How #BringBackOurElephants Can #BringBackOurGirls

How #BringBackOurElephants Can #BringBackOurGirls

I have long been interested in environmental conservation, but only recently have I truly been able to begin working in the field of conservation education. This past year I taught at a bilingual school in Spain: it was technically an internship, but due to the fact that I was the first the school had ever had there was a considerable amount of leeway in some of the work I did there. Specifically, I taught Environmental Ethics for one section of the 8th grade, for which I independently planned lessons and assessments for the second trimester. Throughout the course my greatest thematic focus was the concept of relationships and roles, within and between human society and the natural environment; my ultimate goal was to get the kids thinking about their choices within that context. Fortunately, there were only 9 students in the class so every one had a turn in the hot seat.

It’s not easy to get 14 year olds thinking about the long-term consequences of their actions – who can think ahead of next Friday at that age, really? But it was never hard to get them talking about the importance of social media for communicating important messages between individuals of any age or background. Almost all of them knew that Twitter was instrumental in the democratic uprisings in Egypt, and many knew of Spanish current events through Facebook. I was being utilized by a different department when April rolled around, but I know that some of them heard of #BringBackOurGirls.

What I did not know then, and what I wish I could share with them now, is how #BringBackOurGirls can be considered not only as a case study of ethical choices, but the fact that the issues we choose to ignore as a society almost always come back to bite us in the butt. The choices we make on an individual level can have a profound impact in the political arena and on the world stage. In this case, and I will change the subject slightly for now, I am referring to #BringBackOurElephants.

Every day, an average of 100 elephants are killed around the world. While some are hunted to supplement the diets of impoverished individuals with necessary protein, the majority of them are killed for their ivory tusks. Those pearly whites are viciously hacked off by professionalized bushmen and poachers, who trade them to middlemen, who send them out of the country for obscene profits. Tusks weigh in at about 5 kg, and ivory can go for as much as US$400/kg at the historic ivory export center of Dar es Salaam in Ethiopia. The value of ivory only goes up as it goes east: in Asia, it fetches US$3,000/kg in the retail market.

But that is at the end of the line. Long before ivory leaves the African continent it passes through the hands of many shadowy figures. It is just like currency. It is used just like the dollar bill you have in your wallet, that looks ruffled and wrinkled, and you’re not quite sure where it’s been but you know you can use it to get the things you want. The difference is, your dollar bill is accepted at stores. It’s designed to be used in legal purchases and transparent transactions in a specific economy, whereas ivory is fungible – “it can be sold for profit at virtually any local market, but it can also be used by armed groups to barter for ammunition, equipment, or patronage” (Ivory’s Curse: The Militarization and Professionalization of Poaching in Africa, Varum Vira and Thomas Ewis, April 2004).

I have learned about this during my research in South Africa, that ivory is in fact what we call a conflict resource. In other words, it’s sourcing is often done by terrorist groups like the Sudanese militia or the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. And imagine my surprise: I started hearing about the genocide in Darfur no later than 14 years old, and I first watched the documentary Invisible Children when I was 16. At no point did I hear anything about elephants in relation, back then, or in the almost 10 years that have passed since. Somehow I missed out on the message. Even here, where I have ostensibly spent every waking minute in the past 3 weeks thinking about the preservation of African wildlife, I have only just discovered something explosive. Boko Harem, the terrorist organization whose name means “western education is forbidden,” the same one responsible for kidnapping almost 300 girls from a school in Nigeria, has financed its operations with ivory.

How did I miss this?!? How did we, as a global society, let this happen? Ivory has been institutionalized as a conflict resource since the 1970s and 80s and there are countless conservationists who have been trying to get the word out, and no one told me. I’ve been left out of the loop, whether it is academic, professional or social media. Worse, I think maybe you have been left in the dark, too.

I’m not sure what it is about knowing this that gives me the strongest reaction. Perhaps it is my anger, due to my instinct as a teacher and my desire to empower the marginalized through knowledge. Or maybe it is my fear for other girls: I want to keep girls from being taking advantage of by ignorant people who deny the benefit of an education, any education, because it challenges their culture or their perspective on the world. But then again maybe my frustration is the greatest, that this is yet another case where we see huge negative consequences from our choice to dismiss the exploitation of nature as trivial, insignificant, or even normal.

We all, in our daily lives, come across heartbreaking stories of destruction in the wild and we choose to pay attention, or to look away. I know that it is not possible to stay on top of everything, and it can cause anguish to follow the news, but the decimation of nature at the expense of human lives is simply not something we can afford to ignore anymore. I can’t tell you how to fix the problem, that’s not ethical. But I can make a start on my own, and I suggest you do as well. We need to #BringBackOurElephants, and then maybe the girls can come too.

– Clara Bowe

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