A few weeks ago, a gigantic, 45-year-old African elephant named Satao was killed by ivory poachers. Satao, a beloved pachyderm legend, was discovered in a mutilated heap; he had been killed by poison arrows and butchered for his gigantic tusks. This year, Satao will be one of about 30,000 elephants destroyed, in a declining population of just 500,000. Black-market ivory evidently goes for $1,300 a pound, and the price is rising as Asia becomes richer: In the Orient, ground ivory is used to make a popular placebo medication, and, according to the Telegraph, Chinese decorating traditions credit ivory with the power to “disperse misfortune and drive out evil spirits.”
Things are even worse for Asia’s indigenous elephants; there are only 30,000 left. Unlike their African cousins, only the males grow tusks, so the ivory trade is severely depleting the XY end of the gene pool. And with Asia’s large and fertile population of people, additional elephants are killed each year in run-ins with their counterpart indigenous humans, as elephant migratory routes take them through villages and over highways.
Asian and African elephants are the only remaining genera of the family Elephantidae; there used to be more than a dozen. And four of those used to roam, in great herds, around North America.
The mastodon, along with the largest of the elephants — the stegodon — and the woolliest — the mammoth — died out quite recently, about 10,000 years ago. Isolated pockets of mammoths were still alive 4,000 years ago when Greek civilization was beginning on Crete. These elephants were done in by post-Pleistocene climate change and hungry, hungry humans. And ivory was valuable then, too.
So, overhunting did in our ancestral American elephants. Just as it did in our bison. But our bison are back. Why not bring back the elephants?
In the 1980s, when political strife threatened Africa’s Jews, Israel airlifted them, en masse, to Israel. Far be it from me to compare (my fellow) Jews to elephants; this isn’t a perfect metaphor. But airlifting some elephants to our National Parks System would solve some big problems.
The species could be saved. African elephants aren’t doing well; Asian elephants are on their last legs. And America needs elephants: They don’t always do well in zoos, and captive breeding is far below the rate of replacement.
We have climates for elephants — in the southwestern desert, the southeastern forests, and the great plains in between. We have the space, and I don’t doubt we have the required enthusiasm; Americans love animals. Carefully and selectively introducing elephants to these United States might seem like a radical notion, but in the end, the choice will boil down to this: We can let elephants dwindle toward extinction, or we can watch herds of them sweep across the fruited plain.
Write to your congressman.
— Josh Gelernter is a writer in Connecticut.