Elephant Ambassador

Patricia Sims, the founder of World Elephant Day, thinks we will win the ivory battle. But the bigger challenge, she says, is the habitat question: Where are elephants going to live?

October 22, 2018

9:26 am

Patricia Sims has been one of the planet’s great elephant champions of the last decade. As founder of World Elephant Day, the Canadian documentarian has brought global attention to the plight of elephants, creating a campaign that went from a blip its first year in 2012 to an eye-popping 2.2 billion social-media impressions this past August 12th.

Born and raised in Toronto, she started out as a filmmaker, producing music videos and feature films. Then she met her life partner, the celebrated free-diver Jacques Mayol, who was the subject of the 1988 Luc Besson movie “The Big Blue.” Through Mayol, she discovered the oceanic world and started making documentaries on marine mammals — dolphins and whales. She quickly abandoned the fiction-filmmaking world, as through documentaries she found that “truth really was stranger — and more interesting — than fiction.”

For the next 25 years, she was “living out of a suitcase,” making environmentally and oceanographic-focused films.

Mayol sadly passed in 2001, and Sims found her next chapter had to do with saving one of the planet’s most beloved creatures: elephants.

Now she travels the world, investigating today’s most important elephant-oriented issues, of which she has identified three that present the biggest challenges: poaching in Africa, captivity and unethical tourism in Asia, and habitat loss in both continents.

World Elephant Day has helped build bridges among the various global organizations devoted to elephants — particularly between those organizations working with, respectively, Asian and African elephants, which often have very different interests and agendas.

"World Elephant Day has helped us to engage with local communities," notes Avinash Krishnan, Senior Research Officer at A Rocha India, an NGO that helps ease Human-Elephant Conflict in and near Bangalore. "It helps to be integrated with a larger cause, where there is a global stand for the needs of this animal. World Elephant Day gives us an organizational boost to help save the Asian elephant in the local context."

We caught up with Sims to receive her elephant wisdom, and learn more about what we can do to help elephants.

Patricia Sims, the founder of World Elephant Day, and a friend. (Courtesy of Patricia Sims / Canazwest Pictures)

How did you first get involved in working with elephants?

I started reading about elephants, and learned about studies that proved elephants have self-awareness, based on a form of study that’s been used for many years on certain species of animals to prove cognition or self-awareness. It's known as mirror self-recognition testing, where animals look in the mirror and can recognize themselves as individuals.

This was originally tested on primates. They put a mark on the animal’s body, and when looking in the mirror, the animal could see that it has a strange mark on itself. It has been deduced that this is an indication that they can recognize that they are individuals.

They used this test on dolphins, too. I knew about the dolphin studies and that the dolphins passed the test with flying colors. When I read that this test had also been done on elephants, I was interested. I thought, "It's obvious: of course they are self-aware. They have the largest brain of any animal on land." I wanted to understand what they are doing with that brain — I wanted to learn about them and their role in nature, and what was happening to them.  

But you’ve really connected with elephants. What was it about them that appealed to you?

Elephants are very much like humans, from a social, behavioral and emotional perspective. Maybe more like humans than any other animal. We don't share the same genetic code like we do with other primates, but from an emotional and social-behavior perspective, elephants are very similar.

Elephants really have all the qualities that we humans strive to have. Elephants possess these qualities that we admire. Their empathy, the way they take care of other family members, their memory, their ritual around death, how they mourn their dead (we don’t understand it but we recognize it), and their matriarchal society. There’s something in elephants that we see in ourselves.

To quote the recently passed Daphne Sheldrick, “Elephants are ‘human’ animals, encompassed by an invisible aura that reaches deep into the human soul in a mysterious and mystifying way.”

They’re an important animal for the rest of the planet. Without them, we would lose so much on Earth.  As a keystone species, they are responsible for the health and biodiversity of ecosystems.  And they have a lot of qualities we seek to have ourselves. We lose a piece of humanity if we lose elephants. We lose a piece of ourselves.

'Elephants are more like humans than any other animal. We don't share the same genetic code like we do with other primates, but from an emotional and social-behavior perspective, elephants are very similar.'

Patricia Sims, Founder, World Elephant Day

So you embarked on a global elephant journey.

