An elephant is killed every 15 minutes, statistics say. For a little bit of ivory that sits on the mantelpiece, an innocent life is stolen. When the poachers dash in, with their AK47s, all they leave behind are blood stained grey bodies and bereft calves.
I spoke to Virginia McKenna, actress and founder of the Born Free Foundation about the current global wildlife crisis. Commenting on the decline of the elephant, she says,
“If it goes on at this rate, it will be a complete disaster and we won’t have any except in captivity, or in very small protected areas where they have a small chance of survival.”
But elephants aren’t the only victims. Rhinos, tigers, lions, and a list of other animals are on the brink of extinction. The need for ivory, horns and exotic body parts is growing. As a result, the population of certain species is diminishing. Virginia McKenna, long time wildlife campaigner believes the core of the problem is a lack of understanding in the Far East.
“Someone told me once that in China, a lot of people think the elephant’s tusks fall out naturally, they just drop out onto the ground.”
In the Far East, few are being told the right stories. They’re not aware of the outcome of this excessive poaching. They are not seeing the full story that lies behind the ivory ornaments.
“I do believe that if people really understood what it means, what they’re doing to the animals, if they saw their suffering when they’re mutilated, or they’re wounded and die in agony, with their little orphan calves, trembling by their sides, I can’t help but pray that their humanity would come to the fore and that they’d say, of course we mustn’t do this anymore.”
As I spoke to Virginia about the pressing issue of endangered wildlife, she told me that she believes we need people to go out to the Far East and talk to those who want these rare body parts. They need to understand that this relentless poaching is bringing about extinction of species. No amount of money can bring these animals back once they’ve gone.
“Until you change the belief or the attitude of people who are demanding parts of animals, how will it end? Says Virginia. “Until you can persuade people that the little piece of carved ivory on the mantlepiece has brought about the death of a creature that feels pain and suffering, until you can persuade them that that is what they are looking at with such pride and pleasure, I don’t think you will change things.”
The cause of this issue is what we must tackle. Schools, universities, and local governments – in all countries where these items are valued, they need to know what is happening to the world’s wildlife, and what the consequences are if the animals continue to be slaughtered at such an alarming rate.
“We’ve got to go out there, to China, Vietnam ,Thailand and talk to people who are going to the office, doing a job, earning money and coming home. The real people. I don’t think anybody’s done that yet.”
We also need to remember that every animal on this planet fulfills a purpose. When one is removed, the whole eco system is altered.
“If the elephant, ‘the gardener of the wild’, becomes extinct, then of course the whole environment will change,” she explains. “ Nothing will be the same.”
Many zoos claim they promote wildlife conservation. The fact is, animals that spend long periods of time in captivity, rarely get released back into the wild. So, while zoos may try to persuade us that their work is beneficial to endangered species, it is somewhat misleading.
“If you are going to breed these animals in the hope of returning them to the wild, you’ve got to have some wild to put the animals back into, and the trouble these days, is the wild is diminishing at a rate beyond belief and these opportunities are going to get rarer and rarer” explains Virginia Mckenna. “The needs of our own species are paramount to us, hence the conflict over land.”
Next year, the Born Free foundation will be opening its first wildlife education centre in Ethiopia. Virginia McKenna wants it to be a place children and adults can visit to learn about their country’s extraordinary wildlife.
“I’m really excited about it,” she says. “The information they will receive and the wonder they will feel when they realise what treasures their country holds, will open their eyes in so many ways.”
The rare Ethiopian wolf is among many of Ethiopia’s endangered species and is literally clinging to survival. It’s vital that more people in Ethiopia understand how crucial this animal is to their environmental and heritage, and what a responsibility they have to protect it.
When she opens the new education centre in Ethiopia, next year, she’ll be bringing along a companion. Her huge carved oak lion.
“He is going to go to Ethiopia and be placed outside the new education,” she explains. “For me he is a symbol of the magnificence and beauty of wild creatures. I think the children will just adore him. I have named him ‘The Guardian’ and I hope he will inspire all who see him to be guardians of wilderness and all wild creatures.”
At times, the world can seem like a dark place. So many extraordinary people are doing their best to make a change in the world. But we don’t always see the immediate changes we want to see. Virginia McKenna has been campaigning for wild animals for decades. Her strength and will to carry on and not give up is inspiring. She says,
“If you didn’t retain hope, you would give up and there’s no way that we are going to give up.”