Ignoring the Elephant in the (News)room

December 15, 2015

Cover Story

By CHRISTINA M. RUSSO

A poached elephant carcass in Bouba Ndjida National Park, Cameroon, Jan., 2009.
                                                                                                    Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

In early 2012, elephant poachers in Cameroon’s Bouba Ndjida National Park went on a several-month-long killing spree. They used AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, finishing off their prey with daggers and machetes.

In the end, 650 of the magnificent creatures were murdered. Like most of Africa’s elephants today, they were killed for their ivory.

And at least some of them were still alive when poachers hacked the tusks out of their heads, based on the fact they were shot only once and were found in a kneeling position on the ground, said Celine Sissler-Bienvenu, a director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the only NGO believed to have surveyed the graveyard of carcasses.

Some 100,000 African elephants were slaughtered between 2010 and 2012. That’s a lot of blood, and an astounding amount of brutality. This latest wave has been bubbling for years, after a previous burst of poaching in the 1970s and 1980s was tamped down in 1989 by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

But as far back as early 2002 reports warned that a new onslaught was coming. A headline in the Guardian, for instance, warned: “Huge haul of tusks raises spectre of poaching revival.”

For me, the massacre in Bouba Ndjida was more than a barely-reported news story. It was the start of a new trajectory in my journalistic career: I wanted to make sense of what was happening to Africa’s elephants.

The obsession with this crisis wasn’t entirely out of my wheelhouse.

I had recently received a master’s degree in animals and public policy at Tufts veterinary school. Plus, after working almost the whole of the 2000s as a news producer at WBUR, NPR’s powerhouse affiliate in Boston, I left the station explicitly to report on animal issues, spending 18 months researching and producing a public radio documentary examining the ethics of American zoos.

My work on the topic expanded. In India, I wrote about the efforts to eradicate traditional bear dancing. In Ethiopia, I followed a veterinary team tending to donkeys, not just because of their desperate physical condition due to abuse and overuse, but because their longevity is vital to a rural economy.

Domestically, I’ve followed urban biologists tracking the ever-maligned coyote and scientists who care about the survival of the oft-overlooked salamander. I’ve spent days with veterinarians in Sonoma, Calif., trying to rescue horses abandoned and left to die. I’ve spent hours with Fish and Wildlife undercover agents trying to nab criminals who hunt and ship endangered animals or sell their body parts for money.

Then came elephants. Fast forward three years, and I’ve penned some thirty pieces for a number of outlets, most for National Geographic, which by a wide margin over other major U.S. news shops has embraced the assault against wildlife as a worthy subject matter.

It takes all angles

For those of you who are thinking about it, the elephant poaching story can be approached in any number of different ways.

For inspiration, I spoke recently with Bryan Christy, who just launched a special Investigations unit for National Geographic that he says will focus “on the commercial scale, criminal exploitation of a valued or endangered resource” (Note to fellow freelancers: The unit will eventually be accepting pitches).

Here were some of his thoughts:

  • Report on the kingpins. Christy notes that a sizable vacancy in the elephant poaching coverage is the lack of reportage on the master puppeteers who fan the massacres along. In fact, it’s only recently that two people have been identified and arrested in Tanzania for their deadly string-pulling: “Ivory Queen” Yang Feng Glan, who authorities say was the key link between African poachers and buyers in China; and Boniface Matthew Mariango, 45, nicknamed “The Devil,” who was reported by CNN to have orchestrated several poaching syndicates.
  • Cover it like crime. “These are crime stories, not animal stories, any more than rape stories are best told as exclusively women’s issue stories,” Christy explains. “These are stories of violent, unacceptable crime and journos need to start doing the hard work that moves beyond profiling the victim to exposing the villains and their corrupt, government enablers.”
  • Get outside the box. Of course, not all journalists are in Christy’s position, with the ability to create documentaries, television shows and in-house innovative cover stories like his most recent and superbly executed, Tracking Ivory (Sept. 2015). But he provides a concrete and inspiring bit of gold: Think broadly, and change the paradigm of what “environmental journalism” really means.

I’ve found many angles on the plight of elephants, especially via one of my other jobs co-managing the Save The Elephants News Service. Every day, I scan the Internet for articles about elephants from around the globe and disseminate the stories, for free, to a listserv of anyone who wants to sign up (yes, you can too, by going here).