Yes, I started to research more about elephants — their lives, their behaviors, the issues. I went to China in 2009, where there are wild elephants, as a research trip for a documentary film that I was developing. Many people don't know that China has a wild Asian elephant population, and that Human-Elephant Conflict is a problem in southwest China — among other places. That research led me to Thailand in 2010, where my film-making colleague Michael Clark and I eventually began working with the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation, which was started by the Queen of Thailand. That organization takes formerly captive elephants and reintroduces them to the wild.

One of the elephants we were following during our filmmaking in Thailand was used as a street-begging elephant. Her name was Nong Mai, and she was used to sell sugarcane in the streets of Bangkok. The film looked at the elephant culture in Thailand, part of that interrelationship between humans and elephants in Asia, through the eyes of a young man and a young elephant. We followed them for a year and a half, and then Nong Mai was saved by the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation, which was amazing. The Elephant Reintroduction Foundation has successfully released over 120 formerly captive elephants back to the wild. It’s a Royal Foundation with the mission to replenish the elephant population and forest habitat in Thailand, and works in collaboration with the Thai government. To date, over 15 baby elephants have been born there in the wild and it has proven to be a successful conservation model for Asian elephants in Thailand. We followed the life of Nong Mai in her life back to the wild in these protected forest sanctuaries. That turned into a 30-minute documentary, “Return to the Forest,” which was released in 2012.   We followed that film with the feature documentary "When Elephants Were Young," which we released in 2016.

As a filmmaker and journalist, was it difficult to refrain from getting too attached to your subjects?

Yes. It was, actually. I did become extremely fond of Nong Mai. When she was rescued, it was an amazing opportunity to witness. The conditions were quite difficult for elephants, and also for the mahouts [NOTE: as “elephant trainers” are known in southeastAsia], as well. They are impoverished people. Part of the challenge in making that film was not to fall into the trap of demonizing the mahout people and their culture. It would have been very easy to do that, but I wanted to know about WHY this was happening. What was this relationship between elephant and people that had been going on for thousands of years? I wanted to maintain an element of passion for the elephants and the people while also maintaining a journalistic distance from the subjects.

What was the most shocking or heart-wrenching thing you saw while making the film?

Abuse. The way we saw elephants were treated. The family we were following was very rooted in elephant culture, and had great respect for elephants. But we saw beatings —elephants getting beaten. We saw that a few times. And you think "How could this happen?" Elephants go through this whole process called the phajaan [NOTE:elephants are brutally trained to obey their mahouts — this translates roughly as “the crush”]. It was a traditional and spiritual practice — used for elephants, but also other creatures, to separate young ones from families. I spent some time in the Karen villages of Northern Thailand, where this practice is reported to have originated.  As it was explained to me by elders in those villages, it wasn't originally intended for abuse — it was originally intended as a spiritual separation or weaning process that took place over a much longer period of time — and it wasn’t just exclusive to elephants.  

But the service industry and the elephant-tourism industry play a huge role in the Thai and Myanmar economies. As a result, baby elephants are in high demand. Consequently this method of breaking the spirits of young elephants so that they could be more quickly available for the tourism industry has escalated in the last few decades. It's an unpleasant reality, because most elephants that we see in captivity have gone through this process.

As humans encroach further on elephant habitats, the question becomes where will elephants live? (Courtesy of Patricia Sims / Canazwest Pictures)

And the ivory crisis has gotten worse, as well.

Yes, by 2011, there was essentially a massive genocide of elephants. A lot of the ivory crisis was coming from Africa, but I was based in Asia, where the consumer base was. In 2008, there was a so-called legal ivory sale allowed from stockpiled reserves from four African countries (Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa). These four countries were allowed to sell their stockpiled ivory to China and Japan. A moratorium had been established in 1989 and that so-called "legal sale" seemed like a step backward to me, and inevitably caused the ivory consumer market floodgates to open.

There are existential problems facing elephants in Africa and Asia, but the problems are not always the same ones, right?

Exactly. African elephants — they are facing the ivory crisis. But for Asian elephants, it’s the practice of elephants in captivity that is so upsetting. And both face a habitat issue that leads to Human-Elephant Conflict. But Asian elephants in particular face great habitat loss. Asian Elephants are in direct competition with humans for habitat in countries that have the world's highest populations.

