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Elephant Poaching: One Mum’s Inspiring Story To Save The Elephants

Two Aussie Women's Brave Crusade To Save Elephants

Aussie zoologist and mum Dr Tammie Matson has made it her mission to stop elephant poaching and the illegal ivory trade, before it’s too late. But she needs your help…

You may not have heard of Dr Tammie Matson, but you should have. She is incredible. Dr Matson is a world expert on elephant conservation and is the author of Planet Elephant, a story about the juggle between career and motherhood. “Being a mum has changed the way I do my conservation work on elephants,” Tammie explains. “Mums can still have adventures, but they can’t afford to get killed having them, as I realised when a pygmy elephant in Borneo recently gave me the scare of my life!” Tammie, originally from Townsville, now lives in Cairns with her husband Andy, their sons Solo and Shepard.

But while motherhood may have altered Dr Matson’s approach, it hasn’t stopped her mission to stop elephant poaching and the illegal ivory trade that fuels it. Here, Tammie explains her latest adventure, the Let Elephants be Elephants campaign, the TV documentary supporting the campaign and how you can help put an end to the slaughter of elephants….


Tammie shows then 6 month-old, Solo, a leopard tortoise in Kruger National Park, South Africa, during their first family safari in 2010. “I’m a real believer in showing our kids nature in the wild now, and not waiting until their older,” explains Tammie. “They may not remember, but we’ll have the photos to show them and I fear that unless things change, many species may not be around when our kids grow up.”


“OvaHimba women in Namibia, one of the many fascinating ethnic groups in Namibia, where I studied black-faced impalas – a unique threatened antelope for my PhD in zoology through the University of Queensland.”


A mother elephant with her calf in Khaudum National Park, Namibia. Elephant breeding herds are led by a dominant female (the matriarch) and female elephants stay with their mothers their entire lives.  The loss of a matriarch due to poaching has devastating effects on the whole herd’s social structure.

Tell us about your elephant conservation work…

“I work on African elephant conservation. It might seem unlikely because I’m based in Singapore, but actually Asia is where the biggest fight is being fought for Africa’s elephants – to stop demand for their ivory.  My focus is on stopping the illegal ivory trade in Asia that is driving the highest levels of African elephant poaching that we’ve seen in decades. Every year 30,000 elephants are being killed in Africa to feed Asian demand for ivory, so raising awareness in Asia is key to stopping the poaching. At this rate, some conservationists predict that elephants will be extinct in little over a decade.”


“A special moment in Kruger National Park as we watched this elephant bull lazily crossing the river while taking a drink. Elephants love water and one of the most joyous things you’ll ever see in your life is thirsty elephants approaching water during the hot dry season in Africa.”


“A sad moment in Kenya as Richard Bonham (operations director of Big Life Foundation) and Asian TV star Nadya Hutagalung and I take in the scene of a poached bull elephant, killed by a poisoned spear for his ivory.  I’ve been taking people on safari in Africa for years but this was a special trip because I knew that if Nadya was affected by what she saw in Africa that she’d become an important voice for elephants in her homeland.  And that’s exactly what has happened.  She is a brilliant ambassador for elephant conservation and is doing everything she can to stop people buying ivory in Asia.”

Who is Nadya Hutagalong?

Nadya is a Sydney-born supermodel, actress, entertainer, entrepreneur, host on Asia’s Next Top Model and eco-warrior and ambassador for Let Elephants Be Elephants. Nadya’s mum is Australian and her father is an Indonesian, hence her distinctive and beautiful look. Nadya began her modelling career at just age 12 in Tokyo, then became a household name as MTV’s Asia VJ, appearing in a mere 70 million households throughout Asia. For more information of this Aussie superstar and her achievements in Asia, visit


“One of the outstanding game scouts fighting to stop the rhino poaching in the Save Valley Conservancy, Zimbabwe.  Rhinos are being poached at a devastating rate – over 1000 killed in South Africa alone last year – to provide horn largely for Vietnamese markets.  The horn is used as an expensive hangover cure.”

Why is poaching so rife?

“The cause of the poaching in Africa is due to a surge in the demand for ivory from Asia, driven by rising wealth. Although most of the illegal ivory is going to China, this country has taken some steps to clamp down on the illegal trade. Thailand is a different story.  Legal loopholes allow ivory to be sold freely on the streets as jewellery, amulets and art, much of which is probably from illegally poached elephants from Africa. Thailand is the world’s largest unregulated ivory market.

Many other countries in South-East Asia also participate in the illegal ivory trade, either by providing markets for buyers or as transit countries for illegal ivory. Major seizures of hundreds of kilograms of illegal African ivory have been reported in countries such as Hong Kong, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore.

In Africa, what a poacher makes from killing an elephant to get the ivory can feed his children and put them through school. People are really poor in these rural areas and things are really desperate. So in a place where people are just trying to survive, they’ll do whatever it takes, including the very risky and gruesome business of elephant poaching.

We have to fight the poaching by having tough laws and enforcing those laws in Africa, but the key to stopping the problem is to stop the demand at the source.


