Elephant in the Room: A Creative Approach to Saving Species

(C) Philipp Schmidli

As long as demand exists for elephant ivory, elephants will be poached for their tusks. Right now, this demand is leading to so much poaching it’s driving elephants towards extinction, with 100,000 of these magnificent creatures killed between 2010 and 2012 for their tusks.

In an effort to save these magnificent creatures, NRDC will be advocating for elephant protections in two very different ways this fall: trying to strengthen policies at the international level and educating the public about the ramifications of wildlife trafficking through art.

First, we’ll be fighting to eliminate ivory markets across the globe at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) World Conservation Congress and the 17th meeting of the parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Indeed, Motion #007, which will be voted on at the Congress, and the resolution on closure of domestic markets for ivory, which will be voted on at CITES, urge the governments of countries with domestic ivory markets to take all necessary legislative and regulatory efforts to close them. They also encourage countries that have made progress towards banning their legal ivory markets like the U.S. to their knowledge with interested nations. By allowing some sort of legal ivory market, many countries, including China, the U.S., and Japan, facilitate parallel illegal markets that perpetuate elephant poaching.

At the same time, a very different kind of conservation effort will be ‘unfolding’ in Chicago: a life-sized origami elephant made from a single piece of paper. Our staff will be working with origami artist Sipho Mabona to educate and inspire the public during the 5th annual EXPO CHICAGO, the International Exposition of Contemporary & Modern Art at historic Navy Pier from Sept. 22-25. 

Mabona, who lives in Lucerne, Switzerland and has South African roots, will be creating a life-sized elephant calf out of a custom designed sheet of paper. The intricate sculpture will be displayed as part of NRDC’s exhibit at EXPO to underscore the threat that poaching and ivory trade pose to the species. Quite literally an “elephant in the room,” the massive origami sculpture will spark conversation about elephants and other species – like rhinos – threatened to extinction by wildlife trade. Mabona’s sculpture, along with other two dimensional work on display in our booth, will provide a unique framework to learn about this significant environmental threat. Moreover, 30% of net proceeds from sales of Mabona’s artwork at EXPO CHICAGO will support NRDC.

This innovative collaboration between NRDC’s environmental advocates and a contemporary artist bolsters our effectiveness as an organization and helps us reach new and diverse audiences. With teams simultaneously on the ground in South Africa and Chicago this September, NRDC will be working steadfastly to make sure that “the elephant in the room” at EXPO CHICAGO isn’t the only elephant remaining.

About the Authors

Elly Pepper

Deputy Director, Wildlife Trade, Wildlife Division, Nature Program

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