Asian Bull Elephant
I hope Mastercard will forgive me if I say he’s priceless. But if asked, would everyone (or anyone) agree? As I stood stirring a pot of instant noodles, a humungous bull elephant suddenly appeared in the window. After a minute or two staring at me benevolently, he slipped noiselessly back into the forest. I burnt my noodles.
A self-confessed elephant obsessive, I can wax lyrical about all the reasons why Asian elephants are extraordinary from their incredible cognitive ability (recently linked to brain development during their long gestation), complex social relationships, fascinating modes of communication, amazing anatomy, fascinating evolution, place in human culture, resilience in the face of adversity, and vital role as nature’s gardeners and landscapers… The list goes on but regardless of how long it might be, there are still many people who might not see the value of these amazing beings. In some cases, they might not see it because they are so far removed from nature that they don’t see its relevance. For example at a dinner party I was once asked by a big city banker, "Biodiversity? What’s that?" Others don’t place significant value on endangered wildlife because they simply don’t care unless there is a direct impact on their daily lives, "Elephants, no elephants, it makes no difference to me". Some people don’t value elephants because they have competing interests. And then there’s the real clincher, some don’t see the value of elephants because they simply can’t afford to do so. In a developing country where it might be said that human life is ‘cheap’, how can we expect non-human animals to be highly valued?
I am incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to be doing what I always dreamed I’d do ‘when I grow up’. It is perhaps this feeling of overwhelming fulfilment that also breeds festering guilt. I value the elephants because I am in the fortunate position to be able to afford to value them*. Kneeling in the tall grass collecting elephant poop one morning, I look up and see a rusty old shipping container with an improvised clothes line strung up outside and I realise that while I’m living my dream, there’s a family living in a box. Yes, we all realise while we’re sitting in our cafes sipping our lattes that poverty exists but shamefully, it takes a blatant juxtaposition for that realisation to really kick you right in the guts.
People often ask: when you can see there are people suffering how can you justify working in wildlife conservation? (They are usually those same big city bankers who don’t know what biodiversity is.) On one hand, I understand their point of view. On the other hand, their question is ridiculous, en par with asking a nurse who cares for dying comatose AIDS patients how she can justify her work while healthy, sentient whales are being harpooned. In other words, there are many worthy causes, humans and non-humans who need help. And it is the case that everyone has different skills and values which will guide us to find the serenity to change the things we can, the courage to recognise the things we can’t and the wisdom to know the difference.
From the big city banker to the family living in a shipping container, everyone will place a different value on wildlife for various reasons. We cannot expect everyone to value endangered species equally. And to some extent, we cannot blame people who out of necessity, condone or participate in processes which threaten species survival. Not everyone sees the value of that elephant in the window but I just can’t deny it. I will always think he’s priceless.
- Stephanie Hing
*Funding for this project is gratefully received from the Rufford Small Grants Foundation, ZSL Erasmus Darwin Barlowe Expeditions Grant, Chester Zoo and Imperial College. Field support is provided by Danau Girang Field Centre and the Sabah Wildlife Department.
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Every month one of the pieces held in ZSL’s Library and at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo will feature here as Artefact of the month.
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ZSL Whipsnade Zoo's elephant keepers give an insight into the daily goings on in the elephant barn.
Read about conservation of tigers in Asia.
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