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World Elephant Day: A call to end adverts for cruel elephant attractions

This week concludes with World Elephant Day and its global focus on the protection of the African Savannah elephant, the African Forest elephant and the Asian elephant. For wildlife charity Save The Asian Elephant (STAE), the week also started with a huge push to try and secure the future of elephants.

On Monday (6 August) I joined Vegan podcaster Evanna Lynch (aka Harry Potter’s Luna Lovegood) and one of my blog readers, the lovely Annabel Lever (who’s been helping out at the Nat Geo Kids‘ office this week), outside 10 Downing Street as STAE staff, trustees, volunteers and supporters gathered to deliver a petition to Prime Minister Theresa May calling for a ban on advertising and promotion of elephant-related tourist activities.

STAE Founder Duncan McNair, celebrity animal activists Peter Egan and Rula Lenska and STAE trustee Stanley Johnson were among the crowd gathered to deliver STAE’s Change.org petition of more than 200,000 signatories and over 2.6 million further petition signatures aligning with it, calling on the UK Government to take an active role in saving the highly endangered Asian elephants.

You may have seen my earlier blog post on the dangers that Asian elephants face in their native homes. Astonishingly, the surviving population of Asian elephants is barely 5% of that of African elephants — with a huge decline from estimates of a million or more in the late 19th century to scarcely 40,000 today! (Around 10,000 of these are captive). You can revisit that post here.

Elephant expert Ian Redmond OBE (pictured above), who’s also an ambassador for vEcotourism — which looks to promote virtual reality tourism over tourist practices which may be harmful to the native wildlife — is a trustee for STAE and was keen to support delivery of the petition.

Most holidaymakers are unaware that many elephants have been captured from the wild, trained through fear and beaten into continuing their work: often carrying heavy loads of 2-4 tourists on metal seats on their backs. Their tusks (only present on male Asian elephants) are often blunted with chainsaws; the ends removed in a stressful and terrifying ordeal.

The team from STAE also presented an open letter to the Prime Minister, explaining how a recent poll revealed large support for STAE’s policies.

The Asian elephant, which has been classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) since 1986, faces a bigger threat from the tourist industry then it does the ivory trade, as a lifetime of tourist rides are more lucrative than the one-off sale of its ivory.

Evanna Lynch and Duncan McNair, who recently visited Kerala in partnership with The Sun to raise awareness of the Asian elephants’ plight, emerged from Downing Street to applause from the crowd after delivering their message. According to a recent press release from STAE, their aim was to assert the following actions…

I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Evanna for National Geographic Kids’, about the importance of World Elephant Day, and why she’s proud to be a STAE ambassador. I was so impressed by her love and passion for elephants, and would definitely recommend reading the full interview here.

STAE supporters present at the event wore t’shirts highlighting the need to ban the process used to crush elephants’ spirit, supposedly making them more suitable for ‘working with tourists’. The breaking in process, known as “pajan” ends in the death of 50% of the elephants it intends to domesticate. It is also used to make elephants more suitable for use in festivals; something STAE has previously campaigned against.

To join STAE’s campaign this #WorldElephantDay, or add your signature to their petition, visit: stae.org

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Jumbo the elephant: the story of London Zoo’s most famous resident

“For nearly 15 years after he arrived at the London zoo Jumbo gave very little trouble, made the turnstiles click profitably, and was a source of tremendous pleasure to many thousands of visitors of all ages and all stations, including Queen Victoria herself and the children of the Royal Household… [But, keepers] Bartlett and Scott certainly needed all their proven courage and ingenuity when, in 1880, Jumbo, the biggest of all the beasts, began to play up.” 
W.P. Jolly, author of Jumbo.

Jumbo book by W.P. Jolly

Last weekend the heart-wrenching BBC documentary; Attenborough And The Giant Elephant broadcast to a huge outpouring of sympathy for the treatment of a ‘celebrity elephant’ in Victorian times. It seems the ideal time, therefore, to consider the roles of celebrity elephants across different cultures.

I attended the European premiere of the powerful documentary Gods in Shackles at the beginning of October; a documentary that explores the use of elephants in temples and festivals in Kerala, India. The film examines the somewhat contradictory attitudes towards the elephants, in which they are at once both beaten and abused and placed among the gods.

Gods in Shackles film

While the content of the film may be shocking (as I noted in my earlier blog post, one celebrity elephant featured in the documentary was known to have had razor blades hidden in his food in an attack by supporters of a rival elephant), it’s easy to forget that here in the UK, we’ve seen elephants treated exactly the same way — a fact that brings me hope that attitudes toward these loving, intelligent and sentient animals can change across India, too.

In England, our most famous resident elephant went by the name Jumbo.

London Zoo’s first African elephant, Jumbo — who would later cross The Pond and become one of the most famous pachyderms under the charge of the Ringling Brothers — is the reason the word ‘jumbo’ is now synonymous with elephants and used to describe large objects in the English language (and why it was added to the dictionary as such in the 1880s).

Jumbo dictionary definition

London Zoo’s most famous resident was later joined by a second African elephant; a female called Alice, and along with their impressive sizes (which set them apart from the other resident Indian elephants), the Press’ decision to report them as being romantically involved — when they in fact rarely crossed paths — helped to elevate their status; particularly that of Jumbo, when it came to his departure overseas.

Knowing that Jumbo’s story was used as inspiration for the Disney classic Dumbo and having seen the merchandise and literature surrounding Jumbo, the supposed ‘world’s largest elephant’ at the Making Nature exhibition in London’s Wellcome Gallery earlier in the year, I already had a fair understanding of Jumbo’s celebrity.

Arriving at the zoo’s site in Covent Garden in 1865, as part of an exchange with a Parisian zoo (they received a rhinoceros in return for the African elephant), he was the first African elephant that zoo visitors could ride. Formerly, all London’s riding elephants had been of the smaller Indian species.

Having the opportunity to ride such a grand creature — with the promise of one day growing to around 11 feet tall and carrying tusks of up to 7 feet long — endeared Jumbo to the crowds greatly. That and, as the BBC documentary points out, the timing of his popularity coinciding with the development of photography; meaning he could be documented in the public eye far and wide.

Jumbo the elephant offering rides

Zoo visitors taking a ride on Jumbo — up to six at a time.

