November’s been a notable month for elephants in the news. First there was the heartbreaking photo out of India of a mother elephant trying to lead her burning baby out of danger. Then Trump announced – and backtracked on – an end to the ban on bringing hunted elephant parts back to the States. Finally, three elephants in Connecticut are the object of a fight for proboscideaic personhood. As fellow intelligent beasts and keystone species, the efforts of the elephants making their way through the world underscores our own.
In West Bengal’s Bankura district, people and elephants increasingly clash as their territorial needs overlap. India is home to over 70% of the world’s population of Asian elephants and almost a fifth of the earth’s humans. Although India’s population is trending downward, 1.3 billion people still need places to live and grow food. Human incursions into elephant territory mean that both species pose a threat to the other, but only the humans have figured out how to lob flaming tar bombs and firecrackers at the four-leggeds who range through their settlements and fields. “Hell is Here,” the prizewinning photo taken by Biplap Hazra, shows the visceral pain and graphic wounds that the locals inflict, sometimes in defense of their homes and sometimes just for fun.
Speaking of inflicting suffering in the name of amusement, President Trump (briefly) rescinded an Obama-era ban on the import of elephant parts as hunting trophies. I know, when I think of all the problems the world is facing today, from climate change and economic inequality to powerful men accused of sexual harassment, the first thing I think of doing to make it all right again is to allow wealthy hunters, such as the Trump sons, the right to whack a few endangered animals and hang bits of them on the wall back at home.
The argument for allowing legal hunting of threatened African elephants in Zambia and Zimbabwe, where elephant populations have dropped 30% between 2007 and 2014, is that the move puts poachers out of work and provides much-needed funds for local communities and conservation groups. (Lifting the ban did provide more money to protect elephants, but probably not in the expected manner.) However, is Trump’s memory so short that he can’t remember the outcry after Cecil the Lion’s trophy-inspired death only a couple of years ago? After the Internet lit up with criticism of the ban from Trump supporters and detractors alike, Trump took it back, tweeting that he was going to “review all conservation facts” and later calling elephant hunting a “horror show.” The purpose had been served: people were still talking about him.
Finally, prominent animal rights attorney Steven Wise is arguing that three old circus elephants should be granted personhood and be released to an animal sanctuary. It’s not as crazy of an idea as it first appears. After all, organizations such as municipalities and businesses have been granted legal personhood, as well as other animals and rivers elsewhere in the world. Considering that elephants clearly experience life’s emotional richness and empathize with each other, it’s arguable that they’re more eligible for personhood than some currently prominent politicians. Tim Commerford, owner of the Commerford Zoo and of the elephants in question, objects, claiming that freeing his animals would be like liberating a comfortable housecat. Should elephant advocates concentrate on humane treatment rather than legal rights, which could be problematic when considering the rights of actual humans? It’s an open question that might be answered in Connecticut.
As Republicans flounder, so too do their spirit animals. One can only hope that those with the biggest hearts, greatest empathy, and strongest connections within the natural world, recover.