The Last Elephants (book)

Mar 22, 2019 | Commentary

By Don Pinnock & Colin Bell

Is the name of this book prophetic? We hope not, but the signs are worrying so it’s worth pondering. In Africa there’s one elephant for every 20 000 people; fewer than 500 000 according to the Great Elephant Census and well down from the three to five million just a hundred years ago. And while the human population is rapidly increasing, elephant numbers are plummeting. Human/elephant conflict and poaching seem inevitable and we know who wins those contests.

The book began as an idea over a cup of coffee in Cape Town. The result of the 2016 Elephants Without Borders census of savannah elephants co-ordinated by Mike Chase and Kelly Landen had just been made public. It was a shock. On average, three elephants were being killed every hour somewhere in Africa. Add in their forest cousins and that number was an elephant being shot every 15 minutes.

Both of us know Africa well, have many contacts throughout the continent and love elephants. Could we do another kind of census – narrative and photographic – enlisting people on the ground who deal with elephant issues every day? Self-funding the book, we couldn’t afford to pay them. Would they be prepared to donate their time, words and images? We composed an email, listed people across the continent we knew to be involved with elephants, pressed Send and waited.

The response was heart-warming and humbling. Everyone had seen the census results and, like us, were very worried. Chapters poured in from an extraordinary range of people: scientists, poets, game guards, activists, academics, lodge owners and NGO workers. Top wildlife photographers sent portfolios with the message: Take your pick.

This book is a tribute to the many people who work for the welfare of elephants, particularly those who risk their lives for wildlife each day: field rangers and the anti-poaching teams in particular. It is an acknowledegment, also, of the many communities around Africa that have elected to work with elephants and not against them.

The book is also a tribute to such researchers as Iain and Oria Douglas Hamilton, Joyce Poole, Cynthia Moss, Daphne Sheldrick, Mike Chase, Kelly Landon, Michelle Henley and Sharon Pincott and many others – the Jane Goodalls and Diane Fosseys of the elephant world who have dedicated their lives to these great, graceful and engaging animals.

Our hope is that it will help to fulfil two wishes. The first is that the Congress of Parties of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), uplists all elephants in all countries to Appendix 1, forbidding trade of elephants or elephant parts across international borders.

A second wish is that those countries which receive and use legal and poached ivory – primarily China, Vietnam, Laos and Japan – seriously and strenuously ban its trade and use within their borders.

We’re losing elephants fast. They could become extinct. In many countries where they once roamed, particularly in West Africa, they already are. They need and deserve our protection. Let us not have to bear witness to the last wild elephants. That would cause a terrible, unforgivable hurt to the Earth’s living fabric. And in a deep, ancient way, the loss of such intelligent, thoughtful minds that have been with us throughout the existence of our species would leave us so lonely.

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