Although Jumbo never did reach 11 foot in height, at his time of death he measured just over 10 feet (3.2 metres), which is an impressive height for an elephant aged 24, as he could have still had up to 16 years left to grow before reaching full height. The average height of a 24-year-old male elephant is around 2.7 metres (just shy of 9 feet tall), putting him at 20 per cent larger than average. His impressive stature earned him the perhaps exaggerated title of ‘the world’s largest elephant’.

Much like the elephant rides offered in tourist destinations across Asia and beyond today — which most people with an awareness of animal psychology recognise as being cruel — Jumbo was made to carry visitors in wooden benches slung high on either side of his back.

The seats faced outwards however, rather than forward facing, so riders would sit with their backs to the elephant. This allowed room for more riders — and with even less understanding of animal welfare than today, it was not unusual to see Jumbo ferrying up to six passengers through the Zoological Gardens.

elephant with riders

The biggest error on the part of Jumbo’s keepers was their ignorance to the animal’s needs — as perhaps is often the case with captive animals in zoos.

Abraham Dee Bartlett was the zoo’s head naturalist, and with Jumbo in his charge, he sort the assistance of keeper Matthew Scott, who would eventually travel to America with the elephant. Bartlett, while not truly understanding the implications of caring for a sentient being, at least understood the need to keep the animal under control for the public’s and his own sake.

He understood the change in male elephants as they reach adulthood (musth), which is something that today’s elephant keepers (mahouts) in Kerala — who are charged with caring for the country’s festival elephants — still give little allowance for.

As reported in Gods in Shackles, 75 people and 167 elephants were killed during the festival season from 2012 – 2015, due to elephants breaking from their mahouts’ command whilst in a state of heightened aggression. Those mahouts who do understand the implications of musth often chemically castrate the elephants to stop the production of these hormones, which can make them a danger to the public and themselves.

Abraham Dee Bartlett

Abraham Dee Bartlett, head of London Zoo during the days of Jumbo’s residence

Bartlett understood that all male elephants around the age of 20 become troublesome and dangerous — so it was no surprise to him when, in 1880, Jumbo began to play up; smashing his elephant house with his trunk, tusks and feet. Bartlett reinforced the elephant’s house with timber beams, in fear that Jumbo would escape and attack zoo guests.

At 14 years old Bartlett had personally witnessed Chunee the elephant of the Covent Garden Theatre killed after charging at crowds in a state of fury. W.P. Polly notes; “Everyone was astonished and frightened at the fury of the charges made again and again by the maddened elephant. Poison had no effect and there was very real danger that the beast might break out of his enclosure and bring the whole building down in ruins. Eventually a detachment of Foot Guards was rushed up from the nearby barracks, but even then shot after shot had to be fired into the wretched animal, and only after he had been hit 152 times was he pronounced dead.”

Expert opinion given in Attenborough And The Giant Elephant argues, however, that Jumbo’s rages may have been more likely a result of his poor diet of sticky buns, sweets and alcohol given to him by zoo guests; along with toothache from his deformed teeth; witnessing the death of his mother in the wild during his early capture and passage into captivity and the long term affects from a lack of companionship with other elephants.

His story reminded me of the film The Elephant in the Room, made in association with Born Free Films. Inspired by a Born Free Foundation report entitled, ‘Innocent Prisoner’, The Elephant in the Room (by Director & Editor Tariq Chow and Producer & Assistant Editor Amanda Gardner — whom I interviewed around the time of the film’s release) provides a moving look at the plight of elephants kept in solitary zoo conditions.

The elephant in the room poster

Click the image to watch the full 13-minute short film

Farewell, Farewell poor Jumbo

So what became of Jumbo after his troubles began at London Zoo? Unfortunately, not all stories have happy endings — and Jumbo’s tale is perhaps best made an example of.

In 1882, he was chained in a crate for his passage to America to join the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, becoming so frightened that he ‘clanked his chains, rubbed them against himself, roared and bellowed’ for some time.

Upon arrival, he drew much interest and publicity for the so-called ‘greatest show on Earth’, courtesy of his new owner Phineas T. Barnum. But would eventually meet an untimely death after a collision with a locomotive in Canada, while being led down a train line as the circus toured the country.

Polly describes the scene; “The grotesque angles of the derailed engine and trunks, the twisted rails and wreckage, and the swarms of labouring men, gave the scene a frightening urgency, touched with the fantasy of horror by the cries of animals, glimpses of scattered paraphernalia of the circus, and the body of a huge elephant with a weeping man by its side.” 

Jumbo skeleton and skin

An entrepreneur to the end, Barnum sold Jumbo’s skin and bones for public display. His skin mounted by a taxidermist was sold to Tuft’s College, Medford, Massachusetts (where it was eventually destroyed by fire) and his bones now reside in New York’s Natural History Museum.

Perhaps most uncomfortable of all, however, was the Press reception that Barnum held to celebrate completion of the work on Jumbo’s bones and skeleton — a lavish meal was provided, where the menu included a jelly laced with powder made from a pound and a half of Jumbos tusks. Guests were also treated to a souvenir slice of inscribed ivory from the elephant.

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Gods in Shackles supported by Action for Elephants: Big steps for elephants

So far, this month is shaping up to be an important month for elephants. On the 6th October the UK Government announced plans for a total ban on ivory sale, including pieces pre-dating 1947 — and in the days that followed, Action for Elephants UK led a powerful visual protest outside parliament to urge them to enforce the proposed ban.

Under the newly proposed ban the sale and export of almost all ivory items would be illegal in the UK, with ‘some exemptions’ for musical instruments and items of cultural importance, according to the government.

Although a similar ban was proposed in 2015; earlier this year, changes were announced to exclude antique ivory produced before 1947. To ensure this doesn’t happen again, animal rights campaigners staged a demonstration last weekend to urge Environment Secretary Michael Gove, to maintain his promise of a consultation to end the trade of ivory of all ages.

Activists also used the opportunity to raise awareness of the poaching crisis that is pushing rhinos and elephants to extinction.

african elephant in Shamwari

The striking silent protest saw hundreds of campaigners standing silently in London’s Parliament Square, wearing the same shirts and black arm bands for all the elephants and rhinos that have lost their lives to poaching and the ivory and horn trades.

