a home for ivory orphans

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Dr. M. Sanjayan turned around to find a full-grown elephant looming over him: strong twisting trunk, tusks as long as your arm, intelligent dark eyes sizing him up. the mother elephant, with her big soft feet, had snuck up in silence.

almost as quickly, you could turn around to find the earth has lost its wild elephants. our distance from the savannah allows us to forget that elephants are killed by poachers every day. extinction can sneak up quickly.

but we can stop it. we can make sure elephants remain to roam in Africa. Dr. Sanjayan is an eminent scientist at Conservation International. he’s been surprised several times by quiet elephants in the wild — once he was taking a dip in a pond and looked up to see a trunk, attached to an elephant, drinking from the same pond!

such encounters impress Sanjayan every time. “it’s humbling,” he says, “to see this massive animal in the flesh, this reminder that humans were not always the dominant force of nature. it changes you forever.” in his experience, he says, wild elephants impart this powerful feeling on anyone lucky enough to see them.

for those lucky few, this feeling and the wisdom it bestows are enough to justify elephant conservation. but even for those who will never see an elephant, there are other reasons to protect the mighty creatures. for one thing, elephants exert immense influence on the lands where they roam. they clear woods and brush and fertilize the soil to create grassland habitats for both lions and nomadic livestock herders.

elephants also have enormous economic impact. Sanjayan quotes a Kenyan politician as saying, “people don’t come here to see the beautiful roads.” no — people flock to Kenya to see the elephants. a live elephant, who can live as long as a human, is worth vastly more than a dead one, whose tusks are sold for trinkets.

poaching is the main threat to elephants in Africa. well-armed criminal gangs profit from killing elephants and making off with their tusks. farmers, who are sometimes paid off by poachers, and whose crops can be damaged by elephants, understandably often turn a blind eye. the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in northern Kenya addresses elephant poaching in two ways: the first way is by providing a home where orphaned elephants, whose parents have been killed for ivory, can live until they are ready to re-integrate into a local herd. the sanctuary also engages and incentivizes the local community to protect elephants. “many animal preserves around Africa are run by well-intentioned foreigners,” says Sanjayan, “but the lodge near Reteti is run by the local community, mostly nomadic Samburu people, who receive a second source of revenue from the tourism.”

elephants herds maintain intricate cultures. matriarchs pass down migration routes and locations of water in times of drought. they share living memories, like us. maybe they tell stories, too. what sort of characters will we humans be, in the stories that elephant grandmothers tell their young?

10% from every ‘home‘ glassybaby goes directly to the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, to help protect wild elephants in Northern Kenya.