ‘great tuskers’ like Satao, the largest of them all in East Africa, who was just killed for his tusks, removes important genetic material from herds. These big bulls are the most likely to pass on their genes to the next generation, as they are preferred by the females. When we lose them, we lose their genes too. And of course, the loss of matriarchs, the female leaders of the herds, is devastating to the younger elephants, who no longer can benefit from her knowledge and experience of how to survive in the wild. Much of what elephants need to survive comes from learning from their elders.”
What triggered your interest in elephants in the first place?
Dr. Matson: “I had done my PhD on a threatened antelope in Namibia (south west Africa), the black-faced impala, and after six years work on them, I was looking for a new challenge when I went to Bushmanland in north-east Namibia, home of the San Bushmen. I loved the area and the people, and the chief of the Bushmen at the time suggested that his people needed work done on the human-elephant conflict situation. I obtained a research permit and the funding to do the job, even though I’d never worked on elephants before. And of course, once you work on elephants for a little while, you really fall under their spell. The elephants in that part of Africa are really tough and quite wild. But I witnessed some of the most heartbreaking and inspiring things working in that part of the world and watching elephant families. I think we humans could learn from them.”
Nadya: “It was one night at a year-end gathering when I met Tammie and she was sharing amongst a group of us about the situation the elephants were facing due to the demand for ivory being driven by Asian consumers. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and wanted to find out more. So very quickly we hatched a plan to go to Africa and meet the world’s foremost authorities in elephant study and science. They were all of the opinion that the ‘far east’ was what was driving the highest levels of poaching that they had seen since the global ban on ivory took place in 1989.”
Photo: Let Elephants Be Elephants (LEBE)
What’s your most memorable experience during the production of the documentary?
Nadya: “There were quite a few to be honest but I will share just one that really stands out for me. The first was the day I met Tim. Not only is he one of the largest bulls in Kenya, but also one of only around 100 left in the world of his size. He was in musth – meaning, he was looking to mate – and that in turns means his hormones were raging so he could be dangerous and temperamental. It was the end of the day and I was with Katito Sayialel of Amboseli Trust for Elephants and Richard Bonham of Big Life Foundation in the car when we caught a glimpse of Tim with a group of about five other herds of elephants. He walked right up to the car and stopped about three metres away, stayed for a minute and then walked a metre close, and spent another minute just staring at us. And then he stepped closer again. I must have stopped breathing for some time. He then shook his head and walked away. Richard, who was sitting in the back of the car, said what just happened was incredible and rare, especially because Tim was in musth. According to Richard, it was as if Tim came up to thank us and, at the same time, ask for help.”
Dr Matson: “I think both Nadya and I were pretty shocked by the sight of carcasses of elephants and rhinos that we saw in Kenya. No matter how many times you see poached carcasses, even for me as a scientist, it’s still incredibly sad knowing that they have such close family bonds – just like us – and that the others will grieve for years afterwards. It was an emotional roller coaster because even though we were there to see the reality of the poaching situation, there were many inspiring moments too, like watching the Amboseli elephant families totally relaxed and enjoying the long green grasses of the late wet season, and meeting the orphaned baby elephants at Daphne Sheldrick’s elephant orphanage in Nairobi. We left with a real feeling of hope, because we saw great commitment on the ground from people like Richard Bonham of the Big Life Foundation. We also know we were in a unique position to tell this interconnected story about Africa and Asia, which we hope will stop people from buying ivory.”
When you witness heartbreaking sights of the consequences of elephant poaching, what goes through your mind?
Dr Matson: “First, you think about the families. It’s just like when a human dies – it’s devastating because it’s a sister or a mother or a grandparent that’s gone and that family will never be the same again. Then you get angry because you know that this is happening due to the illegal ivory trade, which is driven by greed, corruption, wealth in Asia and poverty in Africa. And then you want to do something to stop the demand for ivory at its source – Asia – because we know that Africa cannot win this war alone. It’s incredibly motivating what we saw in Africa, and I hope that when people watch the film or visit our website at letelephantsbeelephants.org and watch the short videos, they’ll feel motivated to join us and take the pledge to say no to ivory. If we all raise our voices together to spread the word, we can change things. With 30,000 elephants being killed illegally annually, the future of elephants in the wild depends on it.”
Be part of the LEBE movement by saying “No” to ivory here. To get updates on the LEBE campaign, Like them on their Facebook page.
About The Author: A founder of Material World, Tan Lili has previously worked in magazines The Singapore Women’s Weekly and Cosmopolitan Singapore, as well as herworld.com (now herworldplus.com, the online counterpart of Her World). She is now a freelance writer who works on this website full-time. Lili hopes to travel the world, work with wild animals, and discover more awesome Twilight fan-fiction. Follow her on Twitter @TanLiliTweets.