The event was also attended by Save The Asian Elephant (STAE)’s CEO Duncan McNair, Born Free Foundation’s Will Travers, Angels for the Innocent Ambassador Dan Richardson and Director of powerful new documentary ‘Gods in ShacklesSangita Iyer – all of whom addressed the crowds, alongside Action for elephants UK – who organised the protest.

Duncan McNair from STAE leading silent protest for elephants and rhinos – photo by Antony March

After the demo, the speakers delivered a letter to 10 Downing Street representing over 200 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and MPs concerned for elephant preservation.

The Prime Minister was also addressed in a separate covering letter to express thanks for DEFRAs latest announcement on the ban, and to reiterate the need to enforce it.

“[The covering letter] says we will be working to ensure no watering down of a ban by those pressing for exemptions, such as the antiques trade, and also asking the UK government to take further steps to end the global Ivory trade that has decimated the elephants,” STAE’s Duncan McNair (pictured above) explained to me the morning of the protest.

“And to ensure it can stand at the head of nations at the 2018 conference on the illegal wildlife trade.”

He added “STAE welcomes the good news of a consultation on a UK ban on the ivory trade, but must emphasise that we wish to make sure all goes on track through the consultation to a ban, but moreover that government and all of us must exert influence here but abroad too to ensure all the other desperate dangers that threaten Asian elephants – torture, elephant tourism, destruction of their habitat, etc. – are finally addressed.”

“Our government has enormous influence still and should exert it before it’s too late, and should honour the 2015 manifesto pledge to help India to protect its Asian elephants, reaffirmed in David Cameron‘s Joint Statement with PM Modi at the London Summit in December 2015.”

Dan Richardson leads silent protest for elephants and rhinos at Parliament Square

Also concerned with the plight of the endangered Asian elephants (whose biggest threat is not ivory poaching, but the tourist industry, human-elephant conflict, forced contact with man and urban development – something I have written about previously) is campaigner Dan Richardson (pictured at the protest above).

Dan hosted the European premiere screening of feature-length documentary film Gods in Shackles at the Royal Geographical Society on the evening the protest, joined by filmmaker Sangita Iyer, who was born and raised in Kerala, southern India.

Gods in Shackles is an exposé revealing the dark side of Kerala’s glamorous cultural festivals that exploit temple elephants for profit under the guise of culture and religion.

Temples benefit the most financially from captive elephants in India, and the film showed harrowing scenes of elephants in temples chained so tightly that the injuries from their shackles have wounds on top of wounds – and one elephant was shown to be tethered so forcefully, that he couldn’t even put his foot on the ground.

As Dan stated after the screening; “I believe Gods in Shackles is the turning point”

Gods in Shackles offers hope to the thousands of endangered captive and wild elephants in India by exposing the abhorrent torture they suffer – one particularly gut-wrenching scene from the film showed painful and primitive ‘medical care’ given to one female elephant as her eye was pulled open and popped out by a mahout (elephant keeper) to administer eye drops to an injury consistent with a bull hook to the eye.

By highlighting their suffering, Sangita hopes to inspire key stake holders and policy makers to enhance the living conditions of India’s heritage animal.

Although I had some awareness of the ways that festival elephants are exploited, there were several points in the film that I’d never even heard of before – such as male festival elephants being chemically castrated to stop the production of musth hormones, which can make them a danger to the public and themselves.

From 2012 – 2015, 75 people and 167 elephants were killed during the festival season due to elephants breaking from their mahouts’ command.

I was also surprised to hear of ‘celebrity’ elephants, revered in the temple and festival circuits, which evoke a fierce culture of rivalry. One ‘celebrity elephant’ had razor blades hidden in its food after being targeted over the demise of another elephant.

As someone who grew up in Kerala (which is home to 500-600 captive elephants alone), Sangita explained during an audience question and answer series that she sees her role in making and promoting this film as ‘bridging the cultural gap’.

She wants to empower people with resources to make a change to this situation.

Interestingly, one of the locals in Kerala interviewed in the documentary compared India’s deep cultural connection to elephant festivals with that of slavery in the United States; “The US felt that slavery was part of their culture and it took a war under Abraham Lincoln to end it,” the interviewee says to camera. “Indians feel that this [treatment of elephants] is part of their culture too. It’s not.”

When asked whether children in India are being educated about how elephants are treated, Sangita explained that the state government is going to screen Gods in Shackles through the state channel into every single school in Kerala! Which sounds like an amazing achievement in ‘bridging the cultural gap’.

As Will Travers passionately explained; “Just look at Blackfish; we can change the world through film.”

Grey Future

Also screened at the Royal Geographical Society that evening was the short film ‘Grey Future’, which looks at a future world in which elephants and rhinos have been declared extinct. This powerful piece can be viewed below:

The film’s Writer / Producer Carla Fraser was on hand at the panel talk to advocate the powerful of film, and encourage others to share their conservation messages through this medium.

Find out more about Gods in Shackles, and how you can support campaigns to educate the suffering by visiting godsinshackles.com

Watch the film here: https://ecostreamz.vhx.tv/gods-in-shackles

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Save The Asian Elephants: Tourists, temples and traditions

STAE save the asian elephants

This month kicked off with World Wildlife Day, and for me, the weekend immediately following meant an opportunity to visit the Animal Welfare Bazaar in Ealing. It was my first opportunity to attend the event, which has been running for 39 years(!), and I must admit, it was a treat to see some of my favourite charities and causes coming together.

A particular highlight of these kinds of events is discovering charities I know little or nothing about. In this case, it was Save The Asian Elephants (STAE).

STAE team at Ealing Animal Bazaar

Now, the plight of elephants in Africa is widely recognised — I’ve written several blog posts on the ivory trade and the rate at which African elephants are poached — but far lesser known, and spoken of, are the desperate threats facing Asian elephants.

Astonishingly, the surviving population of Asian elephants is barely 5% of that of African elephants — with a huge decline from estimates of a million or more in the late 19th century to scarcely 40,000 today! Around 10,000 of these are captive.

Mali the elephant in the zoo

While the majority of Asian elephants are found in India and Sri Lanka, there are small populations in countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, and (among others) Thailand. I mention these countries specifically because they are all places where I have see photographs of elephant rides and ‘elephant painting’ for tourists.

