You could see them from a distance: a tight-knit group, lumbering down a dusty path towards men in green coats holding oversized milk bottles. They shuffled along with an awkward gait that was neither trot nor run, but with the exuberance of sprinting thoroughbreds
It was the usual morning routine at The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s Nairobi elephant orphanage, one of the final stops on actress Lupita Nyong’o’s recent Kenyan homecoming tour as a new global wildlife ambassador for WildAid, an NGO that works to educate and persuade people never to buy wildlife products. Nyong’o had just trekked through Amboseli National Park over the course of several days, learning about matriarchal elephant families, which are each assigned a letter of the alphabet for identification purposes. The “L” family even has a one-year-old calf named Lupita.
At the orphanage, several hungry baby elephants surrounded her. Nyong’o was game, and picked up a bottle to feed one eager orphan that was nearly as tall as she is. It was a bittersweet experience, as anyone who has visited this venerable elephant rescue and rehabilitation institution knows. “I had the joy of meeting boisterous baby elephants as they barged their way for a morning feed,” Nyong’o said the following day at a Nairobi event, “but this was mixed with great sadness, of knowing that so many of these youngsters have lost their families to poachers.”
Though Kenya banned the ivory trade 25 years ago, growing affluence in Asia has produced a new class of ivory consumers, who have reignited demand and stimulated the illegal trade, resulting in an escalating poaching crisis. Across Africa, an estimated 33,000 elephants are killed annually for their ivory, with militant groups and international criminal syndicates profiting from the trade. Experts warn that elephants could disappear altogether from West and Central Africa within the next decade.
Born in Mexico and raised in Kenya, Nyong’o gained international prominence in 2014 when she won an Academy Award for her breakthrough role as Patsey in director Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave, based on the 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup. Years before she became a red carpet star and graced the cover of American Vogue, Nyong’o serenaded for elephants, literally, in a Dutch music video at age 6. “I am so proud of my Kenyan heritage, and part of that heritage is the incredible wildlife haven that is in our care,” Nyong’o said. “On this trip, my newfound knowledge has led me to understand elephants’ intrinsic value to us all, both here in Kenya and around the world.”
It’s this pride in Kenya’s wildlife that originally led Nyong’o to partner with WildAid. Founded by Peter Knights in 2000, WildAid has campaigned globally against commodities such as shark fin, rhino horn and elephant ivory – all of which propel an illicit trade that’s decimating wildlife around the globe. Nyong’o joins an A-list of influential WildAid ambassadors – including Prince William, David Beckham and Yao Ming – who have starred in ads for the Ivory Free campaign, a joint public awareness initiative launched last year by WildAid and fellow NGOs African Wildlife Foundation and Save the Elephants.
“Poaching of elephants literally is theft from all Kenyans and from future generations,” said Peter Knights, CEO of WildAid. “This crisis was started by increased demand for ivory, and it will only end when that demand is reduced.”
A glimmer of hope
It’s difficult to find any good news these days for Kenya’s elephants. Yet there are signs that the world’s top ivory-consuming nations are slowly waking up to the deadly toll that the ivory trade is taking on them. In China, for example, there’s been a 50% increase over the past two years in public awareness about elephant poaching, and an astonishing 95% of Chinese surveyed support a ban on ivory sales, according to a March report. In May, the Chinese government announced a gradual phase-out of legal ivory sales – a commitment that, if fulfilled, would be the greatest single step to reduce elephant poaching.
Meanwhile, Kenya has passed new stricter laws and is cracking down through the courts, imposing life sentences and significant fines. Nyong’o urges the world to do more. “It is time to ban sales of ivory worldwide,” she said, “and to consign the tragedy of the ivory trade to history.”
YOU CAN HELP
• Pledge to be Ivory Free and commit to never buying or accepting ivory as a gift at www.IvoryFree.org. Encourage your friends and family to do so as well.
• Visit The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s Nairobi elephant nursery, open to the public for one hour between 11am and midday, when orphans enjoy their daily mudbath. Learn how you can foster an orphan at www.SheldrickWildlifeTrust.org
• Support WildAid’s global programmes to fight the illegal wildlife trade at www.WildAid.org
• Learn more about conservation efforts at Amboseli National Park by visiting Amboseli Trust for Elephants on the web at www.ElephantTrust.org