The 2022/2023 Season

After the Show | Post-Play Discussion

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by dramaturg Jo Holcomb

“This is a subject matter that has been widely covered, and even though it’s widely covered, it still needs more amplification. We, as human beings, consume at such a rate and I’ve been thinking about the price of that consumption and the way in which it’s destroying our environment. Elephants and other rare species are caught in that web; I think of Mlima’s journey as a metaphor for [that].” — Lynn Nottage, on Mlima’s Tale

Investigative journalist Damon Tabor, wrote an article, The Ivory Highway, that inspired Lynn Nottage to write Mlima’s Tale. He had tracked the intertwined entities responsible for the horrendous international ivory trade. Offenders include poachers, smugglers and all-too-knowing buyers. Moved by what she read in his piece, Nottage buried herself in research. It revealed a genuine possibility of a world without elephants, and she felt the need to sound an alarm. She educated herself about the communication style of elephants, especially their deeply social nature. Eventually she developed a story from the viewpoint of a rare big-tusker, beginning with his murder and following the trail through all of those who were complicit in his death. She named him Mlima, Swahili for mountain.


Mlima is a handsome elephant, which his mother warns will be a danger. His large frame and head, with long, impressively symmetrical tusks, makes him a target. First, for other bulls trying to prove themselves. Later, for the hunters — poachers illegally killing elephants only to strip their tusks and discard, often mutilate, their bodies. In life, Mlima was one of the prized mature male elephants and a symbol of the reserve. In his death, Mlima is a haunting specter, silently but forcefully leaving his mark on those who would violate elephants to stuff their pockets with gold.

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The Elephant and the Human Connection

Humans and elephants co-evolved in Africa from earlier species. Humans have always lived alongside these amazing beings, and we share much in common with them. Both elephant and human young take a long time to mature. Both share complex social networks. Both communicate in a myriad of ways with fellow species members. Both mourn their dead.

As with humans, elephant behavior varies through time and space via patterns of behavior taught from generation to generation. As with humans, behavior also adapts as conditions change, and breaking the flow of information leads to what have been similarly characterized as social problems. Therefore, just like humans, elephant behavior can be seen as cultural.

There is a deep symbiotic relationship between elephants and human beings. in a lesson to us all, elephants are well known to be intuitive and proactive when humans are in distress. They have caught on camera multiple times rescuing, protecting, or helping people.  

Plato taught that everything we needed to know about life can be seen in elephants.

Aristotle described the elephant as “the animal that surpasses all others in wit and mind.”

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In fact, the elephant is one of the most intelligent animals on Earth. An elephant’s brain weighs over 11 pounds (5 kg) and has a total of 300 billion neurons, which is on par with the human brain when it comes to interconnectivity and functionality.

Because of their brain structure, elephants are believed to have deep thoughts and emotions. Animal behaviorists (called ethologists) note that elephants exhibit complex behaviors that demonstrate their intelligence, such as using tools, showing compassion and grief, engaging in cooperation for desired outcomes, and engaging in complex communication.

One of the most notable traits about elephants is their unwavering dedication to their families or herds. As social animals, elephants live in large family groups with whom they remain for their entire lives.

Elephants live in matriarchal societies. The leader of the elephant herd is generally the oldest female. She has the experience and knowledge to ensure the survival of the herd. In fact, female elephants will remain with their mother and grandmother for their entire life.

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The Ashanti People revere the elephant, as they view them as their reincarnated leaders. A proverb that is popular with local people there expresses their reverence for elephants:

“The animal steps on the ground, but the elephant steps down with strength.”

The African Elephant Ivory Trade

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Ivory has been desired since antiquity because its relative softness made it easy to carve into intricate decorative items for the very wealthy. For the past one hundred years, the ivory trade in Africa has been closely regulated, yet the trade continues to thrive.

Ivory Trade in Antiquity

During the days of the Roman Empire, the ivory exported from Africa largely came from North African elephants. These elephants were also used in the Roman coliseum fights and occasionally as transport in war and were hunted to extinction around the 4th century C.E. After that point, the ivory trade in Africa declined for several centuries.

Medieval Times to the Renaissance

By the 800s, the trade in African ivory had picked-up again. In these years, traders transported ivory from West Africa along the trans-Saharan routes to the North African coast or brought East African ivory up in boats along the coastline to the market-cities of north-east Africa and the Middle East. From these depots, ivory was taken across the Mediterranean to Europe or to Central and East Asia, though the latter regions could easily acquire ivory from southeast Asian elephants.

European Traders and Explorers (1500-1800)

As Portuguese navigators began exploring the West African coastline in the 1400s, they soon entered the lucrative ivory trade, and other European sailors were not far behind. During these years, ivory was still acquired almost exclusively by African hunters, and as the demand continued, the elephant population near the coastlines declined. In response, African hunters traveled further and further inland in search of elephant herds.