I recently watched the incredible BBC series Thailand: Earth’s Tropical Paradise, and learnt about some of the terrible ordeals these animals face when they are snatched from their forest homes to supply tourist attractions and festivals. Often the young elephants’ mothers and other adult herd members are slaughtered as they try to protect their young.

Elephant sanctuary BBC series Thailand: Earth's Tropical Paradise

Elephant sanctuary to rehabilitate captive Asian elephants featured in the BBC series Thailand: Earth’s Tropical Paradise

The Asian elephant, which has been classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) since 1986, faces a bigger threat from the tourist industry then it does the ivory trade, as a lifetime of tourist rides are more lucrative than the one-off sale of its ivory.

Unlike the African elephant, only male Asian elephants grow tusks — meaning the enslavement and exploitation of these creatures for tourist attractions brings in money where it otherwise wouldn’t be found. However, the Wildlife Protection Society of India still reported that over 121 elephants were lost to poaching between 2008-2011.

Asian elephants are smaller and less aggressive than their African counterparts making them ‘easier to tame’. Their gentle nature sees them stolen from the wild, forced into a pen and tied with ropes to prevent them moving. Deprived of water, food and sleep, they are brutally (sometimes fatally) beaten with bullhooks, rods, chains and other implements of torture.

The ‘breaking in’ process, known as “pajan” ends in the death of 50% of the elephants it intends to ‘domesticate’.

Captive Indian elephants + trainers

The life of pain, fear, dehydration and abuse that a captive elephant faces is something I have witnessed firsthand in Indonesiasomething I have written about in the past.

I have seen Sumatran elephants intimidated with wooden sticks into performing circus-style ‘tricks’; such as balancing (i.e. walking along a relatively thin bench), throwing a basketball into a hoop and using their trunks to paint using a paintbrush. It was awful. Sickening.

Most holidaymakers are unaware that many elephants have been captured from the wild, trained through fear and beaten into continuing their work: often carrying heavy loads of 2-4 tourists on metal seats on their backs. Their tusks are often blunted with chainsaws; the ends removed in a stressful and terrifying ordeal.

This cruel and harsh life — often spent with legs bound in short, tight chains — is not dissimilar to that experienced by ‘temple elephants’.

Chained to tradition by Emily Garthwaite

I remember seeing a photograph of a temple elephant at a previous year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. ‘Chained to tradition’ by photographer Emily Garthwaite shows a desperate, pained-looking elephant with bound legs, looking as though it’s literally crying out for help.

These captive elephants are used for religious ceremonies and rented out for festivals. Often their legs are chained to posts in such a way that they are prevented from even turning round, and throughout their lives they are subjected to the chaos and confusion of crowds and noise — even firecrackers during festival season (December to May).

Like captive elephants used for tourist attractions, temple elephants are forced to carry heavy loads; sometimes up to four men and given very little access to water and shelter.

Other threats to Asian elephants

It’s not just temples and the tourist industry that are having a detrimental impact on this beautiful but fragile species. Population numbers are being devastated by human-elephant conflict (up to 200 elephants are killed annually and around 60 people), and many elephants die from other means of forced contact with man, such as electrocution from power cables and collisions with trains.

Urban development, which results in human activity encroaching on the natural lives of these elephants, has also left migratory paths obstructed; meaning herds are more likely to come into contact with man — thus allowing for situations of human conflict that result in animals being shot or poisoned.

The disruption to migration also means a disruption to gene flow, as naturally Asian elephants migrate to find mates and this distribution of genes over large geographical distances improves genetic strength. When elephants can’t travel to breed, their offspring becomes less genetically diverse and therefore more vulnerable to diseases.

STAE Asian elephants

How does STAE help?

Save The Asian Elephants works to end the terrible cruelty and brutal conditions suffered by this wondrous and ancient species. With Asian elephants facing extinction in our lifetime and by our hands, STAE believes that Asian elephants don’t just “belong” to a country or region, but have an intrinsic right to exist in the wild.

By influencing governments, politicians and the tourist industry to adopt solutions (such as captive elephants being returned to the wild where they can play their natural role in forests, or in extreme cases — where wild release is not an option — being kept in genuine sanctuaries), they hope to see the psychological wellbeing of elephants improved and respect for these creatures realised, so that an increased understanding can be developed, leading to the better management of human-elephant conflict.

They believe that with a global imagination, global funding, and global planning, there can be a future where wild elephants and humans can co-exist peacefully, in a way that supports and respects local communities, as well as Asia’s rich ecosystems, and the world’s forests. They look to achieve this by informing public opinion on the truth behind this collision of commercialism and custom that Asian elephants currently find themselves in the middle of.

Find out more by visiting: stae.org

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Remembering elephants as CITES starts

I’d like to say the first time I saw elephants in the wild, the ground shock and the earth rumbled. It didn’t. In fact, it was the most natural feeling in the world, to see a small herd sweep through the bushes and thorny acacia trees.

It didn’t feel like a surprise, to have these beautiful giants walk into my life because it felt like me walking into their lives was the surprising part. The earth beneath my feet, and the plants, and even the hot, dry, slightly dung-scented air, belonged to these creatures not to me. It was far more humbling than epic.

Elephant's Journey, photograph by Kate SnowdonYesterday, the 17th CITES meeting began in Johannesburg. CITES; the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, is a meeting between governments to reach international agreement on wildlife trade. Launched in 1975 to protect wild animals, it takes place every three years with representatives from most of the 182 Member Countries discussing whether to tighten or loosen trade restrictions on specific species.

There are roughly 5600 species of animals and 30,000 species of plants already protected by CITES, which lists threatened species in three appendices, according to how threatened they are by poaching, habitat destruction and international trade. A simple break down of these is as follows (please see here for full explanation):

  • Appendix I lists species that are the most endangered among CITES-listed animals and plants. They are threatened with extinction and CITES prohibits international trade in specimens of these species except when the purpose of the import is not commercial, for instance for scientific research.
  • Appendix II lists species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled. International trade in specimens of Appendix-II species may be authorized by the granting of an export permit or re-export certificate. No import permit is necessary for these species under CITES. Permits or certificates should only be granted if the relevant authorities are satisfied that certain conditions are met, above all that trade will not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild.
  • Appendix III is a list of species included at the request of a Party that already regulates trade in the species and that needs the cooperation of other countries to prevent unsustainable or illegal exploitation. International trade in specimens of species listed in this Appendix is allowed only on presentation of the appropriate permits or certificates.

