Armed with their checkbooks, Hong Kong’s philanthropic leaders will gather tonight at the Island Shangri-La Hotel to save the Asian elephant. Thirty-one of the 100 life-size baby elephant statues in Hong Kong, uniquely designed by a herd of A-list names including noted conservationist Sir Richard Branson and fashion designers Diane Von Furstenberg and Agnes B, will be auctioned to benefit The Asian Elephant Foundation (TAEF) and WWF-Hong Kong.
Ahead of the black-tie affair, we spoke with TAEF Director, Carmen Rademaker, to get the ugly truth behind these beautiful artworks.
LOCALIIZ: With much of the global attention focused on elephant conservation in Africa and ivory demand in Asia, why should people be concerned with the Asian elephant?
RADEMAKER: There are far fewer of them! Africa loses in one year about the same number of Asian elephants that exist – some 40,000 – and they still think it might take 20 years at this rate to reach extinction. Asian elephants, where they are in the wild, are still providing habitat services such as seed distribution and sunlight provision, keeping the forests alive and healthy.
In captivity they invariably find themselves in the role of provider for a family in a world where traditional income forms have disappeared, which can lead to serious welfare issues, as elephants tend to find themselves overworked or ignored and underfed.
LOCALIIZ: With so few remaining, how close are we to losing the Asian elephant for good?
RADEMAKER: That really depends on the continuation of efforts being made. There are still forests and wild populations (which are the ‘real’ elephants, captives are worth helping but the real species exists in the wild) that are currently protected. The challenge is to ensure these wild elephants stay safe and stay wild and to do this we have to help them directly [and] work within the captive elephant community to ensure that not only are the elephants well looked after, but then keep an eye on the patterns of behaviour that develop between mahouts and traders which threaten the species in the wild.
LOCALIIZ: What role does the environment play in the future of the Asian elephant?
RADEMAKER: From my perspective the question is the other way round. The Asian elephant is the protector of the environment which is then the protector of all of us. Asian forests need elephants to stay healthy and we need forests to keep water supplies flowing and, ultimately, oxygen pumping. Of course, if we do enough to destroy the environment and the elephants lose their forest then all is lost.
LOCALIIZ: What is the number one hurdle you face as an NGO tackling this issue?
RADEMAKER: There are two hurdles at the moment. The first one…is the massive increase in poaching to serve an Asian market, which leads to the concentration of the public imagination on the African elephant.
Secondly, the confusion between captive elephant welfare and wild elephant conservation – these are two interlinked subjects. If the captive elephant protectors get their game wrong, wild elephants are taken from the forest but, as an NGO, when the public tend to focus so hard on captive elephant welfare (assuming that any elephant that is not working is living a perfect life when the reality is that, for the most part, a non-working elephant is starving) rather than a holistic future where captive elephants are bought to a sustainable level and wild elephants are well protected.
LOCALIIZ: In addition to this auction, how are you raising awareness of the issues facing the Asian elephant?
RADEMAKER: We have a number of initiatives for raising awareness for the issues facing the Asian elephant. One of those initiatives is our TAEF Information Centre in Thailand. The objective of the TAEF Information Centre is to raise awareness and to educate the public about the plight of the Asian elephant.
Find out more about the programs supported by TAEF.
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