A Sound of Trumpets

The global lust for ivory threatens to silence the African elephant forever. Can a hidden remnant of the Cold War help stem the slaughter?

by Paul Hond Published Summer 2014
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Joshua Ginsberg remembers the elephant catastrophe of the 1980s. As a field biologist cutting his teeth in East Africa, he saw firsthand an aspect of the slaughter that can’t be found in a museum, or on a mantelpiece, or even in a newspaper.

“In the 1980s, when we killed off most of the elephants in Tsavo National Park in Kenya, and when we lost elephants in large swaths of East Africa, we saw real ecological change,” says Ginsberg, who teaches international environmental policy at SIPA and is an adjunct professor in E3B. “We saw brush land encroaching on grassland. We saw a real loss of some species. Forest elephants not only create clearings, they also move fruits and seeds around, and process those fruits and seeds. There are some trees that are elephant-dependent, or at least their density is dependent on elephants. Elephants eat seeds, they deposit them with a nice bunch of fertilizer, and they grow. You can see seedlings coming out of elephant dung. Elephants function as ecosystem engineers — they change the nature of the ecosystem. When you lose that, you lose something in the structure of the forest or savanna.”

Ginsberg adds that the loss of forest elephants in Central Africa also leads to greater intensity of lightning-sparked fires. “If elephants aren’t there to eat vegetation, the habitat will become denser, and the fires will become more severe,” he says. “We will get a simplification of complex ecosystems, and probably less stability in those ecosystems, which is unfortunate, because climate change is going to cause less stability anyway.”

See Tuffy the Elephant. Tuffy is thirty years old. How big Tuffy is! Tuffy is ten feet tall at the shoulder and weighs 8,500 pounds. When Tuffy walks, it is like watching a slow-motion film. The broad flapping of the thin ears, like the wings of a colossal moth; the droop of the thick trunk; the lifting and lowering of a padded foot.

Tuffy is the nearest African elephant to New York. He lives in the Maryland Zoo, in Baltimore. See him stand in his enclosure of rocks and dirt, right next to the gate through which he is brought in and out of the exhibit. What is Tuffy doing? See his head sway side to side. His ears flop, his trunk dangles. The rest of him is still, except that he is urinating. He bobs his head and urinates in an incessant sprinkle. He has been swaying for more than twenty minutes. A spectator remarks that Tuffy was doing the same thing last time.

Tuffy was plucked from the wild at a young age. You can’t really capture a young elephant unless you kill its mother. That’s how Jumbo the Elephant was caught in 1861, near the border of present-day Sudan and Eritrea. Jumbo wasn’t jumbo then, but an orphaned runt, in need of his mother’s milk. Tuffy, too, was an orphan. Like Jumbo, he saw his mother die.

Another thing about Tuffy is that he has no tusks. The zoo doesn’t know what happened to them. Whatever happened, it was a long time ago.

Someone opens the gate. Time to eat! Tuffy stops swaying and on rumpled, earth-gray columns plods over to a pile of hay. Using his trunk, which has more than forty thousand muscles (can tear down a tree and pick up a penny! can make subsonic sounds heard by elephants miles away!), he grasps clumps of food and stuffs them into his mouth.

Before he came to Baltimore, Tuffy lived at an elephant sanctuary in Arkansas. Before that, according to the zoo’s literature, he was “utilized in the entertainment industry.”

When feeding time is over, Tuffy spends a few minutes walking around his enclosure. Then he returns to his spot by the gate and resumes swaying his head.

It’s been a strange life for Tuffy. Still, it’s not as bad as Misha’s.

Kevin Uno needed ivory. Not just any ivory, but a fresh, unworked tusk, the kind that was being sawed off the upper jawbones of massacred elephants in Africa. He needed this ivory to test his radiocarbon-dating method. But raw tusks were hard to come by for an American scientist.

It was 2008. That year, an African elephant named Misha died in the Hogle Zoo in Utah. Uno’s adviser heard about it and called the zoo. Arrangements were made for Uno’s group to get Misha’s tusks.

Like Tuffy, Misha had been captured as a year-old calf after her mother had been shot. This was in 1982 in South Africa, where the government had permitted the killing of more than three thousand elephants to cull a population that was overburdening the country’s nature reserves. Some babies, like Misha, were allowed to be captured for utilization in the entertainment industry. Misha arrived in the United States in 1983.

Misha’s life in America was spent mainly in cramped zoos and amusement parks, where she was bullied and bloodied by other animals, frazzled by noise, mistreated by handlers, artificially inseminated in a procedure involving surgical cutting (the pregnancy ended in a stillbirth; a second insemination was unsuccessful), and plagued with infections.

In 2004, Misha made international news. She was eating grass in her enclosure at Six Flags Marine World, near San Francisco, when she swung her trunk and knocked down a trainer, Patrick Chapple, who was standing nearby. Misha then sank her tusk into the trainer’s abdomen.

Chapple survived the goring, but Misha was put into isolation. The next year, she was sent to Hogle Zoo, where she spent three uneventful years before her health took a dramatic downturn. Elephants can live up to seventy years. When Misha was euthanized on September 9, 2008, she was twenty-seven.

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