In a thousand years, Florida will be under water, but right now industrial heavy-lift cranes line the sky in Tampa, Orlando, Miami and Jacksonville and we have perfect weather. Over 100,000 visitors are expected here this winter and trendy new restaurants are rushing in to make a killing. Starbucks is coming out with a cocktail menu. Tommy Bahama and Bass Pro Shops are putting wine bars in their retail stores. There is a kind of frenzy everywhere.
With all this anticipation and sun, white beaches, 2 for 1 martinis, endless money and our famous grouper sandwich, perhaps we can be excused for not dwelling on the miseries and demise of elephants in Africa. Besides, store displays insist the holiday season is almost upon us and Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram will soon introduce “buy” or “shop now” buttons which will make it easy to purchase anything on our cellphones. Just a few clicks and PayPal. Most of us don’t know a thing about elephants anyway, except that they seem very big and someone seems to be killing them.
They don’t properly seem my concern, African elephants, being so far away and inscrutable, but I looked into their situation and learned that young men in second-hand soccer shirts and worn-out Nikes kill one elephant every 15 minutes. They shadow small herds to exhaustion and then with AK-47s aim for the knees as the gray giants careen in wild panic out of dense vegetation to defend the confused baby calves right behind them.
The illiterate “soldiers”, abducted by an African warlord when they were young children, cannot read the serial numbers on their guns but they can face down a raging adult female elephant weighing 7000 pounds, shoot her in the brain, and quickly chainsaw two 65 pound tusks off the still moving head. The rest of the terrified elephant family bawl and squeal and trumpet their distress and their baboon friends shriek with dismay at the revved up roar of the chainsaw, and blood-spattered white egrets and oxpeckers scream out their useless warnings and disgust. The noise is deafening, the aunts and sisters of the fallen matriarch urinate and defecate and scatter in fear, the evil-doers, mired in blood and brain tissue, curse their fate.
It is a dirty bloody awful job that they carry out as if in a dream. But they have been trained all their lives to do it, having been taught to behave according to the rules of the most brutal warlord presently living in Africa, who does not believe in the values of humanity. His strange parenting has permanently transformed innocent children into killing machines.
Kidnapped from normal families, threatened with torture and death for the least infraction, even after all this, one or two of these victims cannot help feel sadness seeing the soft-eared baby with wriggly tusks and eyes fringed with long lashes, standing mute and despairing before what is left of his once-indomitable mother after all her meat and ivory have been stolen. Even for the dead-eyed and depraved, there is a limit to carnage. But it is a fleeting moment. For the rest of their lives, they will never really know a higher order of right and wrong other than what their warlord has taught them.
After cutting into the inch-thick hide, enough slabs of meat, some with a once-kindly brown eye still attached, are butchered from the corpse for the sweating, protein-hungry gang to feast upon. A raucous drunken meaningless night of celebration, then a quiet morning. Swatting away hordes of flies and mosquitoes attracted to dried blood, the exhausted young marauders, their eyes yellow from chronic malaria, finally depart in the rain for their warlord’s camp, 600 miles away, straining to carry their bizarre spoils for which they will each get two hundred dollars.
Struggling through the densest most snake-infested bush in the world, for they have been forbidden to take the main roads, their legs are forever marked by deep cuts and welts and scrapes. The warlord greets his boys joyfully enough but is indifferent to their suffering. His only focus is how he might trade a single tusk for 18,000 bullets.
The dazed mud-soaked baby elephant comes out of hiding and stands before his mother. Finally, he holds on to her limp tail the way he did when she was alive, leading him to water holes and nutritious grasses and rest beside the shade of towering acacia trees. Her reassuring deep rumbling conversation was the last thing he heard at night and the first thing he heard at dawn and it always embodied kindness and concern at his little woes. Because of her, he had been healthy, happy, silly and playful.
Joseph Kony employs thousands of these “invisible children” to commit the crimes he takes exquisite pleasure in conjuring up.
For almost thirty years, Kony has fancied himself a great thinker. He originated the idea of “tusks for bullets”. He was the first to think up using AK-47s to kill the largest land animals on earth, and chainsaws to cut off their huge upturned tusks. Most recently, he thought up the idea of shooting adult elephants through the top of the head from one of his shiny new Bell helicopters. I confess I take pleasure imagining a bull elephant crushing Mr. Kony to hamburger meat. But, he hides out in the fluid borderlands between the dismal failed states of Somalia, DR Congo, and South Sudan, often spending his days smoking in an old Cadillac to get away from his 88 wives He’s guarded by the young women he has educated to be sex slaves for the young men he has educated to be fearless predators. One thing he didn’t think of first, which causes him some disappointment I am sure, was to set aside one day a week for sex slave market day like ISIS now does.
