A true beauty, Patricia Sims is a filmmaker, nature lover, and advocate for animal rights. Growing up in Toronto, she would venture into the open fields and explore the local wildlife. She said, “I found refuge in nature where the animals were my friends.”
To be near animals, Patricia became a filmmaker of documentaries. Patricia met Jane Goodall, and told me she is her heroine. She shared, “We may be more genetically linked to primates, but from a social perspective, I believe we are a lot more like elephants. They have family bonds and complex relationships with love and concern for each other.”
Patricia told me, “Elephants demonstrate what we consider the finest human traits: empathy, self-awareness, and social intelligence”.
“As much as elephants are loved, and respected by cultures around the world, we may be seeing the last of these magnificent animals,“ she explained. “The escalation of poaching, habitat loss, human-elephant conflict and mistreatment in captivity are just some of the threats to elephants.”
Patricia has become the voice of elephants struggling to survive in this world. Her annual World Elephant Day campaign is affiliated with over 100 groups dedicated to helping to prevent the illegal poaching and trade of ivory, conserving elephant habitats, and reintroducing them into natural, protected sanctuaries when possible. She created World Elephant Day to bring public awareness and to rally conservation organizations, governments and individuals to help save elephants.
Patricia shared, “I spent years in Thailand filming the hardships of a Thai boy and his elephant Nong Mai as they begged on Bangkok’s city streets. He earned a pauper’s wage selling sugar cane slices so tourists could have the thrill of feeding it to his elephant. Many days the boy returned to his country shack exhausted, hungry and with no money and little to feed his elephant. In a twist of good fate, the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation, an organization initiated by the Queen of Thailand, rescued Nong Mai and released her into one of their three wildlife sanctuaries that total over 500,000 acres. These are protected habitats that they set aside for 110 elephants to breed and restore diversity in the forest. It was a happy ending that most elephants won’t get,” she explained. “There are less than 40,000 Asian elephants left on the planet.”
“We are losing African elephants because of ivory, but the Asian elephant is threatened as human populations are growing, especially in India, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Thailand. Asian elephants are becoming homeless. When elephants run into conflict in human settlements they often get shot by farmers after eating their crops,” Patricia said.
Public awareness is vital. “We need to put pressure to encourage countries to allocate and protect areas for elephants and wildlife to live.”
Patricia said Nong Mai had a gentle, playful personality. She said, “I felt like I was filming a child full of joy and curiosity. Elephants develop like a human, so a 6 year old elephant is like a 6 year old child. They mature faster and may have their first baby when they are 15. Some have lived up to 86 years of age in captivity.”
“Their families are most important to them,” she added. “The elders teach the young. When poachers killed Satao, one of Africa’s most famous, majestic elephants, his lifetime of wisdom was lost from the next generation. Elephants mourn and grieve over dead loved ones. You can see their rituals, stroking them with their trunks, and suffering in disbelief as they look at the deformed faces of family members with tusks removed.”
I asked Patricia, “why don’t we remove tusks so poachers won’t kill elephants?” She explained that, “tusks are filled with veins and nerves. They are sensitive and used for defense to move things, and to dig waterholes that other animals rely on, too. Elephants also communicate with sonic vibrations they feel in their feet, and perhaps in their tusks, as well. They have highly evolved senses. There are many things we still have to learn about elephants.”
Scientists have shown elephant trunks have so many intricate muscles that they can pick up a few grains of sand or pull down a giant tree. Elephants are constantly in communication with each other with hundreds of postures, gestures, and vocalizations. They can sense their environment in ways far beyond what we can comprehend. They can hear other elephants and sense waterholes miles away. They are so intelligent, they can discern the voice of friendly Kenyan locales versus the dangerous Maasai, who spear elephants to demonstrate strength. Just hearing their dialect makes them run!
Elephants have large complex brains, over three times bigger than ours with longer dendrites for superior sensing. We respect a dog’s sense of smell, but an elephant’s olfactory region of the brain is many times larger. Scientists have found that elephants have the greatest sense of smell in the animal kingdom.
Research conducted in South Africa found elephants could detect TNT explosives 73 out of the 74 times in test buckets. Bomb-sniffing elephants could be trained to save lives by sniffing soil samples, picked up at a distance by drones, and detect where landmines are buried. Sensors could be developed based on their keen smell. Could they also be used to detect cancer in humans? Already they may be saving our lives, while we threaten theirs.
Scientists found elephants have only a 5% rate of cancer. While we have two copies of a gene called p53 that works as a cancer-suppressor, repairing or killing bad cells so they don’t multiply, elephants have 40 copies of p53. Even when their cells are bombarded with radiation, they resist cancer. Within the next few years, we may have an anti-cancer drug for humans that mimics the elephant’s robust p53.
Can the elephant survive? In Africa, poverty and corruption drives the ivory trade where a poacher can earn $15,000 for a tusk. In the U.S. there is now a ban on ivory trade, but most ivory goes to China, where tusks can sell for up to $200,000.
Patricia says, “one of the most important ways to stop the ivory trade in Africa is to get government and local young people to feel responsible to protect elephants”. Kenya, Uganda and Botswana are making positive steps to stop poaching. Kenya showed that it has zero-tolerance for the illegal ivory trade by torching 105 tons worth of ivory–the largest ivory burn in history in May, 2016.
You find elephants now hiding in very remote deserts and mountain forests trying to stay alive with scarce food and water. The time to act is now.
Patricia said, “This year the goal of World Elephant Day is to bring more awareness to Asian elephant issues, the exploitation of elephants in the tourism industry, and habitat loss. With more charitable support, we can increase our educational outreach programs and better inform the public about the important roles elephants have in the environment. Elephants need our help to survive in a shrinking habitat where their greatest predator and friend is us.”
Spread the word! Buy the film When Elephants Were Young at whenelephantswereyoung.com and the album Acoustic for Elephants on iTunes! 100% of the proceeds benefits World Elephant Day. To learn more, visit worldelephantday.org or facebook.com/worldelephantday.