The Asian elephant is an endangered species — it’s just one tenth of the population of the African elephant. The overall African elephant population is around 400,000, throughout continental Africa. But Asian elephants — there are only about 40,000, and a percentage of those are in captivity. There are far more Asian elephants in captivity, proportionally. African elephants are much more difficult to maintain in captivity. But both Asian and African elephants are dangerous, wild animals. They’re not a domesticated species. There’s always that element in captivity, and a danger that the keepers will be killed. Elephants are dangerous — they kill their keepers, quite often. More than is often reported. And therefore there is an abusive component used by some trainers to control the elephants.

So how did you come up with the idea for World Elephant Day?

How were we going to make a difference? That was how World Elephant Day was born. My incentive was to create a day to help elephants, on all platforms, for all issues, that all people were attached to: African elephants, Asian elephants — we needed one day to bring everyone together.

Because there was so much complexity between the Asian and African elephant issues, you couldn’t address it all. Habitat loss. Ivory crisis. Tourism and captivity issues. To bring the whole world together for one day to address all of these complex issues, one focus with one global directive to save elephants. And the vision of World Elephant Day was to create a neutral platform, it was a day for everyone to come together, to participate in whatever way possible. We started as a grassroots movement — and it still is. We created it through outreach. It grew through social media, through social consciousness. 

From the beginning, in 2012, we were nothing. We launched it at a time when social media was pretty fresh — the culture of social media was still pretty new. People weren’t even really using hashtags much. So we started on a shoestring budget, with very little resources. Now in 2018, we had 2.2 billion impressions during this year's campaign. That’s what World Elephant Day has grown to. It’s a highly significant indication for just how much the world cares for and wants to protect elephants so that they can survive.

Now we’re more than just a "day" — we’re an organization. That’s the point we’re at now. We’ve grown for seven years and our plan is to continue to grow, to take the organization to the next level so we can continue to educate the public about the plight of elephants and to support conservation solutions. We saw really big outreach growth on each World Elephant Day between 2014 and 2017 because of the ivory crisis and everybody working together to bring awareness to the severity of this issue and the other issues threatening the survival of elephants. There are many elephant-conservation organizations, brands, and celebrities that use World Elephant Day as a day to bring awareness to the elephant cause. It has grown into a worldwide elephant-conservation movement, with major international media focusing on World Elephant Day to inform the public — all the major U.S. networks: CNN International, Al Jazeera, BBC, National Geographic, Discovery Channel, and more.

'I believe we will win the fight against the ivory trade. But I believe the bigger issue for elephants is the issue of habitat. Where are elephants going to live in the future?'

Patricia Sims

With all of this attention, do you think you’ve made an impact?

We know we’ve made an impact. There has definitely been some positive movement forward. We always talk about the bad things, but there have been some positives. There is still a lot of work to do — we have not won the battle yet, but we have seen a decrease in the price of ivory. There has been a reduction in the number of elephant deaths for ivory. The awareness of government and large corporations to get involved is up. There is more enforcement. But there is still the need for several countries — Canada being one of them — to ban ivory sales. It's easy to talk about all the terrible things that are still happening, but it's very important to look at the successes that we've had, and to maintain hope.

And what is your outlook for the future for elephants?

The realistic prospects — I believe we will win the fight against the ivory trade. We need to keep putting out the message so more people wake up and stop killing elephants for trinkets. But I believe the bigger issue for elephants is the issue of habitat. Where are elephants going to live in the future? Human development is reducing their habitat rapidly, and causing increasing Human-Elephant Conflict. And other creatures are impacted, too. We have to leave wild places wild. And to let animals perform their role in nature. It is more than just a romantic notion of saving these magnificent creatures — all these animals have a job to do.  Without these animals, these habitats will crumble. Lions are apex predators, sharks are apex predators in the oceans, elephants are a keystone species, but what is the human role? Are we a keystone species? Are we a caretaker? Are we living up to our stewardship of the planet? The real question is, what is the future for humanity?

To read more about World Elephant Day, visit http://worldelephantday.org.

Patricia Sims at work, filming elephants reintroduced to the wild in Thailand. (Courtesy of Patricia Sims / Canazwest Pictures)