Lately I’ve been haunted by a photo. In it, a mother elephant and her baby are running across a road in West Bengal, India. The mother has her head down and ears forward, heading for safety in the trees. A ball of fire clings to her right foot; her tail appears singed. The baby’s hind legs are engulfed in flames. In the background, a crowd of men is running away, some pausing to gape and jeer over their shoulders. They are the reason for the fire. They have thrown firecrackers and balls of flaming tar at the animals. The image, taken by Biplab Hazra and chosen by the Indian conservation group Sanctuary Asia as this year’s winner of its annual wildlife photography contest, is titled “Hell Is Here.”
Where elephants go, unfortunately, hell seems to follow.
Over the past two decades, the global populations of both Asian and African elephants have declined precipitously because of poaching, habitat loss caused by human encroachment and subsequent conflicts resulting from the crowding together of people and very large animals.
As part of an international effort to curb poaching and protect elephants, the Obama administration tightened restrictions on the domestic sale of ivory and on legal commercial hunting in Africa. In 2014 it implemented a ban that prohibited Americans from importing trophies from hunts in Zimbabwe.
On Thursday the Trump administration announced that it would lift the ban and earlier this month said it would allow trophies from Zambia as well. Hunting advocacy groups and the National Rifle Association celebrated the decision. It was not too difficult to imagine that the president’s sons, Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr., would also cheer this change — they have hunted elephants for sport in the past. Don Jr. even posed in Zimbabwe in 2011, ammunition slung around his waist, holding up the tail he had cut off a dead elephant lying behind him. Criticism of the decision was swift from other corners, however. Perhaps swift enough to give the president pause: Late Friday, he tweeted that he was putting the “big game trophy decision on hold” for further review.
I hope a review convinces him to let the ban stand because the last thing elephants need is more people shooting them. Between 1979 and 1988, more than half of Africa’s elephant population was killed for the ivory trade, some 700,000 animals. After widespread outcry, bans were put in place and conservation efforts strengthened, and elephant populations slowly recovered into this century, when, conservation advocates say, China’s ascendant middle class began fueling a rising demand for ivory with price seemingly no object: $1,000 for a pair of chopsticks, hundreds of times that for a whole carved tusk.
Between 2002 and 2011, 62 percent of African forest elephants vanished, and between 2007 and 2014, the numbers of savanna elephants dropped by nearly a third, with tens of thousands killed each year.
Poachers, increasingly soldiers and members of rogue militias from the Central African Republic and Sudan, among other countries, shoot elephants with automatic rifles, on foot or from helicopters. They poison water holes, killing tuskless animals as collateral damage. They kill park rangers who get in their way and swell their own ranks with kidnapped villagers. Income from the sale of the tusks is used to buy weapons and prolong gruesome human conflicts. Organized crime syndicates make fortunes bringing ivory to market, mostly in East Asia.
Like many people, I have loved elephants since I was a small child. And I am afraid for them. There is a real possibility that elephants will vanish in the not distant future.
Elephants draw charisma from their wondrous size, but that brings vulnerability, too. They are large targets in every way. They can’t dart away into the underbrush to hide from bullets; they need vast amounts of food and water, and space to roam. A group of elephants obliviously crossing a farmer’s field in Africa or Southeast Asia can do enough damage with their huge feet and foraging trunks to bring about both economic ruin and their own consequent demise. But the elephants in Mr. Hazra’s photo had not accidentally trampled anyone. Their attackers weren’t seeking profit, nor were they wealthy trophy enthusiasts like the Trump sons or the founders of GoDaddy and Jimmy John’s, who appear to have all been willing to pay between $25,000 and $60,000 to kill an elephant and take home pieces of its body. The men in West Bengal burned the animals for pleasure.
Those who kill and torment elephants seem to experience the animals’ size as a provocation. The attendant desire to gawk and jeer at elephants brought low is an old one. In 1903, to cite one famous example, an Asian elephant, Topsy, was publicly executed by a combination of poison, electrocution and strangulation on Coney Island. Edison Manufacturing Co. sent a film crew to document the event, and so it lives on. Topsy’s death has been viewed more than 760,000 times on YouTube.
All this despite the fact that we know elephants to be among the most intelligent and emotionally complex animals on the planet. Elephants play, mimic, use tools, and communicate with a wide vocabulary ranging from blasting trumpets to low frequency rumbles that can travel miles. Within their close-knit matriarchal herds, they cooperate and make group decisions. They seem able to recognize, even predict, distress in other individuals and to offer assistance.
A sliver of hope for elephants emerged last year when China, by far the biggest consumer of ivory, announced it would ban its domestic trade. This long-sought reversal was the result of sustained foreign pressure and shifting internal attitudes, nudged along by personal pleas and educational campaigns from celebrities such as Yao Ming and Prince William.
What could justify the commercial hunting of threatened animals? The general answer is that the proceeds from the hunt — the huge fees people in search of these trophies fork over — can go to conservation.
Whether or not such an argument is morally persuasive, the implementation of such a system requires a stable host country where corruption is kept in check and conservation programs are effective. Elephant trophies can legally be taken from South Africa, for example, but the 2014 ban reflected the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s conclusion that Zimbabwe had not demonstrated its hunts were furthering the preservation of the species. Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s longtime dictator who is currently under house arrest after a military coup, reportedly dined on elephant meat for his birthday two years ago. His attitude toward his country’s wildlife is best described as pay-for-slay.
Hell is here, for elephants.
Maggie Shipstead is the author of the novels Astonish Me and Seating Arrangements.