World Elephant Day. It is upon us once again and for days I have been struggling to find the words to highlight the importance of this day. Maybe it’s the jetlag of the 32-hour trip back from Myanmar, or maybe it’s the fact that there are so many stories to write about elephants that I can't figure out which one to focus on. But like anyone who writes and suffers that painful reality of writer’s block there comes that moment when the clouds clear and you begin to see the first letter of the sentence that you hope will lead the reader down the path of enlightenment, joy, and most importantly that your voice is heard and it inspires others to act.
I was on a radio show a few days ago, The Lisa Wexler Show (AM 1490 WGCH, The Voice of Fairfield and Westchester Counties). During the show I was all over the map opining about so many elephant things that I am certain the audience was trying to connect the dots – everything from President Trump and his abdication of our country’s critical role in protecting elephants and other imperiled wildlife to the evil in humans that manifest itself in the unbelievably brutal act of skinning an Asian elephant and selling the skin to be made into jewelry or some mystical Chinese medicine. But Lisa, who is a true believer in protecting elephants helped me navigate my rants and hyperbole and tied the narrative together in a way that her listeners likely understood the importance of acting now to save these amazing animals. Her voice reaches millions of people who can help bring an end to the epic struggle for survival that elephants face.
After the show my mind was racing with so many things I could have and should have talked about. What about the story of the young Burmese mahout who manages a government owned elephant camp near Myanmar’s capitol of Nay Pyi Taw. His response, when asked what future he hoped for the elephants in his care, was unexpected – that he looked forward to a day when these elephants could roam free and simply be elephants. These weren’t just words. You could hear the truthfulness in his voice and as he looked up to the sky you could sense that he was actually seeing the beauty of that world and the happiness it would bring the elephants. His voice in telling this story will inspire others to help make that future possible.
Then there is the story of meeting with one of the most influential government leaders in Myanmar, HE Thura Shwe Mann. It was impressive and humbling the grasp and knowledge he had of my background and that of The Elephant Project. Knowing of my work and support for one of our country’s great heroes, Senator John McCain, he talked glowingly of his respect and admiration for him – something we immediately bonded over. He then recounted stories of how much he respected and appreciated Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State and all that she had done for Myanmar. Our discussion then turned to the challenges facing his own country – especially the economic hardships. He expressed complete support for the public/private partnership that we have been pursuing with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation (MONREC), the Department of Forestry, and the Myanma Timber Enterprise (MTE). He understood the benefits of our goal to provide a long-term funding solution to the challenge facing the government regarding what to do with the thousands of former timber elephants in their care – as well as the mahouts who care for them. He knows that the government and private sector can only put so many elephants in tourist camps, sell them, or ask other NGOs to help care for them. We discussed how The Elephant Project's financial model is truly the only model that can provide the resources necessary to help thousands of Myanmar’s elephants live naturally as possible. His voice for the elephants will be critical to ending the crisis they face.
Then there was the story in the Myanmar Times that I read two days after returning from Myanmar that quoted State Counsellor HE Daw Aung San Suu Kyi saying that the country would attract more tourists if transportation systems were “modernised and convenient.” She went on to say that “[t]ourists can get many opportunities such as viewing the beautiful sceneries and enjoying new experiences, that is why roads, water ways and railways should be considered.” She also urged Myanmar to promote more community-based tourism activities, which would enable visitors to learn about Myanmar’s unique cultures and traditions. It was exciting to read these views of the State Counsellor and her voice will certainly help make that vision a reality. Once you visit Myanmar you will see for yourself the unbelievable beauty of the country – not just the natural beauty, but that of her people as well. Our plan for Myanmar will do exactly what she is proposing. We will help establish a humane-economy where people understand that saving an elephant is of greater value to them than allowing an elephant to be killed. This economic reality will lead to greater investment in critical infrastructure, more-vibrant humane eco-tourism, and greater understanding of the culture and values that make Myanmar one of the most unique places on earth. But our plan is to also invest in the Burmese people which has been a key focus and priority of the State Counsellor. We will build skills training facilities, so they can learn how to support the growing industries in the country. We will build schools where they can gain critical skills in science, technology, engineering and math as well as provide scholarships for higher educational opportunities. The success of our plan is contingent on mahouts, their families, and all Burmese involved in our project seeing that supporting the health and well-being of a live elephant can be of great benefit for them, their kids and future generations. Helping them grow, learn, and prosper is how we build a sustainable long-term solution to protecting one of Myanmar’s greatest treasures – her elephants. But our efforts will also create tens of thousands of new voices for the elephants speaking from personal experience as to how and why they must be protected.