Here’s a sample:

  • Two dozen elephants were captured from the wild in Zimbabwe and sent to China last July, and photos show they are malnourished, wounded and desperate. One expert told me that as bad as their lives are now, it is nothing compared to the beatings they are about to endure when they reach their final destination, a zoo. (Last July, I undertook a series on the story for National Geographic).
  • Here in the United States, three zoos in Texas, Kansas and Nebraska just asked for approval by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to import 18 wild elephants from Swaziland. If the proposal isn’t approved, the Swaziland reserve says the only alternative is to kill them.
  • About 60 elephants were poisoned to death in Zimbabwe by cyanide.
  • Wild elephants are being killed in Sri Lanka due to the ongoing human-elephant conflict.
  • In Odisha, India, 118 elephants were electrocuted between 2001-2012.
  • A new report in India shows the cruelty toward captive elephants is so deadly that they are more likely to die than their wild counterparts.
  • In Vietnam, there are maybe 60 or so wild elephants left in the whole of the country.
  • In South Africa’s tourist mecca, Kruger National Park, 19 elephants have been slaughtered.

You don’t have to be in Africa to do this reporting (I live in Gloucester, Mass.), although, yes, the stories do sit differently if you go there for even a little while.

When I knew that the crisis was grabbing me, I went to Zambia, and visited one of Africa’s few elephant orphanages, where toddlers wrapped their still-maturing trunks around my microphone — eyes as big as salad spoons and little blankets wrapped around their bodies to keep them warm (the story resulted in my first piece for National Geographic’s blog, A Voice for Elephants, co-launched by editor Oliver Payne and Christy).

When I later stayed in Zambia’s Kafue National Park, and watched giant gray herds lumber through the landscape at dusk, they were stressed and frightened. Just as we were nearing our camp, a mother charged at our jeep and I thought: “This is how I die.” But could I blame her? A few months ago, when a conservationist wrote about a video being sent around of an elephant from Zambia with its face cut off — but still breathing, I thought it could have been that mother.

Where are the animal stories?

Given all this, why aren’t stories about animals as important as any other news story, especially within the environmental paradigm?

A review of our own SEJ listserv illustrates a great deal of chatter — rightly so — on climate change, compromised lakes, plastic in the ocean, the coal industry, clean energy, oil drilling, pesticide use.

But where are the animals?

It’s not just the lack of news about elephants. Similarly threatened are tigers, lions, pangolins, the Fatu Hiva Monarch — a bird with just five breeding pairs left in the world — the snow leopard, the red wolf, the blue whale, the cheetah, the Javan rhinoceros, the leatherback turtle, the mountain gorilla and all those less charismatic but equally vulnerable species, like Australia’s Corroboree frog.

It’s no longer about predators. People are the real threat now. And if you look at the story of the African elephant, you can see damage everywhere.

In an interview about the slaughter of Africa’s elephants some years back on NPR’s On Point, where I was a producer, Richard Ruggiero, chief of the Division of International Conservation at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, talked about his decades spent trying to protect elephants. He expressly called what is happening to elephants a genocide. But more gutwrenching, he explained, is that the elephants are aware that they are the victims of our madness.

So it’s time to ask ourselves — as SEJ President Jeff Burnside does in his column on page 4 of the Winter 2015/2016 SEJournal (online here) — what should journalists do?

Ours is a profession where audiences click on trivia, much as they were drawn to gardening tips, wedding announcements, fashion shows, book reviews, movie critiques and endless sports pages in the age of newspapers. Isn’t it time for a revolution in what regularly makes our news pages in the digital age?

What’s our hold up? My theory is that journalists have long and erroneously equated animals as “soft” subject matter, and that wildlife — and even more so, domestic or captive animals — belongs squarely in the domain of NGOs and animal welfare groups, not the hardcore newsroom.

But in all my years as a news producer, when I was churning out hours on the rights of women in Afghanistan, or the erasure of Tibetan culture by China, or the genocide against Tutsis during the anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, no colleague ever pulled me aside and asked me why I wasn’t working for Amnesty International.

Journalists write stories for all kinds of reasons. I’ve been asked why I focus on animals, especially in light of human suffering. I don’t even bother responding: There’s no quota of misery in this world.

When I write about elephants, frankly, it’s not for any fancy reason. It’s not because of the link between terrorism and the ivory trade. It’s not because of their vital role in the ecological landscape. It’s not because they can communicate at infrasonic levels beyond our human capacity. It’s not even because they love each other with a kind of devotion that can send me to my knees.

Sure, some of those reasons may infuse why I write about elephants, but the plain truth is this: I write about them because I can’t stand the suffering.

Christina Russo’s work has appeared in the Guardian, Outside, NationalGeographic.com, Fashionista, Mongabay, Yale E360 and the Christian Science Monitor, among others. She has worked as a news producer for a number of public radio programs, including WBUR’s “On Point,” KQED’s “Forum” and WNYC’s “The Takeaway.” She is currently a reporter with The Dodo and also co-manages the Save The Elephants News Service.


* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2015/2016. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.