Imagine being able to see elephants every single day of your life. Their large, majestic stature a familiar silhouette, the bellow of their trunk as common as a car honk in a city. In Africa, this is the reality for many citizens. Elephants are largely intertwined in their daily culture, as humans are with the animals’. Unfortunately, for one reason or another, not everyone can bear to stay away from the fascinating elephant. Some people seek them out to capture and exploit them for zoos and the tourism business, others seek to poach and rob elephants for their valuable ivory tusks.
Due to these acts, the elephant population is decreasing at an alarming rate. It is estimated that 96 elephants are killed every day in Africa, and conservationists state that if nothing is done to mitigate this situation the African elephant may very well become extinct within our lifetime. Unsurprisingly, there are several organizations in existence who are working to stop poachers, protect African elephants, and raise awareness about their struggle for survival.
Nature photographers also play an important role in helping people from around the world get a glimpse of what life is like for elephants. Unfortunately, the mark is sometimes missed, and photographers who may very well intend to promote conservation, can end up getting people excited about the very activities that harm elephants.
For example, recently National Geographic photographer, Jody MacDonald, shared a photo of an elephant getting ridden through the ocean by an Indian man. MacDonald uses the photo as an opportunity to raise awareness for the plight of the African elephant, writing, “Everyday 96 elephants are killed in #Africa, usually by poachers. For world elephant day, visit http://www.96elephants.org for more information on the 96 #elephants campaign and what you can do to help raise awareness for the elephants struggle for survival.”
As well intentioned as this post may have been, it fails to address a number of things. To begin, the elephant in the photo is actually an Asian elephant. These animals are susceptible to the ivory trade and poaching, but they are more threatened by tourism and entertainment than their African counterparts. So while the caption does raise awareness for the ivory poaching crises, it fails to address the very real exploitation problem facing Asian elephants … and in fact, it appears to even depict it.
This photographer may not have realized that riding an elephant, through the ocean no less, is an abusive industry. Countless Asian elephants are captured from the wild and sold to serve as trekking elephants, forced to work nonstop carrying tourists on their backs through hot jungles and cities. Additionally, while elephants do swim, they tend to avoid the ocean because the salt water is irritating to their skin. This photo appears to show an elephant in the ocean with a rider – an image that promotes the idea that both of these things are not only okay … but in some way tied to conservation efforts by way of the caption.
Lastly, MacDonald fails to address the fact that the man in the photograph is likely abusing this elephant, due to the fact that he is holding what appear to be whip or bull hook. These instruments are used to train elephants into complying with their riders by way of pain. To use this cruel photo as a way to spread a conservation message, but failing to address all of the faults of the image, is plain irresponsible.
Elephants most certainly need the help and cooperation of humans if they are even going to stand a chance in surviving. However, we must be very careful on how we go about completing this massive task. A call to action may be effective, but if the public is not adequately informed, the abuse will continue to occur over and over again. It is only when both of these things are done well, that any change will truly come. To learn more about how you can help elephants, click here.
Image source: Jody MacDonald