Then I am reminded of Eddie Teh, the General Manager of Belmond’s Governor’s Residence in Yangon - a stunning hotel situated in the heart of a city of almost six million, yet you feel like you are far away in an Ernest Hemingway novel. Sitting on the beautiful century old wood patio listening to the torrential downpour that is a common occurrence during the monsoon season, Eddie told us stories of the amazing philanthropic work Belmond is doing to bring critical medical care to the Burmese in remote locations along the Irrawaddy. Then he begins to tell stories of the elephants he has seen in some of the most remote parts of the country and of their plight and how there is an important need to find a solution to protecting them from becoming nothing more than performance animals for the tourists that are slowly finding their way deep into Myanmar’s pristine wilderness. His experiences and thus his stories about the plight of Myanmar's elephants are key to inspiring his visitors to speak out internationally where their voices can help inspire others to act and do what is needed to end the elephant crisis.
Then I think of Thet Win, a man who spent over 14 years in Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry helping guide the country to a better future. He feels so strongly about the protection of Myanmar’s elephants that he invited our team to appear on his talk show on SkyNet (the country’s largest tv network) to discuss the growing trend of killing elephants for their skin and the critical importance of finding a solution to bring an end to this despicable behavior. Joining me on the show was Adam Roberts, The Elephant Project’s Senior Advisor who has spent over two decades using his voice to raise awareness of the need for greater elephant protection. We were also joined by U Win Aung, a member of our Advisory Board and a critical member of our team whom has been influential in our success in the country. Win’s passion for protecting Myanmar’s environment and her elephants truly inspires me. He is one those rare people who worked for years in the forests seeing first hand the toll logging was having on the environment and on the health and well-being of the elephants and recognized that he needed to use his voice to call for change. The opportunity Thet provided to us to voice our stories to millions of Burmese is of incalculable value.
The stories from Myanmar are endless and the voices never cease but if you multiply them by all those in other countries who have a personal narrative to tell about elephants – whether from seeing them in a timber camp, in the wild in Africa or Asia, on the streets in Bangkok, in tourist camps or know of their plight through their government or private sector experience or from learning of them from the news, documentaries or social media – the number of stories people have to tell is simply incalculable. Every story, and every experience is a critical piece in solving the puzzle to finally ending the struggle facing these animals - but only if those stories become voices.
As I sit here, I realize that after wracking my brain for days on what to write, it took just 47 minutes once my mind was cleared to draft this blog. The impetus for this clarity came from a simple photo that was sent to me this morning by Dominic Gill of Encompass Films, an amazing filmmaker and who, with his extraordinarily talented partner Nadia, is spearheading our documentary efforts in Myanmar. The photo, the one at the beginning of this post, is simply a close-up shot of a female elephant that Dom encountered during his remote travels in Myanmar. As I am sure you felt when saw it, it is an intoxicating photo. When I looked at it more closely and into her eye, I began to think of all the things that she has seen and the stories those experiences created. Then suddenly the clouds lifted, my brain focused, and the words began to flow. I realized that she was telling me that she wanted her stories told and that we needed to tell those stories - but through our eyes and our experiences - which became the basis for this blog. Each and every one of us – like Win, Thet, Eddie, and Lisa – have stories to tell about our experiences and bond with these magical creatures. We are the storytellers. We are the voice for these animals.
So on this World Elephant Day, I challenge each of you to look at her photo and to tell me if you don't feel her asking you to be her voice and the voice of so many like her whose stories needs to be told. Take this day and write. Memorialize your personal experiences with these animals for it is these stories that will inspire others to act and push for the change that is necessary to protect and conserve these animals. But don’t keep your stories to yourself - for only if your stories are heard by others can they make a difference.
So I encourage each of you to send us your stories - your personal narratives about your experiences with elephants. Send us stories about your childhood memories when you first bonded with an elephant or about the day your kids or grandchildren came to you wanting to hear more about the first time you saw an elephant. We want to hear from moms, dads, children, scientists, activists and anyone on the front lines helping these magnificent creatures for there is a reason you do what you do. No matter the country or the language - we want to hear from all. Send us the stories about why you believe that we as humans must be their voice. No matter how short or long send your words, your photos and your videos. We will publish your story through our website, blog, podcast, Youtube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Let us help spread YOUR word and YOUR vision for saving these elephants and why.
Let this World Elephant Day be the day that you take action by telling your story and I am certain that the next time you see an elephant and you look in their eyes you will feel their gratitude and hear in some inexplicable voice a thank you for being THEIR voice.
To send us your stories please email them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to learning more about your experiences and sharing them with the rest of the world.