By Christina M. Russo
The slaughter of Africa's elephants for their ivory is leaving a devastating number of casualties: some conservationists cite as many as 50,000 are being killed annually. It's a full-on massacre. It's a genocide, actually, if you are gutsy enough to call it what it is.
Getting ivory from an elephant takes effort, and brutality. Poachers are rampaging throughout the African continent with guns, grenades and poisoned spears, targeting elephants from Gabon to Mozambique to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the organization African Parks recently documented the massacre of 68 elephants. Not only did the poachers shoot some of the animals from helicopters and then hack off their tusks with chainsaws, they reportedly also took the elephants' genitals - and brains.
To be sure, no elephant is off limits. Another conservation group in the region said poachers shot an elephant in Mali this spring with an AK-47. While she was giving birth.
And Kenya's iconic tusker, Satao - rumored to be the world's biggest elephant - was found dead in June. Photos of his carcass show him on his knees, with his face cut off.
This is a war. A bloody, brutal, complicated, horrible war.
So: Where are the journalists?
I was a public radio news producer during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I know a war newsroom when I see it. It's like a giant spasm. We rip through newspapers, flick through television channels, rapid-fire scan the news wires for updates. But most importantly, we rely on the multitude of reporters toiling in the battle zone - sent into the field by news organizations to provide detailed coverage to complex storylines. Day after week after month, the reporters deliver the latest information in radio interviews, on front pages of newspapers and on the top of TV newscasts.
War coverage is many things. Not least of all, it is relentless. But in the battle against elephants, it's awfully quiet out there.
I am now a regular contributor to National Geographic's "A Voice for Elephants," quite possibly the only US-based, mainstream journalistic blog dedicated to covering the ivory war. The fact that it exists is heartening; the fact that it is unique is dismaying. Furthermore, I write most of my stories from my kitchen table in Gloucester, MA (except this one, about an elephant orphanage in Zambia). I'd prefer to be covering this poaching madness full-time in Africa, along with a gaggle of other reporters assigned to do the same thing.
To be sure, there has been some fantastic reportage. For example, Jeffrey Gettleman at the New York Times delivered a short series of stories on the elephant poaching in 2012 that included the excellent piece, "Elephants Dying in Epic Frenzy as Ivory Fuels Wars and Profits." Bryan Christy penned a big-deal National Geographic cover story, "Blood Ivory," also in 2012. Alex Shoumatoff wrote "Agony and Ivory," for Vanity Fair in 2011.
But why isn't there continual coverage? There may be as few as 250,000 elephants left in Africa, according to some conservationists. What's the hold up?
Perhaps the conventional wisdom is that wildlife isn't worth the ink. I disagree. As a journalist dedicated to reporting on animal issues, nearly all of them are brimming with news-worthy elements: poverty, climate change, land-ownership issues, gender imbalance, rural plight, global trade, corruption, and blatant abuse of power.
Maybe another excuse is that, in a world where human desperation is rampant, why spend precious journalistic time on the plight of elephants? Last week, a public radio editor asked me to write an essay about "Why should elephant poaching in Africa matter to Americans?" I thought of answering that question with the pat scientific response: Elephants are instrumental to a healthy ecosystem. Or, with a social tenor: Elephants care about their families; they mourn their dead; they are self-aware. But, frankly, I find journalists who want proof about "Why elephants matter" already assume they don't. And maybe this is the rub.
Not long ago, a wildlife conservationist told me that he doesn't rely on the mainstream media as much as he did years ago because his organization can create its own website content. But, he also stressed that the news titans like The New York Times or the Washington Post still matter. A lot. They are the game changers. When they decide to steadily cover an issue, other media outlets follow the lead. Journalism, for good or ill, is a herd profession. And when the pack leader decides something is news, suddenly it is news, and it is everywhere.
So, while the most influential media shops continue to treat this crisis with only an occasional story here and there, elephants keep dying excruciating deaths. And these magnificent animals have no way to fight back against the enemy.
We, however, have the mighty pen. So, I implore fellow journalists, please take up the tool and start writing. Now. Relentlessly. Ceaselessly. Like there's a war going on. Or else in a few years, when the elephants are nearly no more, the predictable headline will emerge and the talk show hosts, the editorial writers and the newscasters will ask that tiresome question usually left when little has been done to stop the inevitable: How, my god, did this happen?