Tonight, interdisciplinary artist Jenny Kendler presents her work Music for Elephants, in which she algorithmically translates data that predicts the future poaching of African elephants on a month by month basis into a score for a vintage player piano. The keys of this beautiful, antique instrument were crafted from ivory, the very material that drives people to kill elephants for their tusks. The score, both eerie and meditative, signifies the shrinking population of the some 400,000 African elephants alive today. After only 300 months (25 years), the number of living elephants falls to zero, and the piano’s ivory keys fall silent . . . elephants are extinct. Below Kendler reflects on her research she drew on to create the work. The performance begins at 6 pm.
The African elephant (Loxodonta africana) is a species known to us all, and beloved by many. Deeply social and with long lifespans and famously long memories, elephants are much like us. They are highly communicative in ways we are only just beginning to understand. They change their environment, keeping savannas open and grassy—something that may have allowed for our own evolution. They care for their families. Elephants are known to mourn their dead, habitually revisiting the sites where loved ones have died to caress their bones and pass ivory tusks between family members. We can only imagine that, like us, they know love and loss. And like us, their only real threat is humans.
We don’t know how many elephants there were before humans began carving up their land, capturing them for work or warfare, and killing them for meat and ivory. We do know that from several million at the beginning of the 20th century, their population is now around 400,000—for perspective on the increasing direness of the situation, over 100,000 African elephants were massacred between 2010–12 alone. By far the largest cause of these deaths is the illegal poaching of elephants for their ivory tusks.
on the history of ivory
In the 19th century, King Leopold of Belgium’s desire for this “white gold” led to a devastating colonial occupation of Congo, which continues to be a major source of poached ivory. In the 1970s, before international trade was banned, ivory was primarily used for carvings and piano key tops. Today, illegal ivory often funds murderous regional militias like Sudan’s Janjaweed and Joseph Kony’s brutal Lord’s Resistance Army, and is traded through international criminal networks. Most of this ends up in Asia, where an economically booming China consumes more than 70%. The murdered elephants’ tusks are carved up and sold for upwards of a thousand dollars a pound, to be made into chopsticks, rings, and other symbols of wealth.
Since ivory first became associated with power and wealth and traded as part of global capitalism, the hunger for ivory—and the associated devastating consequences—have only grown. It is now up to us as a species to decide what matters. The way human beings feel about a species is now one of the main factors in its survival—so our empathy, or lack thereof, has become an ecological force.
on saving the elephants
If we give in to our desire for more wealth and power, we may lose the chance to understand these remarkable species's minds, so much like our own. There are those who long to make contact with alien minds from other distant stars—but we have them here, on our planet, if we can only put aside our greed and sense of "human exceptionalism" to recognize our kin.