Today is the 15th annual Elephant Appreciation Day, but don't feel bad if you forgot.
The obscure holiday was created in 1996 by a Sarasota, Fla., businessman who liked elephants, and it has no official organizers or promoters. As its circa-1996 website explains, it's meant "to be observed and enjoyed by anyone anywhere on a local level." In fact, it may be even less well-known than the Herndon, Va.-based "indie/punk/ska" band of the same name.
Which is a shame, considering the grim outlook for Earth's largest land mammal. As the Wall Street Journal reports this week, rising ivory demand in China has boosted the price from $157 per kilogram in 2008 to as high as $7,000 in 2011, an increase of 4,358 percent. Poachers, not surprisingly, have been quick to cash in.
Wildlife parks in Africa increasingly look like war zones, with soldiers often helping park rangers fight elite poaching outfits linked to organized crime syndicates. "There is big money involved," David Higgins of Interpol's Environmental Crime Program told Agence France-Presse last year. "You have groups and networks that are hiring helicopters to hunt down elephants and rhinos in southern Africa. It shows the level of profit they can make, if they are ready to make this kind of investment."
As South Africa's News24 reports, poachers have even begun poisoning water holes in Zimbabwe, killing elephants as well as lions, buffaloes and vultures. It's the country's first-known case of "poaching involving chemicals," a state spokesman tells News24, and officials are also worried about human health in nearby villages. And in Kenya's Samburu National Reserve, elephant killings in the first half of 2011 were already double any year in the past decade, according to Save the Elephants. "All hell's breaking loose," elephant researcher Cynthia Moss tells the WSJ from Kenya's Amboseli National Park. "Up north, we lost 23 elephants in the last two weeks."
The sale of elephant ivory is illegal, so most data on that side of the market come from confiscated shipments. Chinese officials have seized four big ivory shipments totaling 6,500 kg since 2009, the WSJ reports, while Malaysia seized 700 elephant tusks this month — its third ivory seizure since July. And just a week earlier, authorities in Hong Kong confiscated $1.6 million in African ivory that was shipped in from Malaysia.
If all this seems familiar, it's not just déjà vu. World leaders banned the global ivory trade in 1989, a move widely credited with helping avert the animals' extinction. But its success now seems to be fading — largely, experts say, because of China's emerging middle class. "People in China never bought ivory before, because they couldn't afford it — they carved it, but it all went out to Europe," Moss says. "Now it's being bought in China by the Chinese, and that's a disaster."
Elephant populations in Africa and Asia have fallen by roughly 85 percent and 65 percent, respectively, since the turn of the 20th century, according to the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife. And on top of the recent big-money poaching trend, elephants in both continents are perhaps even more threatened by habitat loss, whether it's from logging, land development or climate change. That has led to more human-elephant conflicts, and while innovative, nonlethal deterrents exist — including things like pepper spray, guard donkeys and booby traps — the problem is unlikely to go away as long as elephants' habitats keep dwindling.
But all this shouldn't bring you down — that's not what Elephant Appreciation Day is about. Rather, the holiday aims to honor elephants simply for being "noble," "amusing" and "friendly," among other qualities, according to its website. And in that spirit, here's an incredible video of an elephant painting a self-portrait:
Snopes has verified that the video above is real, although elephants can't paint representationally like this without training. Still, it's pretty impressive — and proceeds from these paintings help fund the Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project.
This photo shows a more "natural" elephant painting:
Photo: Ben Cawthra/LNP/ZUMA Press
The artist above is Karishma, a 13-year-old Asian elephant at the U.K.'s Whipsnade Zoo. If you happen to be in the U.K. this weekend, you can appreciate Karishma in person — a selection of her artwork will be on display in honor of Elephant Appreciation Day. Many other zoos around the world are also holding events this week to celebrate the holiday, but regardless of what you do, the point of Elephant Appreciation Day is mainly to popularize the animals and their plight, laying a groundwork of appreciation that will lead to more coordinated action. As Save the Elephants founder Iain Douglas-Hamilton tells the WSJ, "now that we've had almost 20 years of cease-fire, people have become complacent, and we need renewed interest."
In other words, we should emulate one of elephants' most noble traits: Never forget.