This year’s meeting is the first to be hosted by an African country since the year 2000 and a record number of proposals, resolutions and decisions are expected to be made — with elephants, lions and rhinos high on the agenda. In my last blog post I looked at the debate surrounding the trade in rhino horn (i.e. whether or not it should be legalised), and today I want to talk about elephants. (Look out for my next blog on the protection status of African lions. I have previously written about the trophy hunting industry here).

Remembering Elephants

This is week seemed like the best time to stop and think about elephants. To really appreciate their beauty and their place in Africa and Asia, and indeed on this planet that we are fortunate enough to share with them. I couldn’t have imagined a better way to do this than at the book launch of an incredible book of wild elephant photography, called Remembering Elephants. Founder of the Remembering Elephants project, Margot Raggett (pictured below), explained that all of the photographs that appear in the book were gifted by the photographers, allowing it to be sold with 100% of profits donated to Born Free Foundation, to help such elephant projects as:

  • helping rangers in Kenya in their fight against poaching
  • volunteers in Mali
  • the veterinary unit in Malawi
  • the Ethiopian Elephant Sanctuary.

remembering-elephants-2Knowing the importance of the evening and the context of the book, it was particularly poignant when Born Free Foundation co-founder Virginia McKenna explained that the level of protection that these animals receive will be determined by the 182 Member Countries at CITES over the next few days, and the European Union has officially announced it will not support the Appendix 1 ban on elephant ivory trade. Last week, however, Britain announced its decision to ban all sales of ivory that cannot be proved to be over 70 years old. Virginia took the opportunity to call for a ban on ALL ivory sales in Britain, including in auction houses, stating: “The chink in the armour is easily exploited. It is easy to label something as antique.” 

Virginia addressed the audience to express her concern that at the rate at which elephant numbers are declining (in the early 20th century there were thought to be 3-5 million wild elephants, compared to an estimated 450,000 – 700,000 African elephants and between 35,000 – 40,000 wild Asian elephants alive today), these such photographs may be the only way we can see elephants. A selection of the photographs included in the book can be seen below:

Next to take the stage was Ian Redmond OBE, who I’ve worked alongside on previous projects (and blog posts!) relating to vEcotours. Ian was introduced as seeing himself as ‘a naturalist by birth, biologist by training, and a conservationist by necessity. This certainly came across when he spoke about the difference between the two different types of African elephant (savannah elephant and forest elephant; distinguishable by more rounded ears and brownish tusks that point down rather than outwards), yet how incredibly integral both species are to their environments and eco-systems.

I have heard Ian Redmond call elephants the ‘gardeners of the forest’ before, but thinking of them carving the landscape; be it by dispersing seeds in their dung (also a brilliant plant fertilizer), churning up and deepening water holes with their trunks or trampling down vegetation, allowing a variety of plants to grow; I truly understood the sentiment in his statement that “when you save elephants, you don’t just save elephants”.

remembering-elephants-14

Ian talks about the world’s only underground elephants, that mine for salt in caves near Mount Elgon. Find out more here: http://www.vecotourism.org/news/take-a-tour/salt-mining-elephants-of-mount-elgon/

He spoke of the underground elephants of Kitum Cave; the loss he felt at a young male, Charles (pictured above) being poached there; and how those on the ground, poaching these animals are simply desperate people, trying to make money  and how the real ‘bad guys’ are the ones buying and using these products. It was hard not to appreciate that demand for ivory ornaments and elephant parts as traditional Asian medicine really is the root cause of driving elephants to the brink of extinction.

Finally, we were left with a story that demonstrates the power of these animals, compared to that of humans, as Ian described his recent encounter in Mount Elgon, which left him rolling backwards underneath an elephant!

Ian had brought a special friend along with him for the event, one who I was introduced to at the end of the night; Archie the Elephant. Archie (the fluffy little guy sitting on my shoulder), has his own Facebook page, where updates of his adventures traveling around the world with various field biologists, conservationists, etc. will be documented to raise awareness of global wildlife issues and help tell the stories of different species and environments. The idea is, if you ‘like’ Archie’s page, you’ll learn about all sorts of wildlife stories. As someone who works in educational media, I think this is a great idea for kids! (and adults alike, really!).

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Global March for Elephants and Rhinos

Yesterday, two days after the Remembering Elephants book launch, and coinciding with the opening day of CITES, hundreds of people took the streets of London to voice there disappointment in the EU’s decision not to back the Appendix 1 listing of elephants, to call for a FULL ban in Britain on the sale of ivory, and show CITES, and the world that we want the poaching of elephants and rhinos to end. Similar marches took place in more than 130 countries around the world.

global-march-for-elephants-and-rhinos-2Please take a moment to listen to this passionate speech from campaigner Dominic Dyer delivered outside South Africa House, which articulates the demands of those demonstrating, and the desperate situation that elephants are facing, far better than I can.

The march, organised by Action for Elephants UK finished at Downing Street, where a number of speakers voiced the significance of elephants and rhinos to our world, our need to protect their conservation status, and the desire for a full ban on ivory sale in the UK.

Knowing that Andrea Leadsom, Minister of State at the Department of Energy and Climate Change will be attending the CITES meeting in Johannesburg later this week, a letter was delivered to Prime Minister Theresa May outlining these demands and signed by hundreds of significant figures spanning across environmental experts, television personalities and leading religious figures. The letter can be seen here in the hands of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who will soon be releasing a film on the realities of the ivory industry.

global-march-for-elephants-and-rhinos-33Virginia McKenna also delivered a passionate plea outside Downing Street, holding up a child’s painting of elephants and declaring that ‘when we have children caring about these animals, caring about these issues, we must win’. I really hope that the world’s governments are paying attention!


Some of the people at the march, giving their support to elephants and rhinos by calling for Appendix 1 protections status at CITES were:

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Join me for a unique World Wildlife Day adventure!

This World Wildlife Day (TODAY!), I’m taking a special trip to Kenya… Do you want to come too?

