The Elephant Managers Association held its 2015 conference in Nashville on Oct. 11-14, and I was lucky enough to attend for a day. My sister and I traveled down Monday for the first day of seminars and discussions, to hear about the current elephant scene in the U.S. Monday morning dawned sunny and bright, and as we pulled into the parking lot, my sister and I counted at least five elephant car stickers, giving a quick tease of the enthusiasm that waited inside.
Elephants were not only the theme of discussion but also of fashion that day. Scarves, earrings, jackets, sweaters; you name it, it was there. My sister and I both wore elephant necklaces and sported the free bags with the conference symbol on them, an elephant-guitar mesh.
We joined the rest of the crowd, about 60 participants in all, and settled down in rows, waiting for the string of seminars to begin. Many speakers shared fascinating information about research, programs and strategies to help elephants in the wild and in captivity. But for me the most interesting talk was that of Kate Evans, founder and director of Elephants for Africa. Evans' presentation focused on the decimation of elephants across Africa. 'The ivory issue is still very much kicking," she says. "Many of the big tuskers [elephants with large tusks] have already been taken out."
Evans brought up several problems caused by illegal wildlife trade, a trade that brings in at least $70 billion a year:
1. Population crashes for elephant herds.
2. Loss of social knowledge within the herd.
3. Breakdown of society, both for humans and elephants.
4. Support and spread of terrorism.
5. Corruption of people groups.
6. Creation of child soldiers.
"We as humans are not removed from our world that we live in," says Evans. As I listened to her speak, I realized she's right. The illegal wildlife trade isn't just about saving certain animals; it's about saving the entire earth. This big task has taken just a few decades to spiral out of control, but the good news is that there are many of us who can help solve it. As Evans predicts, "If we stop the trade, we can stop the killing."
Some African countries are taking large steps to prevent and protect against poaching and wildlife trade. Evans says Botswana in particular, has seen a steady and increasing elephant population, which now measures around 160,000. Her organization, which is based in Botswana, has worked to help this progress at the local level. "Conservation from within is our long-term solution," she says.
As I listened to researchers, zookeepers, enthusiasts, organization leaders and students, I heard the same theme over and over again: Education is key to saving this species.
"You guys are out there," says Evans to the crowd. "You have a captive audience."
Linda Reifschnedier of Asian Elephant Support echoed Evans' call to action. "When you talk to the public, you're the expert, and they know it,' she adds. "They know that everything you say is from your heart and is real and true."
If nothing else, I hope that my blog accomplishes this: to share this large heart for elephants with you, and to encourage you to share it with others. Whether or not you ever fall in love with these animals, I hope you understand why I and so many others have.
Kerry Skiff is a conservation advocate and recent journalism graduate of Northern Kentucky University. She follows the ivory trade around the world, and uses her voice to educate Americans about their role in animal conservation.