It’s chic to save the elephant, but what about the world? | Lucy Siegle

Lucy Siegle
The Duchess of Cambridge is due to attend a cocktail and canape send-off to help save elephants. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/AP

When Michael Gove teased the announcement of an environmental victory on the Today programme last week, I wondered if he had solved climate change.

But no… of course it was elephants. A partial ban on the UK’s domestic ivory trade, missing since the manifesto, was back on the table, he revealed. Gove tipped his hat to former environment secretary and major landowner Owen Paterson for championing the elephant. (Paterson’s greatest hits include an attempt to scrap the UK’s Climate Change Act.)

Elephant conservation, unlike other pesky ecological issues, is clearly where conservative policymakers feel on terra firma. The same might be said of its supporters. Because, while “activists” don’t discriminate on species, those who respond to the bugle call of elephant conservation tend to be drawn from the narrowest of social sets. This is the poshest of all enviro-crusades, with a perpetual whirl of masked balls and fundraising auctions, largely situated in Mayfair.

This week includes a cocktail and canape send-off for a “fleet of 50 Gujarati Chagda bikes” under the Travels To My Elephant initiative (attended by the Duchess of Cambridge) and the Warrior Games promising (retired) Maasai spears and Maasai photographs taken by Jack Brockway (Richard Branson’s nephew) in the company of HRH Eugenie.

I don’t get invited to many of these bashes (it will surely be even fewer after this) but when I have, I’ve tended to meet guests myopically focused on the elephant and silent on other elements of biosphere collapse alongside the odd person in brocade slippers who is shoutily agnostic on, you know, the settled science of climate change.

The unspoken question in the room for me is often: “When did your family stop hunting big game and decide to save it?”

Some attendees of this week’s elephant-saving bashes will be understandably dismayed by the plummeting species numbers because, in the 1980s, the mass slaughter of elephants for ivory was so nearly halted. They might wonder how, when they’ve auctioned so many Fabergé eggs and held so many royal-encrusted fundraisers, they’ve failed to stem the losses.

But it only confounds you if you frame ecological pressure through one species. Scientists have confirmed that we have entered the sixth great mass extinction. Humankind has deepened and accelerated its impact to become a geological force in its own right. Big beasts (previously big game) in vulnerable habitats are naturally on the front line of this biological annihilation.

Just as everything interacts in nature, so it must in activism. This means multiple urgent environmental issues need to be tackled at once. If your gateway to environmentalism is saving a big beast, great. But the next move needs to be switching your bank account so that your money is no longer funding the destroyers of Sumatran forests for palm oil or divesting your pension from fossil fuel.

It’s political, it’s messy and it requires proper engagement. It’s time for the elephant set to get stuck in.

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