“Ivory jewellery is available freely for sale at markets in Bangkok. Small carved elephant amulets sell for as little as US$5. But the tragedy of this is that elephants had to be killed to provide it. This jewellery is tainted by its terrible history because it probably came from poached African elephants.”

Why do people buy it?

“Unknowing tourists including Australians probably buy ivory jewellery all the time, but it is illegal to take it out of the country and to bring it into Australia. We don’t know enough about who the buyers of ivory in Thai markets are, but we do know that most of the ivory from Africa ends up in China. It’s highly likely that many people buying the ivory don’t know that elephants have to be killed to provide the ivory jewellery, as I’ve heard lots of people say that they thought the tusks just dropped out like teeth. That’s what the Let Elephants Be Elephants campaign is trying to change by busting myths and educating people.

Recent polling in China by IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) suggest that many people do not know that ivory comes from poached elephants, and that elephants have to be killed to provide it. Targeted advertising has been shown to change consumer behaviour, with 70% of people surveyed saying they wouldn’t buy ivory once they knew the truth about how it is produced. This is encouraging because it suggests that if we can get the message through, just like in the 1980s, we will make a real difference.

Ivory is beautiful, that’s the reason why people have been trading it for thousands of years.  It symbolises status and wealth.


“This is one of the many orphaned baby elephants that was saved by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya, and is being rehabilitated for return to the wild. He’s one of the lucky ones. More and more baby elephants are being picked up by the Trust because their mothers have been poached for their ivory. Many more are lost to predators or dehydration before they are found. The bulls have the biggest tusks but as they are being poached out the females and young are also being killed for their ivory. The loss of females, especially the matriarchs, is devastating because it represents the loss of the leadership, knowledge and experience that the next generation need to survive.”


“Solo, then 1 1/2, on safari with us in South Africa. Our pint-sized first born son has always been obsessed by cars and he loves Africa because it’s full of Land Rovers and Land Cruisers.  We were at a leopard sighting recently, a very rare and special thing to see, but he was much more interested in another Land Rover coming in the other direction! Kids give you a reason to fight harder in conservation, because you want to make sure they are able to see animals in the wild when they’re grown up, not just in a zoo.”


“Big tuskers like this bull, known locally as ‘One Tonne at Ol Donyo, Kenya, are swiftly becoming a thing of the past as elephants are being killed for their ivory. Older bulls with large tusks are vital to the social networks of elephants as they are the ones that females prefer to breed with, and the most likely to pass on their genes.”

What’s being done to stop it?

“In March 2013 the Thai Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, announced that she would amend the national legislation that is causing the illegal ivory trade in Thailand. This was welcomed by environmental groups, but her promise has yet to materialise in any significant reduction in the amount of ivory being sold in Thailand.

That’s why it’s so important that we spread the word that it’s not acceptable to buy ivory.  Historically, we know awareness can stop the problem. Back in the 1980s when hundreds of thousands of elephants were being killed to provide ivory for markets in the US, Europe and Japan, there was a massive awareness campaign that effectively led to the international ban on the ivory trade in 1989. Those markets died down and buying ivory became stigmatised to a large extent. Now we’re dealing with new markets in places like China and Thailand, and lots of Asian transit countries including Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam, and it’s because of their growing wealth.”

Tell us about the Let Elephants be Elephants campaign

“I recently joined forces on a project with an Asian TV star, the host of Asia’s Next Top Model, Nadya Hutagalung, to help raise awareness of the ivory trade in Asia in a campaign called Let Elephants Be Elephants

Let Elephants Be Elephants mission is to reduce the number of people buying ivory in Asia in order to stop the killing of elephants in Africa. The campaign is focused on raising awareness of the problem and encouraging people not to buy ivory, but its goal is also to build an extensive digital community, the LEBE ‘army’, to influence governments and consumer networks. The focus of the project is on educating consumers about the connection between Africa’s rising poaching of elephants and Asia’s buyers of ivory.

The LEBE campaign focuses on giving consumers a voice and encouraging them to share the message to stop buying ivory across the combined digital networks of hundreds of millions provided by the project team members and partners. Earth Hour global has a digital audience of hundreds of millions alone, and the Fox Network’s reach across Asia will provide an extensive television audience for the campaign.


What can readers do?

“Get involved and help make a difference!”

PLEDGE:  Pledge your commitment to saying no to ivory at the Let Elephants Be Elephants website and share the message on our Facebook, Instagram Letelephantsbe and Twitter @Letelephantsbe.

SHARE:  Visit the Let Elephants Be Elephants website to watch the videos and share with friends on your social networks.

Follow Tammie’s blog about here adventure here

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Tammie takes groups of adventurous travellers to Africa with her every year.  To discover more about her ethical African safari company, Matson & Ridley Safaris, life changing journeys that make a difference, visit

Written by Franki Hobson

Franki Hobson has worn many hats during her many years as a women's lifestyle journalist and editor. Her launching pad was COSMOPOLITAN magazine, where she moved from News & Entertainment Editor to Features Director, covering everything from the legalisation of the Morning After Pill to Gwen Stefani, fashion, beauty, sex, health, fitness, entertainment and relationships.

Franki Hobson is a contributing lifestyle writer for The Carousel.

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