Backing into Eden – Chapter 10 – The Elephant Angels

I’m irked at how many elephants we’re losing to the ivory trade.  They are one of the most intelligent of animals, often ranked alongside dolphins. Elephants are beloved.  They show up early in our lives, as the a common expression of the letter “e” in board books for babies.  They are the central exhibit in many zoos.  Whole websites are devoted to saving them.  Rangers in Africa have died to save them, and yet more rangers risk their lives fighting poachers every day.

Think of the elephants as giant canaries.  If we can’t save a species so big that we can see it from space, and so visible to all of us in legend and film and books, what is going to befall the other flora and fauna we share the world with?

So far in this blog series, I’ve written about today. I’ve described the situation today, linked to current technology, and talked about what I think we need. But ultimately, this blog series is about tomorrow, and how we can assure ourselves of a future that can support elephants and mice, wheat and rice. A place where whales and coral reefs and plankton and humans can live.  One with a healthy atmosphere and recognizable shorelines. So follow me through some ideas and technologies and social changes that might be good choices in the future.  Today, I’m going to talk about elephants, shifts in jobs, and the commons.

Picture of an elephant
Photo credit: digitalART2 / / CC BY

The elephants: There is an ivory war, which is resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of elephants a year.   The situation in brief and simplistic form:  Elephants are being killed for their tusks, which are sold into China.  The money is used to fund militias.  Tusks for guns.

Changes in jobs: It’s easy to find articles about how slow employment is coming back, to hear whispers of a jobless recovery, and to locate scare-tactic articles about how robots are coming for our jobs.  There’s some truth in that, but I’m a perennial optimist who believes that while jobs are changing, there will be plenty of work in the future.  Interesting work.

The commons: I’m talking about gardening the Earth in the blog series.  It’s a land use problem.  And the land that is perhaps the most abused?  Land we own in common.  The simplest illustration is to go out and join a group cleaning up American highways.  The sheer volume of coke bottles and beer cans and other detritus along the road is way too great to have fallen there by accident.  People are happy to trash the strips of land near roads.  If that’s not enough, take a look at pictures of what marine pollution is doing to animals.

Land and air are not the only commons.  Herds of wild animals are essentially either owned by nobody, or owned by all of us.  For the sake of argument, I’m going to assume they are owned by all of us. Or perhaps a less slavery-tinged way to think of that is that humanity is putting pressure on wild beings through hunting, habitat loss, and climate change.  So we need to take responsibility for creating a path forward for them, especially as we are realize how dependent we are on a functioning ecosystem. I found a definition I really like at the website “The commons include everything that we inherit and create together, from water and forests to knowledge and the Internet.”

If I follow that argument, many elephants live in the commons (in parks and preserves), and elephants themselves are members of the commons. Let’s add one more thing I’ve come to believe. Part of the way forward is to charge businesses for their effect on the commons. So we’ll have an income stream that we can use to pay people to take care of the environment. Money will flow from cap and trade or similar programs.  It will come through government hands and be distributed to contractors, NGO’s, or perhaps through expansion of government jobs. I like the NGO’s best, but I anticipate a blend.

This money can be put to work saving the elephants (and a lot more, but at the moment I’m exercised about the elephants).  So let’s imagine we use some of it to improve pay and tools for the rangers that are directly on the ground.  At the moment, these forces are paramilitary – the average college student is not going to find a job in an African preserve unless they also know a bit about assault rifles and aren’t afraid to use them.   But here’s what they can do:

  1. Drones can be used to fly the parks and keep track of elephant herds and poachers.
  2. Fixed cameras can be monitored by a combination of software and humans to watch areas like trails and sources of water.
  3. Each elephant or group of elephants can be assigned an “elephant angel” team – a group of people who use electronic surveillance, real-time sensors (perhaps attached directly to the elephants), mapping and GPS, and storytelling ability to protect “their” elephant herds.
  4. Others can monitor nearby ports, sale of ivory, and the activities of governments responsible for elephant lands.
  5. Still others could teach people about the elephants, and the role they play.  For example, according the World Wildlife Fund, “In African Forests, up to 30% of tree species may require elephants to help with dispersal and germination.”

The technology for all of this exists now, albeit in relatively crude forms.  It will get better.

The elephant angel program could go further. Perhaps the elephant angels could watch out for other animals that share the same habitat, such as giraffes, zebras, and impalas. Perhaps the elephant angels program could also work for tigers, and if you can have tiger angels, maybe you can also pay for baboon angels….

Obviously we will have choices to make.  Not every wild animal will have – or should have – a human angel.  Elephants need them because there are human devils out to slaughter them for their tusks. Simply setting aside habitat (which has been done relatively well) is not enough.  I am not religious about angels or demons, or much of anything else. But humans are certainly good and bad, and both side of our nature show in the ways that we protect, and slaughter, elephants.

I hope the elephants survive us.  It’s possible. Especially if we help.

Some links……


Even on Reserves, Scant protection for Elephants, New York Times, March 16th, 2013

Elephants in Danger, a slide show at The New York Times

China’s Ivory Craze is Killing Africa’s Elephants, CNN, May 2013

2012 Continental Totals, The Elephant Database

Word Wildlife Fund page on African Elephants

Save the Elephants

The Commons:

On the Commons


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