While all this hideous drama and tragedy is happening, my fate is to live a calm even life in a neighborhood of nicely mowed lawns near movie theatres with zero gravity reclining seats. Fate has sheltered me from both malaria and the inane bloodlust of sadists. Unlike these foot soldiers who have always lived casually with iconic and dangerous wildlife, and can endure endless discomfort, I live among three crows and a family of squirrels, largely indoors out of reach of insects and the elements and near electric plugs
Yet, I cannot get the unhappiness of that orphan out of my thoughts. Perhaps, a traumatized aunt will emerge from her terror, return to the crime scene and lead her nephew to safety. If so, his life might eventually be alright, although he will never be silly or playful again. But, at least he could continue to feed and drink, wallow in mud in the hot season, migrate over familiar trails, socialize with new friends, eventually mate and create a new family.
Meanwhile, it is probable that at least one of his mother’s tusks ends up on Grant Avenue in San Francisco’s Chinatown where ivory carvings from recently murdered elephants are available to buy in high end antique shops. Having been laboriously carried north through dense thornveld to the Sudan, her once useful tusks are smuggled through various Indian Ocean ports to Mr. Lee Cheong’s studio in Hong Kong. He is possibly the last master carver in this port city who can carve mountain and water landscapes on a tusk. He is against poaching but considers ivory part of traditional Chinese culture and a craft. This sixty pound tusk will have a particular texture and softness unlike ivory from a walrus or rhinoceros and if carved into a box or container, it keeps an air-tight seal. It is easy to carve and will not splinter. Of course, it could be mass produced into chopsticks and combs but Mr. Cheong is a great artist and that would be beneath him.
To the desolate youngster who has lost the tolerant and sweet-tempered center of his universe, these same tusks provided only a wonderful security. They were part of his mother’s benevolent body and were a great comfort to lean against or wrap his tiny trunk around to get even closer in times of stress. They provided him with buried roots; they peeled his favorite bark away from the thorns of acacia trees. Quite simply, he loved them. Now this innocent leaderless motherless survivor has very little future left. Without the knowledge and traditions and memories of a family to guide him, he will never know what to do or where to go.
Some months later, deep tracks in the mud indicated that a massive bull elephant had followed a baboon into the killing field. When he found the bare bleached bones, he stopped. Stretching out his trunk, he touched the bones gently and lifted each of them with his foot. He was particularly attentive to the mammoth skull, turning it over and over with his trunk and tusks. He stayed close by for a few days returning many times to wander among the bones. Then, like ghosts, the huge tracks that had never before been seen in the northeast corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo, disappeared into the bush.
For over fifteen million years, peaceful families of African elephants have roamed the savannahs and forests of earth, while far above them black holes collide and millions of unexplored planets orbit their own suns. Water, the elixir of life, flows through the universe. But our daring probes beyond the heliosphere are only looking for microbes. We certainly do not expect to find any elephants.
Meanwhile, our good fortune seems to continue. Florida is not yet under the thumb of warlords. The children are generally safe from mass abduction. Tampa Bay Zoo has proudly built a spacious hurricane-proof barn for its few elephants. At last count, spending on Halloween decorations will reach 1.9 billion dollars. Twenty million pet owners will dress up their pet. Martha Stewart has created a special Halloween blood-orange cocktail to be served in test tubes.
As for the hundred or so young killers remaining with Mr. Kony, they will each be able to buy new soccer shirts and several pairs of expensive Nikes and maybe some heroin. Africa has over 150 National Parks, most of them vast and impenetrable. Many young men now work for other warlords: ISIS, the Arab militia Janjaweed, Al-Shabab, and Boko Haram are all taking advantage of Mr. Kony’s original great idea to kill elephants and trade their tusks for bullets which all killers need to load the modern automatic weapons trickling south from Libya since Ghaddafi was removed. Even so, one young soldier complained to a journalist, “The animals are finishing. Soon we won’t be doing this anymore.”
But, Mr. Kony, who is only 47 years old, is still thinking. Because there are only 1400 opportunities to acquire 18,000 bullets in the north, he has sent his young men south to Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, where he has the great idea to kill elephants with cyanide. He can kill 22 at a time and save bullets.