Night fell and the moon rose. Hours earlier I’d strolled through Hamilton Heights admiring the extraordinary mix of (imperiled!) birds that are part of The Audubon Mural Project, but now I found myself in the East Village staring at a beast. A beast that was about to die. Mlima’s Tale was in previews at The Public Theater, the same theater that had given the musical Hamilton its first shot three revolutionary years ago. It was my first trip to The Public, and walking into a “Theater Of, By and For All People” renewed my faith that art can point us to higher ground, even when powerful forces are pushing us towards the abyss.
Mlima is a rare and legendary elephant, one of the last “giant tuskers” roaming the savannas of a Kenyan game preserve. The poisoned arrow hasn’t killed him, but two poachers are closing in for the kill and it won’t be quick or painless. Worried that shots from their rifles might alert the authorities, the murderous thieves carry knives and an axe.
Elephants are one of our planet’s most endangered animals, and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage likes to write plays that examine social issues. Blue collar workers adrift in Pennsylvania’s rust belt (Sweat) and Women surviving the horrors of Civil War in the Congo (Ruined). While Nottage has loved elephants ever since she was a girl, it wasn’t until 2013 that she decided to add her dramatic voice to their plight. That’s when the Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow approached her with some horrifying facts. Ninety-six elephants are killed every day–one every 15 minutes. More elephants are killed than are being born, which means they could be extinct in this century. Bigelow is known for films like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, so she understands the power of film to reach the multitudes. Still, she worried that making a documentary about the elephant crisis wouldn’t be enough. She did release the film Last Days in 2014, and Nottage got to work as well, beginning with her own detailed research. But a playwright needs more than a worthwhile cause to create a great piece of theater: she needs complex, somewhat sympathetic characters and lots of conflict.
After Mlima is killed, the tusks that are hacked from his corpse are secreted out of the park, onto a ship, into the workshop of a master ivory carver, and ultimately into the penthouse of a Beijing high-rise owned by a rich entrepreneur. It’s all illegal, and everyone in the supply chain is paid an increasing amount of money along the way. The poachers make very little compared to the exorbitant retail price the tusks ultimately fetch, but for them it’s money they need to feed their families.
Life is never simple. People do what they do for complicated reasons–all along the chain. Nottage’s play doesn’t lecture. It illuminates. As she said about elephants in a recent interview in The New Yorker, “They are beautiful, mystical creatures, which remind us of ourselves. They are social creatures, which form lasting relationships and are exceptionally protective of their offspring.” They also “have beautiful burial rituals, and are among the few creatures that return to mourn their dead.”
The elephant is the star of the show, but he dies in the first few minutes. This makes the play a “ghost story” (Nottage’s words), and his specter haunts each of the characters as they transport the precious tusks out of Africa and into the “Ivory Tower” of a status-seeking consumer. As you can see from the photo, Nottage chose to anthropomorphize Mlima as a magnificent-looking man. A talking elephant might seem Disney-esque, but a talking man portraying an elephant packs a punch. We hear him communing with his ancestors and keening for the mate and children he’s about to leave behind.
Shortly after seeing the play, I received an email from the theater with a video link that allowed me to watch a conversation between the playwright and The Public’s Artistic Director, Oskar Eustis, and two other people with lots of knowledge about the elephant crisis: John Calvelli, an EVP with The Wildlife Conservation Society, and Chelsea Clinton, who works on the issue for the Clinton Global Initiative. Here are some facts that speak for themselves:
- in the 1500s: an estimated 25 million elephants roamed the Earth
- in the 1800s: mass poaching began (ivory used for piano keys, jewelry, art & religious objects)
- in 1980: elephant population reduced to 1 million
- today: 400,000 elephants survive
In 1990, 183 countries banded together to outlaw the ivory trade. But there was a loophole. The pact only outlawed new ivory, and it’s nearly impossible to prove “new” ivory isn’t “antique” ivory because carbon dating doesn’t work on ivory without destroying it. Also, Calvelli explained, if you bury ivory for a couple of weeks, it starts to look old. Other countries–like Japan, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia–are opposed to the ban. Another problem, in the last decade, is that Chinese crime syndicates have entered the poaching business, which means that the ivory trade routes are also being used to traffic people, drugs and guns.
Now for the Hope part. Activism works. So does education. Tourism is a big chunk of revenue for East African countries. If the animals die off, the tourists will stop visiting. Elephants are known as “lynchpin” animals that keep the ecosystems healthy. Their footprints become watering holes for smaller animals. Their voracious diets get “pooped out”, and this manure nurtures the health of a sprawling ecosystem. In 2016, the Obama administration announced a near total ban on the commercial trade of elephant ivory. Because the federal government only has the power to regulate trade across state lines, individual states have stepped up with their own laws. States like New York, New Jersey, California and Hawaii, which were the biggest markets for ivory in the U.S. Something else that’s worked: appealing to stores that sell luxury goods–educating them about the poaching crisis, the new laws, etc. In January of this year, Hong Kong voted to eradicate all ivory sales by 2021, which is expected to close the much exploited loophole.
One of my favorite characters in the Dr. Seuss books is Horton the elephant. “I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful, one hundred percent.” That’s what Horton says in Horton Hatches an Egg, after lazy bird Mayzie persuades him to sit on her egg while she takes off for a quick vacation to Florida and never returns. My mother read me that story and the later one, Horton Hears a Who, and I read those picture books to my children. The books still sell well, so obviously the tradition is continuing with today’s young families. But imagine a toddler enjoying a bedtime story in the not-too-distant future and having to ask her parent, “What’s an elephant?”