I’m going to visit the world’s only salt-mining elephants. If I’m completely honest – I didn’t know until yesterday that there was even such a thing as a salt-mining elephant; so to have the chance to discover more about these animals and their behaviour in their natural environment is pretty extraordinary. And I get to do it without leaving my chair!

I’m having a live, 360-degree immersive tour of the dark caves of Mount Elgon in Kenya, guided by wildlife expert and conservationist Ian Redmond OBE. And you can come too!

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Apparently the tour will be taking guests deep underground, to see the world’s only underground elephants (known as troglodyte tuskers), as they feel their way through the pitch-black caves using their trunks.

Ducking under the bats roosting overhead to explore the mysterious crevices and discover the rarely seen behaviours of these incredibly rare creatures; I think it’s going to be a rather unique experience.

vEcotourism elephant caves

The tour is taking place at 3pm (GMT), at live.vecotourism.org. If you can’t make that one, there’s second chance to take the #WorldWildlifeDay tour at 8pm (GMT) – but as they are both LIVE, it’s important to arrive on time and climb aboard with your headphones turned up: there won’t be another chance if you miss it!

I’ve always wanted to visit Kenya and I love elephants. Last year I held a fundraising event to raise money for the Born Free Foundation’s Europe elephant sanctuary for rescued captive and circus elephants, and I’ve previously interviewed the makers of the moving documentary Elephant in the Room about the impact on elephants of living in zoos; but to actually celebrate these animals living naturally in the wild is a positive rarity for me – and seems like the most fitting way to celebrate World Wildlife Day!

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So you want to change the world?

I have never been afraid of being an island. In a sea of trends, fashions and hash tags, I have often stood still — believing in the things that have gradually anchored from my childhood to become the core for who I am in adulthood.

It hasn’t mattered to me advocate unfashionable (sometimes anti-fashionable) beliefs alone; in fact I enjoy the challenge: to seek out those who harbour enough empathy to re-align their moral compass somewhere in the direction of recognising the beauty of wildlife and power of the natural world.

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“Revolution will not be organised”
Announces the slogan of the recently released docufilm “How to change the world”. The story of Greenpeace co-founder Bob Hunter explores the mission that Greenpeace’s crew undertook in sailing to a nuclear test zone; how Hunter manages to consecutively drive the group apart, then re-assemble the organisation before standing between a whale and a harpoon, and in front of an Arctic ship carrying seal carcasses.

But I know enough to realise that great things can happen when you irradiate borders to embrace an ally. It’s just that letting other join you can mean watering down: compromising — or worse, leaving yourself exposed. And that’s where being ‘the island’ has an advantage: where being cut off can feel like king.

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“Like much of the world, George Dante knows that the African elephant is under siege. A booming Chinese middle class with an insatiable taste for ivory, crippling poverty in Africa, weak and corrupt law enforcement, and more ways than ever to kill an elephant have created a perfect storm. The result: some 30,000 African elephants are slaughtered every year, more than 100,000 between 2009 and 2012 and the pace of killing is not slowing.” National Geographic magazine.

I feel fortunate, however, in that my cautiousness has served me well. The bridges that I’ve built have connected me to those individuals who continue to encourage and inspire me on my way to really understanding the depths of my desire to make a difference. And to the revolutionaries — the best of the best — ‘anti-fashion’ simply means ‘forward thinking’.

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Vivienne Westwood was amongst the panel at the premiere of ‘How to change the world’: “When Greenpeace was doing all this [pointing at the screen], when all this was happening, I was at home raising my children; wondering what all these hippies were talking about,” she mused. “But then I heard about the Arctic, about Shell and about predictions for the future population rates — how it’s not sustainable — and I woke up. Something has to be done.”

But as an independent, or surrounded by companions or allies, there is so much that needs reviewing, reforming, redirecting that it can be hard to keep yourself from drowning in all the issues you want to see made better. I’m only just beginning to understand how to stop myself from sinking.

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From a reading of St Francis, by Will Travers at ‘A service of celebration for all animals’, 17th October.

“He explained that it’s easy to love animals towards which we feel love and admiration, but we must also love, in his words; ‘wicked and ferocious animals, animals which we find sickening and repugnant, ones which we are spontaneously tempted to crush beneath our feet. Love should not be solely reserved for the things that are dear to us, even slithering reptiles which will never raise their voices in song or sing hymns praising creation’.”

I think the key is to do. To do together, to do as an individual, to do as a team, to do as a crowd: whether captain or crew mate, I think if you put your views into practise, you can be firm in keeping those morals anchored down, whilst holding your head above water.

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‘They did exactly what they were supposed to do: they proved that the Black Mambas: a nearly all-women anti-poaching unit created to protect the reserves rhinos, could keep poachers out of the park. Still, says Mkhabele, “It would have felt good to shoot the guys who keep trying to kill our rhinos.”

“They say women can’t work on the bush. So I am very proud of us here, because we are working in the bush. Without guns, as women. It means we are strong”.’ Nkateko Mzimba, 24 year old member of the Black Mambas. TIME magazine.

A 25 year old woman, I choose to surround myself with this kind of knowledge: to be a part of this world, sink or swim, because I believe in power of education and the power of ‘preserving’ over ‘conquering’. Maybe it helps to be comfortable with being an island, but maybe it brings with it a previously little understood notion; that to stand alone one has to learn how not to be conquered, or invaded by single-track opinions and ignorance.

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“The most important role, however isn’t in the reserve, but in teaching the value of wildlife to residents of impoverished townships surrounding Balule and Kruger National Park where many poachers originate. Many locals see wildlife sanctuaries as the preserve of white and wealthy tourists. They resent the fact that they cannot graze their cattle in the reserves, or hunt game freely like their forebears did.
That’s where the Black Mambas come in. They may not be able to stop poachers with pepper spray alone. But they can stop them with education.”

To combat ignorance is the biggest battle. I try my best to overcome my own ignorance by listening to as much — and as many people — as possible. I find my patience for different viewpoints and different interpretations increases as my desire to understand where lack of knowledge (or lack of understanding) comes from increases also. I believe without doubt that education is the key to feeling empowered enough to be the lone ship on the horizon — the Greenpeace of the ocean, if you will.

And if education spreads far and wide enough, I see no reason as to why this island cannot be surrounded by an entire fleet looking to change the world.

