Gavin Tollman, CEO of Trafalgar, writes exclusively for ABTA Magazine this World Elephant Day.
While the lion may be deemed ‘king of the jungle’, without question, it is the elephant that boldly, silently and majestically commands the crown of king of all beasts.
I have always admired elephants. I recall with vivid clarity, back in 1995, being woken with abruptness by a large bull elephant who was alarmingly close to my tent at Chikwenya Safari Lodge, Zimbabwe. There was nothing but a sheet of canvas between us. A deep, raw, sensation engulfed me: be silent, be respectful, enjoy every single second as, after all, you’re not going anywhere until he has finished eating and decides to move on.
Being this close to an elephant, you cannot help but be overawed by their dramatic presence: their might yet delicacy, their natural splendour plus spirituality. For me, there is no other animal in the world that compares. They are distinctively unique. To observe their intelligence, compassion and intuitive care for one another, to hear their gentle rumble in the distance, to feel the sheer force yet grace of their being, stays with you forever.
This fascination with elephants remains. I carry an inner desire to one day spend significant time to understand more about them and the extraordinary extent of their emotions. As individual creatures, and as a collective boldness of herd, they inspire a profound appreciation.
To this day, whenever I am on safari, whether on the banks of Zimbabwe’s great Zambezi River, the breath-taking beauty Okavango Delta of Botswana, or at random watering holes in South Africa’s iconic Kruger Park, I always set aside time to thoughtfully observe and absorb the behaviour of these imposing animals.
Sunday August 12 is #WorldElephantDay. It is a day that, admittedly, stops my heart with sadness. Why? Because it symbolises the risk these great creatures face. This day was designated for one simple reason: this remarkable species was disappearing at a rate of one every 15 minutes, according to the globally respected Wild Heart Wildlife Foundation. Worryingly, this day is now critical because of significant government changes:
- March 2018. The Trump Administration quietly reversed regulations put in place by President Obama that banned Americans from importing body parts of African elephants killed for the sport of trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia. This change of policy was imposed despite the fact that, in the last quarter of 2017, President Trump himself branded big game trophy hunting as a ‘horror show’.
- June 2018: The wildlife and diamond rich African nation of Botswana, home to more than a third of the elephants left in Africa and unlike many of its Southern African neighbours banned trophy hunting in 2014, indicated that legalisation of commercial ivory trade is likely. Horrifically, Parliament adopted a motion asking government to consider lifting the ban on hunting and shooting of elephants in areas that are not designated as game reserves and national parks. History is being rewritten, in a way that is not inscribing a future in which we can feel proud.
In addition, the Endangered Species Act, which for 45 years has safeguarded fragile wildlife while blocking ranching, logging and oil drilling on protected habitats, is also coming under attack from lawmakers.
To say I find all of this incomprehensible is a gross understatement. How can we call our world civilized when we are initiating a direct threat on some of the greatest gifts from Mother Nature? Elephants are only endangered because of humans. Humans have been hunting these stately yet defenceless creatures for ivory for centuries, not to mention destroying their natural habitat. it’s estimated there are a mere 415,000 el elephants left in the wild of Africa – a shameful decline from the 3.5 million+ that freely, confidently and innocently walked the continent’s great lands at the beginning of the 20th century. If this abhorrent behaviour continues there will be no wild elephants within our lifetime. Unthinkable. Their fate is in our hands.
To quote Sir David Attenborough: “…there are three times as many human beings in the world as when I was starting [my career] in 1952, the effect human beings are having is profound, we are having a great, damaging effect. “Because they are out of touch with the natural world, most of us don’t see that effect we have and don’t understand the processes of the natural world that makes it of crucial importance to the future of humanity.
The message is clear. If it’s left as is for elephants to battle the ongoing threats from humans, there’s no question about it – they would lose. We need to unite as humanitarians, be proactive global citizens and ensure that we do our utmost to preserve and protect these incredible creatures in the wild, for future generations. The time to make a difference is now.
In the year where my family and I have paid homage to our beloved homeland with the introduction of Trafalgar’s inaugural Africa programme, which also coincides with the centenary of the late, great Nelson Mandela – ‘Madiba’ , I share a quote where he exemplifies the sentiment succinctly: “We can change the world and make it a better place. It is in your hands to make a difference.”
All is not yet lost, but it soon could be. I urge everyone to play their part and offer some simple steps to tread in the right direction:
- Visit elephants in countries where they live in the wild – tourism benefits the economy, provides needed jobs, deters poachers and abuse, and gives you the opportunity to appreciate the beauty, intelligence and emotional capacity of these magnificent giants
- Do not, under any circumstances or levels of persuasion, buy ivory or other wildlife products. Be an elephant-aware consumer. Always
- Only promote or travel with safe, ethical elephant tourism organisations. Do not support those that exploit or abuse elephants and other animals for entertainment and profit.
- Actively support healthy, alternative, sustainable livelihoods for people who have traditionally relied on elephants, wild animals and natural resources. Learn about indigenous cultures that have traditionally lived in harmony with elephants. And support organisationsthat are working to protect the habitat for wild elephants and finding solutions for human-elephant conflict
Through my many world travel and life experiences I have been fortunate to experience so much greatness around the globe. However, I remain inspired by the desire to assimilate further with elephants. Their extraordinary presence their quiet, humble, yet magnitude of presence has captivated me for most of my life. And for us humans to ensure their continued presence on this planet will, without doubt, change our world, for the better.
These magnificent mammals must be protected and allowed to freely wander their natural, wild habits in an uninhibited way. As a snapshot of an insight into these most curious creatures, I share with you some footage taken by a dear family friend who is also a legendary wildlife guide in Africa and an outstanding photographer. Much of what I know about the bush I owe to the very talented Mike Myers.
The future wellbeing and wonder of the world’s elephant population is in our hands. Let us ensure we are the generation that halted the decline of the herbivorous heroes and made a difference to these great grey animals. In the words of the Sir David Attenborough, speaking on their plight: “Are we happy to suppose that our grandchildren may never be able to see an elephant except in a picture book?” I for one am most certainly not. I urge you to join the charge.