The Trade of Ivory and Enslaved People (1700–1900)

The need for human porters meant that the growing trade of ivory and enslaved people went together, particularly in East and Central Africa. In those regions, African and Arab traders of enslaved people traveled inland from the coast, purchased, or hunted down large numbers of captives and ivory, and then forced the enslaved people to carry the ivory as they marched down to the coast. Once they reached the coast, the traders sold both the enslaved people and ivory for hefty profits.

The Colonial Era

In the 1800s and early 1900s, European ivory hunters began hunting elephants in greater numbers. As demand for ivory increased, elephant populations were decimated. In 1900, several African colonies passed game laws that limited hunting, though recreational hunting remained possible for those who could afford the expensive licenses.

Poaching and Legitimate Ivory Trade, Today

At Independence in the 1960s, most African countries maintained or increased colonial game legislation laws, either outlawing hunting or permitting it only with the purchase of expensive licenses. Poaching and the ivory trade continued, however.

In 1990, African elephants, except for those in Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Namibia, were added to Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, which means that participating countries agreed not to allow their trade for commercial purposes. Between 1990 and 2000, the elephants in Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Namibia, were added to Appendix II, which permits trade in ivory but requires an export permit to do it.

Many argue, though, that any legitimate trade in ivory encourages poaching and adds a shield for it since illegal ivory can be publicly displayed once purchased. It looks the same as legitimate ivory, for which there continues to be relatively high demand for both Asian medicine and decorative objects.

Elephants Under Threat

One of the key threats to the majestic African elephant is poaching. Fueled by the ivory trade, around 15,000 animals are killed each year for their tusks — that's an average of 40 a day. In fact, we estimate that we’ve lost over 80% of the planet’s African elephants in the past century. Starting in the early 2010s, elephant poaching in Africa soared. This was largely due to an increasing demand for ivory, particularly in China and the Far East, where it is used for ornaments and seen as a luxury status symbol. Today, international criminal networks are still smuggling huge quantities of ivory, and evidence shows that legal ivory markets can provide a cover to launder illegal ivory.

Closing Ivory Markets

The international commercial trade in ivory was banned in 1989, although many countries continued to sell ivory legally, within their own borders and exemptions for some types of ivory like antiques made exporting them legal, including in the UK. WWF rallied hard to have new laws passed that would close domestic markets in hotspots linked to illegal trade. We celebrated a great success at the end of 2016 when China, the world’s biggest ivory market, announced that all ivory sales within the country would be banned.

In 2017, with the help of the World Wildlife Fund, supporters urged the UK government to follow suit. Later that year, plans for a UK ivory trade ban were announced.

News Flash from National Public Radio

Elephant Photo via Getty
A mother elephant and her calf head for a nearby marsh at Kenya's Amboseli National Park

Amboseli National Park in Kenya is experiencing something of an elephant baby boom. The park, which sits at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro, has reported the birth of more than 170 calves this year and counting. What's more, two sets of twins were born this year, a rare occurrence according to Amboseli Trust for Elephants, a nonprofit conservation group in Kenya.

By contrast, the Trust reported 113 new calves born in 2018. (2019 is not a good year for comparison because the gestation period for elephant pregnancies is up to two years.)

"The main reason the population is rebounding is due to the surplus rains we have had over the past two years," Tal Manor, project manager for ATE, said in an email to NPR. "Baby booms are largely tied to ecological changes."

In 2019, the International Rescue Committee reported higher than normal rains, which caused massive flooding, killing people and damaging crops in East Africa. The heavy rain came after the region had years of severe drought. For elephants, more rain means more vegetation for grazing and fewer deaths due to dehydration and starvation.

"Overall, in Kenya anti-poaching efforts are also high and elephants are generally safer, which means [fewer] get killed than in other parts of Africa," Manor added. "And Kenya's elephant population is slowly increasing."

The baby boom is not the only heartening pachyderm statistic. Kenya’s Wildlife Service said the country has seen its elephant population increase from 16,000 elephants in 1989 to 34,800 by the end of 2019.

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Additional Resources


The Ivory Highway by Damon Tabor

Who Buys Ivory? You’d Be Surprised by National Geographic Magazine

Explore National Geographic

Tracking Ivory Series The Human Toll Audio Gallery

Tracking the Illegal Tusk Trade Interactive Map

How Killing Elephants Finances Terror in Africa

The Trading Game, a Simulation of International Trade


The Ivory Game. Directed by Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani, Vulcan Productions, 2016. Netflix.

Last Days. Directed by Katherine Bigelow, Produced by Megan Ellison, 2014