A HEARTBREAKING catastrophe is unfolding in the great forests and on the savannahs of Africa.
Amid all the political instability and human suffering, people are waking up to the dreadful fact that if the current rate of elephant poaching continues, there will be next to no wild herds left by 2025.
Renowned broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough recently asked: “Are we happy to suppose that our grandchildren may never be able to see an elephant except in a picture book?”
The most conservative estimates reckon 25 000 are being slaughtered annually for their tusks. There are just 400 000 left.
Despite the international ban on selling ivory, there have been two “one-off” sales — the most recent to China and Japan in 2008.
An ever-growing Chinese middle class sees ivory as the ultimate status symbol and the demand is accelerating.
All for what? Trinkets, chopsticks, toothpicks and — how’s this for an obscene parody of beauty? — ivory carvings of elephants. Never in the field of human vanity have so many died for so very little.
The latest research on elephants makes this even more shocking. These remarkable animals challenge our assumptions of human “uniqueness”.
They have a range of emotions comparable to our own, deep feelings, self-awareness, body language, communication skills and matriarchal family structures that put many of us to shame in terms of love and loyalty.
Dame Daphne Sheldrick, after more than 50 years of study, says: “They are like us, only better”.
Elephants mourn their dead, returning to and tenderly touching the bones of lost loved ones. Asked about this moving fact, one poacher declared on Al-Jazeera TV: “A funeral for them is a party for me.”
Yep. He can shoot even more.
Of course, this is nothing new. Early British colonialism was partly based on ivory trading.
But this is a long way from Col Bufton-Tufton and his cast of idiots. Elephants now face armed militia with night-vision glasses, helicopters and AK47s. And they know the score. Researchers have seen a change in behaviour, with fear and panic rising as mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters are hacked to bits.
A few weeks ago, 82 elephants in northern Zimbabwe were found dead from cyanide poisoning next to a watering hole. That’s horrific enough, but please contemplate for a moment how they must have died.
Think of the beauty, majesty, elegance and innocence as they trooped to drink, their infants toddling along beside them.
Now think of their death throes. These graceful titans, trying to protect and revive their young before themselves succumbing.
Mothers have their faces hacked off for the tusks, often while they are still alive and as their infants look on.
Places like the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Kenya are few and far between, but they do heroic work. One of the most touching things you will see are these babies slowly learning to trust members of the species that destroyed their families and desecrated their lives.
The vast ivory trade is killing children and funding war via al-Qaeda-linked groups such as al-Shabaab (responsible for the Nairobi mall atrocity) and the Janjaweed militia.
It gives cash to the likes of Joseph Kony and his murderous Lord’s Resistance Army with their child soldiers.
And the slaughter is robbing many African children of a future. Once the last elephants have disappeared so, in many countries, will a vital part of the economy. Tourists don’t much like rotting carcasses.
The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has a lot on his plate at the moment, but last year he said: “How shockingly destructive and historically shameful it would be if we did nothing while a great species was criminally slaughtered into extinction.”
Our humanity is cheapened and diminished by what is happening. Our souls are tarnished. We need to retain our sense of wonder and to know that somewhere in the wilderness, in the last open spaces of the world, these gentle giants are living as nature intended.
Make no mistake, there are good people in China who are fighting this trade — the basketball legend Yao Ming for one.
There is also huge ignorance of the carnage involved in getting “elephants teeth”. But there is also, I am afraid to say, huge indifference.
Ivory consumers the world over need to ask themselves which is more beautiful: a family of elephants by a watering hole at sundown or an ivory cigarette holder?
An elephant never forgets and unless this stops, our grandchildren will never forgive.
Nicky Campbell is a Scottish journalist and animal lover.