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World of Wildlife Art Exhibition: In support of elephants

Shifting its weight from one foot to another, the beautiful, gentle giant is like the bulkiest, heaviest dancer you’ve ever seen. But it’s not dancing.

“That’s how it takes some of the weight off of its feet”
“That’s how it cools down in the summer”
“That’s what they do when they’re waiting to be fed”
keepers chorus. They’re all lying.

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Her eyes tell the truth. Her name is Mali and she’s rocked and swayed alone in her cell for almost 40 years.

Maternal creatures, social creatures, beings that love and grieve and not only remember their dead existed, but also when they died; where they died.

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When the Nazis used solitary confinement to send their prisoners slowly mad is was called barbaric. When it happens in zoos we call it entertainment, amusement, an attraction…

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When Born Free Foundation announced their ambitious plans to build an elephant sanctuary in Europe, I cheered a little inside!

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My response on the outside?

On 3rd July I held my first ever independently planned, organised and executed art exhibition – to raise funds for the cause – hosted at the Charles Burrell Centre in Thetford, which was formerly my high school building.

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It took six weeks for the entire thing to materialise from start to finish, and in the end included a launch event with live music from Nick Stephenson, a charity raffle, a tombola stand, a cake stall and a children’s art competition with two categories (under 10s and 10-16 years old) and prizes provided by local organisation ZEBRA TM, who work closely with a number of charities. They also provided refreshments on the launch night, with their Managing Director Warren Short delivering a speech, and their ZEBRA mascot handing out the prizes to the lucky winners.

Although it was brilliant to sell art work, exhibit works by Thetford Sketch Club’s Kevin Moore and Thetford Cartoon Club’s Danielle Adams, and hand out great raffle prizes (provided by: Charles Burrell Centre, Centre Stage Dance School, Zak’s diner, Chilterns, Pruce Newman Pipework, Discovery Education, Nick Stephenson Music, Carol Petch, Mary Matthews, Rosemary and Christopher Snowdon and myself); the most fulfilling part of the exhibition, for me, was collecting and displaying the young people’s art work.

There were 18 entries to the upper age group category, many from Thetford Grammar School and the Thetford Sketch Club, and seven entries to the younger ones’ competition, so hopefully there are now 25 children that are now aware of the Born Free Foundation and thinking about animals!

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Will Travers and Cher Chevalier of Animals Actually ltd., were on hand to judge the competition, with Cher even sending over special treats for each of the younger category entrants!

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I’ve included their judges’ comments below:

Will Travers, Born Free Foundation President and 10-16s art competition judge:

I have gone for Charlotte Ogilvie as the winner. “There is something other-worldly about Charlotte’s artistic vision. It captures the fragile nature of the Arctic and the sense that its Polar bears may not survive for much longer unless we reverse global warming. Thought-provoking. Congratulations Charlotte.”

The runner up is Charlie Trowel. “This is a sophisticated work of art with a ghostly feel. Charlie uses colour in a different and original way with great attention to texture that delivers a real sense of wild nature. Well done Charlie.”

Katie Parfett was chosen as 2nd runner for the style and detail of her drawing of a lion.

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Cher Chevalier, Animals Actually Founder and Under 10s art competition judge:

Well done to all of you who entered the Under 10s Art Competition!! We love all of your pictures, and we had a tough job selecting our favourite! But here goes ….. drum roll …. the Winner of the Under 10s Competition is: Maisy aged 3. CONGRATULATIONS MAISY!! Your picture of a Pig is fabulous!!” HOORAY

With the competition winners announced, live music complete and raffle prizes drawn, I finished the evening off with a screening of the incredible short documentary; The Elephant in the room, with the permission of Producer Amanda Gardner.

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Watching the powerful film projected up onto the wall amongst the artworks really brought home the motivation for holding the exhibition.

With that message in mind, the works remained in place for a further week, until the 10th July.

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Over £250 was raised, but perhaps more importantly, the work of Born Free was highlighted and the plight of the beautiful Mali, and other elephants like her, has touched a few more hearts.

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A wonderful success all round!

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We’re all the same, so can I have your attention, please?

“Distractability might be regarded as the mental equivalent of obesity” I recently read in an article entitled ‘Attention Please’. The same article also presented the idea that a consequence of the digital age’s cultural shift towards preferring immediately engaging mental stimuli over challenging mental stimulation that requires concentration, is that we are all becoming more alike.

The desire to feel connected to one another by sharing our experiences and showing mutual favour, has apparently bred a culture of likemindedness. Now I’m fairly sure that the afore mentioned article was presenting this as a bad thing, but I’m not entirely convinced myself. IMG_6856Take, for example, the plight of the Born Free Foundation. The global conversation has allowed their work and causes to be shared in a way that was barely imaginable before – and it’s something I can certainly stand testament to.

I became a supporter of Born Free Foundation somewhere around ’95/96, when two rescued lions; Raffi and Anthea resided somewhere in Kent that I longed to visit (though never did) and some brand or other (possibly Andrex?) were offering the chance to adopt a Born Free-rescued tiger called Roque if you collected enough coupons from the back of the packs and sent them away with a small, pre-specified donation. I remember my mum sellotaping pound coins onto cardboard and us walking to the postbox together at the top of the road (PayPal was a world away) to send it off.

I eventually took my adoption certificate proudly into school for Show and Tell. While the other kids displayed a sense of wonder at the concept of my ‘adopting’ a real life tiger (I’m pretty sure I did nothing to deter their misconception that l now had a tiger living at my house), I did feel a sense of excitement in passing on the knowledge of why tigers need ‘big gardens’ and that cages aren’t very nice. DSC_0127And in many ways, I’m still that kid that likes to share information that I care about… and embellish life with the odd “yes, I now own a tiger – do you want to be my friend?” story; except now instead of causes being spread through packs of toilet roll and carpet-time Show and Tell, we have the Internet and the age of likemindedness.

I’m pretty sure back then I’d have been hard pushed to find anyone around me who knew what Born Free Foundation was (aside from my enlightened class, 1R, at Norwich Road First School – bar the kids that weren’t in that day and the ones that weren’t listening anyway), yet now I find kindred spirits practically on my doorstep.

