On Saving the Elephant

“The most effectual method to keep men honest is to enable them to live so. The tenderness of conscience is too often overmatched by the sharpness of want; and principle, like chastity, yields with just reluctance enough to excuse itself.”

Immediately after a 1989 international trade ban on ivory, illegal elephant poaching was nearly stopped dead in its tracks. Now, some eighteen years later, poachers have come back with a vengeance, due in large part to the fact the enforcement of the trade ban has declined through lack of funding from countries most effected by the poaching.

Many of these countries, such as Zambia and Zimbabwe, are poor and ensnared in economic and political turmoil. It is difficult for such governments to fund the enforcement necessary to protect the African Elephant from poachers. In the year ending August of 2006, up to five percent of the remaining elephant population in Africa was slaughtered, amounting to more than 23,000 elephants and 240 tons of ivory.

We here in the West probably don’t think of Elephants too much. We’ve got other things to worry about. For those that have perhaps only seen an elephant in the zoo, mere words will fall short in describing what it is to be there, in the Land of the Elephant.

To listen as they trumpet and wail in the night. To quietly watch as they lumber single file out of the hills to drink and wash in the river. To look sorrowfully and heartbroken at the site of a baby calf, lying still on the ground with no apparent wounds, very recently and mysteriously deceased; and then remember the haunting wail heard the night before; the sound of a mother mourning her young.

Later to witness the joy of two adolescents as they happily and playfully cross the river, splashing mischievously, much like any adolescent would.

Watching the slow, almost reverent, familial procession through the bush to the river, a great matriarch dipping her massive trunk for a drink; the reflection of her majestic frame rolling gently in the placid Chobe.

I am able to feel such feelings for the elephant because I am allowed. I do not burn with hunger and poverty, and I live in a land that is relatively free from political strife.

Many of Humankind’s problems are solved, at least initially, through economic incentive. If countries too poor to feed and protect their own human population are expected to fund enforcement of illegal trade laws and stop poaching, then perhaps we fail to heed the words of Thomas Paine. The international community needs to step up and provide funding and support to enforce the ban on the illegal ivory trade. It isn’t hard, or even that expensive, for rich nations to do so, it takes nothing but a desire to get it done. We did it before, and we must do it again. Saving the elephant is, in part, saving ourselves.

I wish to believe that the money I spent two years ago to journey to the Land of the Elephant helped to provide, if just a little bit, the means for those living in Botswana to live an honest life. And they, in turn, helped me do the same, if just a little bit, by allowing me to witness first-hand the power and majestic beauty of the Elephant and the land she occupies.

Nothing connects one to the earth and all its creatures more than standing quietly in the yawning dusk of the African savannah, watching a family of great elephants move quietly through the tall grass. To this day, chills go up my spine remembering that day, how humbled and awestruck it was to actually be there, in the Land of the Elephant.

Help save the elephant, and be true to the words of Thomas Paine.

On Learning From the Past

“Were a man to be totally deprived of memory, he would be incapable of forming any just opinion.”

There is the memory of a singles person’s life, that of whole nations and tribes, and the collective memory of all humanity.

In all cases, to forget what has gone before is to deny the light of day to wisdom, learning, and justice.

It is as if we have just dropped down from the trees for the very first time, and begin all over again to walk upright.

On Not Giving Up

“It ought not to be, that because we cannot do everything, that we ought not to do what we can.”

The scale of the problem is almost beyond our perception; poverty, genocide, environment, resources – simply finding our place in this world.

But it is not sufficient to say that we can not ever do enough to end hunger, stop killing or trod this earth lightly. It is to do something, while with the full realization that it will never be enough, that is important.

On the Problem of Assuming the Worst – Accepting a Heart of Darkness

“For as certainly as a man predicts ill, he becomes inclined to wish it. The pride of having his judgment right hardens his heart, till at last he beholds with satisfaction, or sees with disappointment, the accomplishment or the failure of his predictions.”

It is a disquieting tendency, one we’d rather pretend didn’t exist; but it does and is only made worse if it is ignored.

It isn’t that the assumed worst would not have happened anyway. Events are set in motion that most of us have little control over. In our frustration at what we see as a clumsy, misguided lurch toward disaster (or worse) we voice outrage, indignation, and anger .

Indignation soon turns righteous. Our hearts are pure and our cause is just.

But pride and a desire for vindication belies the truer nature of our professed righteousness and makes that cause less just than we’d care to admit. Being proved right becomes more important than the real cause we claim to believe in; our compassion is diminished for we lose sight, even if just a little bit, of an underlying tragedy.

Even though we’d certainly disavow such feelings, we must acknowledge the darkness that lies buried in all of us.

When we don’t face the frailties of human nature head-on those frailties harden and grow and become the true enemy that we embolden.

On the War in Iraq, Nearly Four Years On

“No human foresight can discern, no conclusion can be formed, what turn a war might take, if once set on foot by an invasion.”

Now, almost four years since the invasion of Iraq, and in light of the reasons given for it at the time of its commencement, the reassurances years ago of a mission accomplished, and the assumptions of positive outcomes through the use of minimal force, it is clear that from arrogance and negligence of judgement has come the abandonment of foresight, reason, and truth.

On the Golden Rule

“Give to every other human being every right that you claim for yourself – that is my doctrine”

Thomas Paine’s doctrine reflects a truth that runs through philosophy, religion, and generally right thinking. It is simple, yet profound; easy to grasp – and yet so very hard to truly achieve for humankind.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that we should ever stop trying.

On the Need for Government Oversight and Citizen Involvement

“Can we possibly suppose that if Governments had originated in a right principal, and had not an interest in pursuing a wrong one, the world could have been in the wretched and quarrelsome condition we have seen it?”

Thomas Paine believed in the tendency of concentrated power to corrupt and that the power of any government should be derived from those governed.

In his day, more revolutionary than the war between the American colonies and Britain was the government born out of that conflict. A government for the people, by the people was eventually hammered out at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in order to form a more perfect Union

It can be argued, I believe, that herein lies the true American Revolution. But of course, the devil is in the details.

It was a long, hot summer, and what came out of the Philadelphia State House was a document that, as close as any produced by Mankind, brings the high ideals set forth eleven years earlier in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence down to brass tacks. Okay, this is how we’re going to do this

The cornerstone of reigning in unchecked power is the concept of spreading it around, through a three-pronged government built on the concept of checks and balances.

It is not only the right, but the duty, of each branch of government to check the power of the other two. Otherwise, we can but remember the words of Thomas Paine.

The President is Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces (and, incidentally, only of the armed forces, and not of the citizenry in general), and executes the laws of the United States. Congress writes those laws, holds the purse strings and conducts oversight on the executive. The judiciary interprets the law and insures that the Constitution is at all times upheld.

It is only through diligent adherence to the idea and practice of checks and balances that any government can stay true to the principals of the American Experiment. When any one branch of government flags in their duty, or strives to reinterpret the law to serve their own grasp for more power, then the experiment is in jeopardy

And what of the people? This is, after all, a government for and by the people. It is incumbent upon every citizen, therefore, to do their part in assuring the balance of power.

Apathy and distraction from a citizenry too complacent to bother are sure to find themselves one day under the thumb of oppression, incompetence, and unresponsive rule for which they can do little but wish they had paid closer attention while they still had a chance.