By Joseph Collins – Featured Writer
Positive change does happen. Sometimes it happens more slowly than we’d like…but it does happen.
In recent weeks, for instance, there has been some positive news for elephants – an animal that has been hunted, abused, poached, and held captive for centuries.
In early March 2015, Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus announced that they plant to phase out the use of elephants by 2018 – a great step forward for these magnificent animals. The decision was largely driven by the public’s growing awareness – and vocal disapproval – about how these animals are being mistreated behind the scenes. Since Ringling Bros. is one of the largest and most famous circuses in the world, this is considered a major development.
“Symbolically, it’s one of the biggest announcements in the modern era of animal welfare,” said Wayne Pacelle, co-founder and president of the Humane Society of America. “It’s almost like the Berlin Wall within animal welfare.”
Over the years, research has shown that elephants are highly intelligent and sociable animals. Yet circuses commonly keep them in chains and in isolation for up to 22 hours a day. To keep them submissive, handlers often hit them with bull hooks or use electrical prods, often resulting in serious injuries – as has been documented by animal rights activists. In addition, it is common for circus elephants to be shuttled around to more than a hundred cities a year, sometimes in stifling hot train cars, which often leads to death from heat exhaustion.
However, thanks to the tireless efforts of activists, information about these practices has been getting out, and the public is becoming increasingly vocal about their disapproval. And clearly, it is having an impact. Animal welfare organizations are hoping that this will be the beginning of a general trend – for circuses throughout the US and around the world.
“With this step, we look forward to the day that it [Ringling Bros.], and other circuses, phase out all wild animals, including the lions and tigers that also are featured in their shows,” said Pamela Burns, a Humane Society executive. “After all, wild and exotic animals are not meant to entertain us.”
In addition to these positive developments for captive elephants, there has been some good news for wild elephants, too. All around the world, people are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers that wild elephants face – especially African elephants. And as awareness grows, so too is the demand for serious action.
In recent years, the slaughter of African elephants by poachers has become a major problem – primarily because of the growing demand for ivory. According to park rangers, 90 elephants are killed every day by bullets and cyanide poisoning – putting the African elephant population in serious danger. While African elephants are not yet classified as “endangered,” they are now considered to be “vulnerable” and are rapidly on their way to endangered status. In one recent 3-year period, more than 100,000 elephants were killed by poachers. In fact, in just 10 years, Central Africa lost 64% of its total elephant population.
But in recent months, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her daughter, Chelsea, have unveiled an initiative to combat poaching by securing $80 million to help crack down on the illegal ivory trade before elephants become extinct. And when you have that kind of high-profile power, people listen.
The plan, which involves several conservation groups and a number of African governments, is taking aim at 50 poaching hotspots, hoping to end, or at least dramatically reduce the killings. Part of the money will also be used to lobby for a worldwide ban on the ivory trade. And now, even the Obama administration has pledged $10 million to help bring an end to poaching. The movement is undoubtedly gaining momentum.
One of the worst offenders in the illegal ivory trade is China, where growing consumer demand is largely responsible for the recent boom in the ivory business. But even in China, there are signs of hope. A recent survey of popular attitudes about poaching and elephants in China found a growing awareness of the problems being caused by the ivory trade. Today, nearly 3/4ths of respondents said elephant poaching was a problem, up from just 50% in 2012. And now, a total of 95% of those surveyed said the Chinese government should institute a nationwide ban on ivory products.
And sure enough, just a few weeks ago – in February 2015 – China announced its first ever ban on ivory imports. While the ban is only a temporary 1-year initiative, it is certainly a move in the right direction – and an important public acknowledgement that elephant poaching is a serious problem. There are those who question the sincerity of China’s commitment, but there is no doubt that the Chinese public is beginning to undergo a major change in attitude.
Together, all these tiny steps are important, and they show that the movement is definitely gaining some momentum. As with any movement, the changes start small and slowly build over time. And of course, success breeds confidence…and eventually…a call for more transformation.
If activists begin pressuring circuses about the other animals they use for entertainment, then maybe we will eventually see an end to the use of ALL wild animals in circuses – including lions, bears, monkeys and others. And governments can help protect elephants in the wild, it will serve as a call to arms to the very real possibility of successfully protecting other endangered species as well.
“Today is a harbinger of things to come,” says Wayne Pacelle about Ringling Bros. decision. If he is right, than perhaps we are witnessing the beginning of a brighter future for animals and animal rights. If so, it is long overdue. And we can be hopeful. For all of this demonstrates nicely that when people care, they can be motivated to act. And where there is action, there is always hope for change.