This past weekend I offered my services as a volunteer at St Albans Film Festival for the third consecutive year. I joined the festival in its debut year as a blogger, and have returned every year since. 537532_150508625113690_275857036_nThis year I watched in awe as two of the shortlisted finalist films featured Virginia McKenna and the efforts of Born Free! A music video (more on that another time) and – to my surprise and happiness! – Elefilm: a finalist (and eventual overall winner) of Student Film category!

For those who don’t know – I interviewed the producer of Elefilm (aka The Elephant in the Room), Amanda Gardner a few months back, after seeing the YouTube film on Facebook, contacting its makers on Twitter, interviewing them via email and publishing the piece on this blog, and then having it shared on my former university’s online magazine – the same university that the film makers attended! That Digital Age we were discussing… 488637974_640Anyway, how wonderful that not only were two Born Free-related films screened, but one won! And the film makers were right under my nose! So soon after meeting so many other like-minded activists recently, too! True coincidence, or serendipity manufactured through the connected world? 11169526_10153861744204832_7715778573507972498_oEither way, this likemindedness bred through Internet sharing can’t be all that bad. And if you’ve made it this far, well done – your distractibility level is not the equivalent of obesity. Follow me here: @k1snowdon to share likeminded ideas. Did I mention I have a tiger?

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Poor elephants on parade

I touched the dry trunk of Dennis, a ‘rescued’ teenage Sumatran elephant, and apologised. “I’m sorry, boy,” I whispered into his solemn expression, “you shouldn’t be here”.

dennis the elephant

Gently running my palm over his sandpaper-like skin, I tried to imagine where he should be. What he would be doing. Who he would be there with. The answers were easy to find. The opposite of here.

I was standing in Bali’s Elephant Safari Park, it was October 2011 and I was looking into the pitiful eyes of one of the saddest looking elephants I’ve ever seen. And there were tens more besides him.

imageBy this point in my life, aged 21, I was just beginning to understand that many of the ways I’d wanted to get close to – and understand – wildlife before now were not really what they seemed. When it comes to ignorance, I’ve been top of the class before; and pretty much every activity that I now understand as being part of and parcel of a serious and corrupt wildlife industry, I’ve been a party to at some point. I suppose that should earn me the name of ‘hypocrite’, but I hope to many it makes me the ideal person to talk about these things – I’m under no illusion as to my own mistakes and lessons, and if I could challenge and re-evaluate my embarrassingly unknowing view of these things, so can anyone.

But standing in The Elephant Safari Park, I was beginning to be a bit more wise. I’d had my reservations about the place before visiting, but having experienced Addo Elephant Park in South Africa, where rescued elephants are kept in a natural environment and integrated in a tourist programme which isn’t detrimental to their well-being, I’d hoped – when my travel buddies had suggested visiting the place – that Elephant Safari would be the same.

imageWith the usual pamphlet spiel about educating tourists, conserving the species and the unique chance to learn about these creatures up close, it sounds the ideal place to re-create an ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ moment – elephant riding through the Bali forest. But when you dig a little deeper, you find on the same premises, these gentle giants are being made to perform circus tricks, paint pictures before a crowd (for sale in the gift shop for a hefty price apparently befitting of such a unique gift) and interact on cue with young, unsuspecting audience members. From where I stood and photographed – with the foresight that I would be talking about the experience in this kind of capacity somewhere down the line – I felt the physical and psychological effects on these beautiful beings was evident.

Embarrassingly, TUSK Trust patron Prince William found himself in a similar resort earlier this month, though in China; not Bali. I use the term ’embarrassingly’ as His Royal Highness was looking to promote animal rights, particularly the plight of the elephants, as he finished his tour of the country which had imposed a year-long Ivory trade ban in honour of his visit. Though the ban may not be the cause for celebration it first seemed, it was perhaps not as much of a disappointment to conservationists as Sky News breaking the story that as the Prince was at a so-called elephant sanctuary, drumming up publicity and media coverage of his mission to highlight the fight to conserve and save endangered species, a number of the beautiful creatures were on the same grounds, less than a kilometre away, penned with their legs shackled, waiting to perform a twice-daily, hour-long show for tourists.

1000Thankfully, the silver-lining to incidents such as this, is that it is beginning to be recognised that elephants performing tricks are often whipped and beaten in order to learn the arduous circus routines they are forced to perform; yanked and prodded by sharp steel-tipped bull hooks behind the scenes – much like the men in blue appeared to be doing at that Elephant safari park in Bali.

imageShortly following the Duke of Cambridge’s speech, and the pitiful announcement of China’s year-long ivory ban, the welcome news reached my ears that the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s three touring circuses will phase out elephant acts from its 1,000 shows a year, by 2018: 133 years since P. T. Barnum bought his first one.

ringling brothersRingling Bros. announced the ban following intense pressure and criticism from animal rights protesters, prompting hope for those calling for an end to Seaworld’s water circus cruelty.

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Despite this, however, on the 6th March, a proposed new UK law to ban the use of wild animals in circuses was blocked for the 12th time. Blocked by three Tory backbenchers, any parliamentary discussion on the matter has now been automatically ended under parliamentary rules covering backbench bills. There will be no further opportunities to debate the Bill before the General Election, meaning that it has now “fallen” and would need to be reintroduced under the next government if it is to become a reality.

It’s a sickening blow for campaigners – and anyone who cares about the welfare of animals – to feel like traditional, cruel and outdated practices are being maintained, while progression is stunted. But just as I was wondering what message the current government is giving out to future generations and the youth of today, optimism reached my ears.

dumbo-classic-disney-4612936-1280-9602It reached Dumbo’s too.

In an impactful open letter, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) have asked Tim Burton; tasked with re-telling Disney’s Dumbo, to consider changing the ending of the original story to see the elephant calf and his mother live out their days in a sanctuary. …Perhaps like the one that the Born Free Foundation are currently hoping to raise the funds to build in Europe?

petaIt is my ultimate hope that the real world will follow that idealistic altered ending that PETA are calling for (and on that note I’ll be announcing my fundraising plans for contributing my small part towards Born Free’s elephant sanctuary goal soon). That way I won’t have to ever find myself looking into the longing eyes of elephants like Dennis in the future, and wondering whether that leg he’s limping on can take the strain of performing circus tricks much longer.

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