Mlima’s Tale: A Conservationist’s Perspective
Mlima’s Tale by Lynn Nottage is a masterfully rendered play profiling the journey of poached ivory from Mlima, a magnificent bull Savanna elephant from Kenya’s Tsavo National Park – one of the last great tuskers from the African continent. As the regal beast’s spirit chronicles the journey of his unrivalled tusks halfway around the globe, we meet the players in this real life drama that is the illegal wildlife trade.
Taken under cover of darkness by poison arrow and machete, we learn of Mlima’s cunning murder and hacking disfigurement at the hands of Somali poachers. Of equal importance, we also learn their motivation – their need to feed their families.
Through his words and movements, Mlima reaches us in ways no other being could convey. He gives voice to the Maasai proverb,
“If you don’t give an elephant a proper burial, he’ll haunt you forever.”
With each human encounter, Mlima progressively transforms into the ivory which becomes his vessel, leaving a white streak of paint or dust on every complicit person he encounters, staining their souls. Yet this stain hemorrhages beyond the mere handlers.
The illegal wildlife trade is a multibillion dollar black market threatening our planet’s very biodiversity and resilience which embattles every conservation effort our species can devise and sustain. This juggernaut market is gargantuan – conservatively estimated at $23 billion U.S. annually, excluding illegal timber and fisheries harvesting – its tentacles reach into every mountain range, rainforest, continent and ocean.
Perhaps more startling, it is homegrown. From 1840 through 1940, Connecticut dominated the world ivory market. With America leading the demand for ivory combs, ornamental handles, buttons and piano keys, up to 90% of the ivory entering the United States came through Connecticut. With the invention of an ivory comb-cutting device by Phineas Pratt came the mechanization of the ivory trade. This gave rise to Deep River, Connecticut’s Pratt, Read & Company and their direct competitor, Comstock, Cheney & Company from adjacent West Centrebrook, Connecticut, later renamed Ivoryton. During their heyday, these two companies so dominated worldwide trade that they determined the price paid for tusks in the East African bush. With up to 100,000 elephants slaughtered for their tusks each year during this era, it is possible that as many as 10 million African Savanna elephants were lost to this trade.
Yet the human costs were perhaps even more staggering. Legendary missionary and explorer David Livingstone, a firsthand witness to the horrors of the trade’s human costs, estimated that not more than one in five slaves who served as bearers of the heavy ivory from the continent’s interior survived the journey to the coastal ports. Innumerable women and children were among the fallen.
What was it that drove such fervor? Prized for its unparalleled beauty, strength and superiority as a carving medium, ivory is a variety of dentine found only in the tusks or massive protruding teeth of certain mammals such as elephants and walruses. Renowned for its smoothness, hardness and luster, elephant ivory was, and is, the most highly-sought of all. As the journey of Mlima’s astounding tusks, measuring nearly eight feet in length and weighing nearly 200 pounds each, unfolds, we learn the workings of this insidious trade. The worldwide ivory ban has forced the trade underground. The leading worldwide demand from China and Vietnam respectively has more than doubled since 2007.
Poaching or unlawful hunting is the second leading cause of species endangerment after habitat loss. In order to profitably fund criminal activities, crime syndicates and terrorist groups have adopted poaching and trafficking of wildlife and wildlife parts to further fund illegal activities. Economic principles of supply and demand dictate that rarity increases economic value. Tragically, this phenomenon is not confined to elephants and their ivory. Tigers are hunted without relent for their hides and bones while rhinos are sought for their horns comprised of keratin, the same protein which forms our hair and nails. Nor is this trade chiefly exotic, with food, pets, ornamental plants, leather and tourist trinkets accounting for multibillion dollar slices of this deadly pie each year. As supply contracts and demand soars, the twenty-first century illegal wildlife trade spikes exponentially. Ushered in by the rapidly dwindling populations from 2007 to 2013, rhino poaching in South Africa increased by an astounding 7,700%!
When we feel powerless, we often abdicate the power to act. Inaction will assuredly lead to the extinction of these magnificent creatures we cherish, who share our planet. The illegal worldwide wildlife trade crisis is everyone’s problem. As such, it requires everyone for a solution. As in all crises, the remedy for this crisis is action. There is something each one of us can do to combat this crisis. It starts with literacy.
It is through the written, spoken and acted word that we learn. For the vast majority of the 150,000 children who visit Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo and attend zoo programs throughout the region each year, it is their only exposure to amazing creatures such as American bison, Amur leopards or Harris’s hawks. Such exposure opens a dialogue with the adult they will someday become...a dialogue which gives them voice.
Help us to ensure that voice is heard by refraining from buying wildlife products, voting for stronger protections and supporting conservation initiatives for wildlife in your own backyard and around the world. Nearly two centuries ago the modern ivory trade originated in Connecticut and now, Connecticut has the opportunity to close a chapter on the ivory trade by writing a storyline which includes greater awareness, stronger advocacy and measurable change.
It is not enough to simply listen to Mlima’s tale. We must feel his tale as the elephant feels the thunder that is not yet rain. We must feel the change happening around us. We must fight the complicity of inaction. We must sense the danger and call out to our fellow travelers.
Jim Knox has shared his knowledge of, and passion for wildlife with millions of viewers throughout the U.S., Russia, Thailand, the Middle East and Europe on Animal Planet and as the writer and host for PBS television’s Wild Zoofari. Jim has served as an on-camera Wildlife Expert for The Today Show, The CBS Early Show and Fox News. He has been featured in The New York Times, has served as a Wildlife Consultant for Men’s Journal Magazine and as a Guest Host for Connoisseur Media Star 99.9 FM’s Anna & Raven Show.
Jim currently serves as the Curator of Education at Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo where he directs Education and Wildlife Conservation programs for this AZA accredited Zoo. Jim is a graduate of Cornell University where he studied Animal Science. He has studied rhinos, lions and Great White Sharks in South Africa, conducted field research for Alaskan Brown Bears, field conservation for Atlantic salmon and written for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Jim is the Co-Creator of The Conservation Discovery Corps which won first place honors with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums as the Outstanding Education Program in the nation. Closer to home, Jim has presented to The Harvard College Conservation Society, lectured for the University of Connecticut and currently serves as a Science Adviser for The Bruce Museum of Greenwich and a writer for The Greenwich Sentinel. A national keynote speaker, corporate and TEDx Presenter, Jim loves his work and enjoys engaging all audiences in the protection of wildlife everywhere.
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