The Matriarch

The Matriarch

Everyone needs a personal connection to wildlife in order to get involved. Since I was little, I’ve wanted to make a positive difference in the lives of animals: and here, I am sharing with you why I want to make that difference. I could list many reasons why elephants and rhinos are important and should not be eradicated from this earth, but unless you find your own connection, my words are lost. So, after reading, take a moment and figure out why you should care about the poaching crisis and please note that none of my grandma’s elephant souvenirs were made of ivory.

Growing up, I spent days wandering through my grandma’s house, admiring her vast collection of elephant trinkets. She would walk alongside me, pointing out her favourites and telling me from which country she acquired them. My grandfather died before I was born, but due to her unfathomably optimistic way of life, my grandma used his passing as an opportunity to see the world. From each country she travelled to, she would buy a miniature elephant souvenir, and over the years, this collection grew tremendously. I loved looking at her collection: holding each elephant with such curiosity and carefully putting it back into place. To say that my grandma had a fascination with elephants was an understatement, and as she talked about them, I imagined magical, mystic creatures. I desperately tried to understand the beauty she saw in elephants and why she decided that this was the animal she would surround herself with. They seemed so foreign to me – just an element of a country far, far away.

It wasn’t until I was 11 and my family travelled to Southern Africa, when I finally saw an elephant first hand and understood my grandma’s love for these animals. I will never forget the first time I was astounded by the power and beauty of an elephant. My family was canoing down the Zambezi River, with my boat in the lead, and a group of elephants began crossing the river about 15 meters in front of us. One by one, the elephants crossed with males, females, and calves present. I observed that the matriarch of the herd did not appreciate our close proximity to one of the calves, and she mock charged my canoe, running towards us with her ears fully extended. From her eyes, I knew she was nervous for her family, and was giving us a simple warning. As my heartrate slowed, I realized that these were intelligent, soulful creatures that shared many human characteristics.

Elephants are absolutely incredible animals, and anyone who says otherwise has probably never truly experienced them. Personally, at a young age, I was shocked to learn that females were at the top of the heirarchy within the elephant kingdom. They live in tight-knit matriarchal family groups that can reach up to 100 related individuals. These individuals are lead by the oldest and usually the largest cow; the males leave the heard in their early “teenage” years to live solitary lives, or temporarily live with other young males. The entire social dynamic of elephants revolves around the matriarch. She decides where the family members eat and drink and when to move on to another destination. During the dry season, she leads her family vast distances to water sources to avoid dehydration, which depends on her memory of sites from previous years. If there are any threats in the surrounding area, the matriarch uses her savvy to avoid predators or difficult terrain. The most important role of the matriarch is caring for her family. If a female gives birth, whether it be her daughter or niece, the matriarch will pass on her parenting techniques and support that new mother. Within her family, she creates a support system, which allows each female to trust the leader completely with their lives. The matriarch keeps in mind the well-being of her family, even if this conflicts with her own interests.

With utter devotion to her family, the matriarch is an inspiration to all.

My grandma is the matriarch of my family. She was my hero growing up with her constant stories of travel, adventure, and animals. She gave me the courage to come to Africa in the first place, and here I am back in South Africa for the third time, trying to create awareness of poaching. Without her passion for adventure and new experiences, I do not believe I would have the same passion for exploration that I do now. I simply cannot imagine my life without her guidance and knowledge. Even now, she brings all of her children and grandchildren together multiple times a year to realize and appreciate that we always have family. She reminds us to be optimistic, and to never dwell on the negatives.

She is powerful and brave. She is loving and passionate. She is everything I hope to be when I am older, and as the matriarch, my grandma has my utmost respect: I know she would never lead me astray. Now, my grandma is getting older. It’s difficult for me because I see a slight change in her every time I visit, and I cannot imagine the world without my matriarch.

There are roughly 400,000 African elephants left to roam the continent, which is less than tenth of the 5 million elephants present in 1930. Each time an individual is poached a crucial member of the family is lost. Considering that 4 elephants are poached every hour, this effect is devastating. Their faces are brutally hacked and the body is left to bleed out, just to satisfy the growing international demand for ivory. I can’t control time or my grandma’s destiny, but together, society can influence the fate of elephants in Africa. I don’t expect my kids to meet my irreplacable grandma, but I look forward to the day when I will show them my grandma’s elephant trinkets and get them excited to see these creatures in the wild. But, if African elephants keep declining at the alarming rate of 100 per day, I cannot hope for the survival of the species or for my kids to see these magnificent spirits.

We must act now.

– Kennedy Holland

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