Q&A: Born Free Foundation CEO Will Travers on the Devastating African Ivory Trade

An expansive article on the ivory trade entitled 'Agony and Ivory' was published in the August 2011 edition of Vanity Fair magazine. One of the people who the author sought advice from was Will Travers, CEO of the Born Free Foundation. In the wake of the article's publication, Will Travers spoke to Vanity Fair about his life in conservation. 

VF: The foundation has a unique history. Can we hear a bit about it?

Will Travers: The actor and actress in the film Born Free (1966), Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, who happen to be my parents, were so inspired by the story of the Adamsons and their returning this lioness called Elsa back to the wild that it really changed their lives. My parents started to think so much more about the natural world and the individual animals and how important they are.

What work do you do specifically with elephants?

There is the rescue-and-rehabilitation side. Then there is the research side, which involves long-term support for people like Cynthia Moss. Her research, which was in Alex Shoumatoff's piece, has unlocked doors onto the emotions of elephants-feeling that we previously would have ascribed only to humans and perhaps to apes, like love, remorse, regret, vengeance. The third side is the [support of] anti-poaching forces that protect elephants against the ivory trade.

Can you share an elephant anecdote with us?

I took my son when he was nine years old to Kenya, and he had a little movie camera with him. A TV company had asked him to make a video diary. At one point, local people asked if we wanted to see a poached elephant. So we drove and then we walked. And we smelled the elephant long before we could see it. Imagine five and half tons of elephant that's been in the sun for three and a half weeks. We came around the corner and there was this collapsed carcass caricature of an elephant, like a balloon that's been popped. And the stench and the flies were just extraordinary. And my son filmed excruciating close-ups of this dead elephant with his little voice-over saying, "See the elephant. See how big it was." And there was something so incredibly tragic in what he said. And I just wish that people, whether they live in Chicago, New York, or London, could experience that 30 seconds of a child's dismay at what human beings have done, because then things would change.

Is that the message you want to get across?

Our message is really grounded in what Alex has written. This huge article, by all journalistic standards, is a really major work. When I talk about the ivory trade, people still say, "What ivory trade? I thought it was banned." And I think this is the wake-up call. The ivory trade is not banned. The ivory trade is not dead. The ivory trade is alive and kicking. And it's elephants and rangers and poachers that are paying with their lives for something as fundamentally insignificant as an ivory bangle on the wrist. And we think they have to become a more intelligent species if we are going to have elephants left in Africa and Asia.

Read the full Vanity Fair article here.

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