The sad truth about elephants

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There’s no debate: my new favorite animal is the elephant.

While in Tanzania, we were lucky enough to see hundreds of elephants, from babies and teenagers to matriarchs and large bulls known as “tuskers.” We saw elephants mating, nursing and one in musk (the male equivalent of heat). We drove by as elephants splashed in mud puddles, playfully trumpeted and rummaged for food with their trunks. 

We were lucky. In the not-so-distant future, these sightings will be rare.

During our second day in Tanzania, we met up with the head of African Wildlife Trust, Pratik Patel. The organization, along with Pratik, focus their efforts on anti-poaching, and anti-ivory campaigns.

We sat outside, overlooking hundreds of acres of land set aside for a brand-new “Ivory Elephant” orphanage, as Pratik explained why.

“It’s a genocide,” he explained, emphasizing the latter word. “Yes – a genocide.”

According to a 2012 NPR article by John Burnett, an estimated 11,000 elephants are dying each year for ivory. That was three years ago, and the problem is only getting worse.

Ivory is especially popular in China, but the United States isn’t completely innocent. According to the National Geographic article “U.S One of Largest Ivory Markets,” we’re the second-largest ivory-market in the world.

I couldn’t believe that, and I couldn’t believe the number of wild elephants left: an estimated 13,000.

The story is a heartbreaking one, and we’re running out of time.

After leaving Pratik, we went on a game drive through Terengerie National Park. There, I saw a little baby elephant, tucked beneath it’s mother.

“She’s less than two months old,” our guide explained, pointing out the babies’ wobbly steps.

At that moment, the infant copied her mother and sniffed the air, peering at us. My heart stopped.

Elephants are my new favorite animal, and I’ll do everything in my power to help stop the ivory trade.

A Completely Foreign Culture

The man, who spoke no English, looked toward the trees. He raised his hand-carved bow, pulling back the string made of an antelope’s tendon.

I held my breath. The nine other students with me did the same.

The man kept his arms steady, then in a flash, released the arrow. A puff of multi-colored feathers exploded from the tree and he raced to catch the falling caucus.

While the students surrounding me chattered with excitement and pushed forward to get a picture, I stood in my place. I didn’t know what to think: I’d just seen an animal die.

I’ve been a vegetarian for 12 years. I grew up tucked in a dense community of suburbs next to the city of Detroit, miles and miles away from the closet farm or ranch. Once I moved to Montana, I heard discussions of hunting, but I’d never been closer. And there I was, thousands of miles away in Tanzania, as close as you could get.

The man, and the rest of my group, moved forward. I walked along, secretly hoping he wouldn’t find a bigger animal to kill. But, at the same time, I leaned forward and kept an eye on his every movement.

This man was hunting to feed his tribe. Without the animals he caught, he would starve along with his brothers and sisters, wives and children. This was how he lived, and he generously let us see a peak.

I wasn’t entirely comfortable while we walked around the African bush, the man shooting a handful of more birds, but I wasn’t uncomfortable either. These people were different from me, yet they recognized from birth what I was only starting to uncover: humans are a part of nature, we’re animals like giraffes, elephants and lions, even birds.

I couldn’t watch as they plucked the bird and pulled off it’s skin, grilling the meat over their fire. I was happy when we left their village – littered with skulls, skins and drops of blood. But I look back to that experience more than any other, seeing it as an example of what our whole trip represented.

We are all different. But when it comes down to it, we’re very much the same.

A man from the Hadzabe tribe holds up a bird he just killed. The Hadzabe use small arrow-heads, often coated in poison, to hunt.  Photo by: Gary Kerr

A man from the Hadzabe tribe holds up a bird he just killed. The Hadzabe use small arrow-heads, often coated in poison, to hunt.
Photo by: Gary Kerr

Hadzabe men sit around after their hunt. The tribe is completely nomadic, and lives off the land. There are only 600 members of the tribe left.  Photo by: Gary Kerr

Hadzabe men sit around after their hunt. The tribe is completely nomadic, and lives off the land. There are only 600 members of the tribe left.
Photo by: Gary Kerr

A Global Society; a two-week trip to Tanzania

You don’t hear much about the plane ride.

Students travel halfway across the world and sit in turbulence-ridden aircrafts for 15 plus hours, dealing with crying babies and rock-hard, boxed food. Sometimes claustrophobia sneaks in, other times a bad case of nausea. But as soon the wheels touch the ground, they seem to magically forget the whole ordeal.

At first, my trip to Tanzania was no different. 

We landed in Arusha after the sun had set and the land was cast in shadows. We drove to our lodge blind, forced to use all other senses to take the country in. It smelled of eucalyptuses and bananas, it felt warm, fresh, and inviting. The sounds were different too – all bird calls foreign, insects I couldn’t identify buzzing around our vehicle, and the quiet nature of it all. The bouts of silence were newest to me – there were no cars honking, no trains whistling.

I felt a sense of relief and closed my eyes. It didn’t feel like I’d been traveling for almost two days. I was there and that’s all that mattered.

I didn’t think of the plane ride again until we stopped outside Lake Manyara almost a week later. The water level was low, despite the recent rainy season, and our tour guide explained why.

“Global warming,” he said.

I thought back to the 15 hours I spent stuffed in a small chair on that plane. I was so far from my American life – over a day’s journey – but in that instant I realized the distance didn’t matter. What I did back home, from buying products that supported drying up African wells, to driving my car, impacted the lives of the people of Tanzania. The people that live 9,000 miles away from my home.

For the rest of the trip, I’d notice the little things that connected my American world with my Tanzanian one; the shrinking Lake Eyasi, the baby elephants orphaned by Ivory poaching, even the little boys and girls running around in American shirts.

On the plane ride home, I was able to sit up against the small window. I watched as we flew over oceans, brightly-lit cities and sheets of melting ice. Our world is magically diverse, but I knew as I watched, we were all connected.

I’d heard it before, but it was then that it dawned on me: we are a global society.

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Arusha is one of the largest cities in Tanzania. In it, coke products are found everywhere.

Lake Manyara is one of the many lakes that are getting drier and drier each year. Our guide attributed this to global warming

Lake Manyara is one of the many lakes that are getting drier and drier each year. Our guide attributed this to global warming