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Heart of an Elephant

The physical manifestation of irony.

A one-pound sculpture of an elephant, made entirely of ivory and missing its left tusk. Now I know why Grammy fretted. When she presented it to me she carefully emphasized its value, but not in a proud or boastful way, she even seemed to regret its imperfect condition, but all I saw was beauty as an eight-year-old.

My grandparents spent part of their childhood in Shanghai, China. The country has historically been home to the largest domestic ivory market in the world. Although Grammy does not know the precise origin of her sculpture, she remembers it belonged to her mother before her, so it must have been acquired in the early 1900s at the latest. On these assumptions, ivory could have been at its peak demand in China, considering that the first treaty on regulated ivory trade (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora; CITES) was not made until 1973; it only recently became illegal to domestically trade ivory in China.

I did not know or consider how my sculpture was created when I was eight, but I sensed the intentionality in keeping it in the family. It has lost substantial monetary value (thankfully), but serves as a token of responsibility to eliminate the ivory market, to keep whatever is left out of circulation. It is a painfully beautiful reminder of the responsibility to preserve.

And so began my deep love for land's largest animal, "Nature's great masterpiece, an elephant; the only harmless great thing." - John Donne. I had elephant decor everywhere, and my most cherished gifts include elephants. I’ve been given elephant necklaces, an elephant journal, ivory Ella shirts, and even an elephant jewelry box. I crossed off the first line of my bucket list in 2019 when I saw elephants roaming in an African safari just outside of Cape Town. So that’s the cliff notes of my love story with the species, now here’s what I’ve learned.

So elephants have this insane emotional and intellectual capacity, they are one of few other species able to recognize themselves in a mirror (interested to learn how this was discovered). Their EQ is almost as high as Chimpanzees with a remarkable encephalization quotient (the size of the animal’s brain relative to its body size), the largest brain of any land mammal. Not only do they have big brains, but they are very similar to our brains—matching in neurons and synapses with a well-developed hippocampus and cerebral cortex. They can use their brains like humans, too. Elephants have proven to recreate melodies, understand basic arithmetic, and even indicate their own language and grammar.

The Asian Elephant and the African Elephant are the two overarching elephant species—primarily differentiated by their ears and tusks. The African elephant has much larger ears than Asian elephants. As for their tusks, all African Elephants grow dentin (yes, their tusks are actually teeth) while only some of the Asian male elephants do. What the two share are an incredible trunk organ, averaging 15,000 lbs of muscle and an 8 liter holding capacity.

The fact that enthralls me the most is that calves are born blind, yet can stand within 20 minutes of birth walking within their first hour of life. It amazes me that stability is so innate in such a large creature. And the gestation period for an elephant is 22 months! Also, they are wrinkly for a reason. Their inch-thick skin (literally) allows for 10x as much water storage than flat skin, which serves them well for enduring a 50-70 year lifespan.

There are less than a mere 500,000 elephants left in the world. That is 200,000 less than the population of Alaska. The three continual threats to the population are illegal wildlife trade, habitat loss and fragmentation, and human-elephant conflict. Despite the CITES international ban on ivory trade, elephants continue to be illegally poached for their inherent beauty. A lack of technology, resources and remote inaccessibility make it extremely difficult to decipher whether ivory has been illegally poached. As long as ivory is still in circulation matched with demand, as with any natural resource, exploitation will continue. As human populations continue to grow, so does land development. The roaming area for elephants has shrunk by 2 million square miles since 1979. These land restraints cause scarcity of food and water that elephants need to survive. Additionally, this overlap of land invites human-elephant conflict. As elephants grow more desperate there are inevitable cases of human-elephant interaction in villages and on farmland, where elephants inevitably lose an unfair fight.

The issue is acute and daunting. While we may not be positioned to heighten the illegality of elephant threats, or fend off encroachers, appreciating their beauty is of no cost. If nothing else, I’m humbled by the emotional, intellectual, and physical beauty of this animal. For those that can and want to take action, below is a starting point.

So, what can we do?


Fundraise and Sponsor

Discourage any circulation or demand for ivory

Buy fair trade products, particularly, coffee

Don’t worry, Starbucks makes the cut!

Adopt an elephant

Buy Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified timber

Support Conservation efforts

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