For Elephants, It's a Dangerous Life: AWI's New Book Takes On Ivory Trade

As I speak, it is now evening in Kenya. Kenya Wildlife Service ranger patrols are at this moment probing through that evening darkness to ensure that no poaching gangs kill our wildlife.
--- Edwin Wanyonyi, Acting Deputy Director of Strategy and Change, Kenya Wildlife Service

Wanyonyi’s evocation of rangers out on patrol, standing (at great risk to their own lives) between poachers and wildlife, could describe any evening in one of Kenya’s stunning national parks. As it happens, he spoke these words on June 24, 2014, before a crowd at the Library of Congress’s ornate Thomas Jefferson Building, across the street from the US Capitol in Washington— seemingly light years away from Kenya’s back country, ranger patrols, and wild denizens. The occasion was the official presentation to the Library of Congress of A Dangerous Life, a graphic novel written and illustrated by Sheila Hamanaka and published by AWI and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) that addresses the global ivory trade and the heavy toll it takes on elephants and those on the ground dedicated to their protection. Both the book and the speakers at the event stressed that poachers in Africa are not so far removed from the venue at hand—trade in ivory to industrialized countries ignites the killing; actions taken in Washington and other capitals affect whether the blood-soaked trade flourishes or founders.

A Dangerous Life tells the story of a teen girl from America whose family made a fortune in the early 20th century from elephant ivory. She takes a trip to Africa, where she encounters wild elephants and witnesses first-hand the terrible price of ivory. She and the Chinese and Kenyan friends she makes on her trip vow to save elephants and educate people about ivory and why they should not purchase it.

Following the Library of Congress event, the book was distributed free at the annual Smithsonian Institute’s Folklife Festival, where Kenya was one of two featured countries this year. A Dangerous Life will also be distributed throughout Kenya—in particular to visitors of Kenya’s national parks.

Wanyonyi spoke of the difficulties doing battle with an increasingly well-armed and sophisticated foe: “We are fighting international criminal syndicates that are motivated by extremely powerful financial incentives from illegal markets in industrialized economies. These syndicates run an industry that some estimate to have a turnover of over US$2 billion a year.” Despite enormous efforts (and successes, when compared to other African countries), Kenya loses hundreds of elephants each year. Rangers die, too. “To date, KWS has suffered the loss of 61 rangers killed in the line of duty,” said Wanyonyi.

Author Sheila Hamanaka, who has won awards for her work and has previously written and illustrated three children’s books for AWI, talked about doing her first graphic novel, one that involved over 200 illustrations… all the while coming to grips with becoming legally blind as a result of glaucoma. (She arrived at the event accompanied by her new guide dog, Phil.) To complete the task, Hamanaka was aided by special equipment to magnify the images she drew, and assisted by three additional illustrators—Lisa Barile, Rosalie Knox, and Julie Lien.

As for the graphic novel (and novel to her) format, Hamanaka said librarians told her that books in the teenage sections too often gather dust ... except for graphic novels, which “fly off the shelves.” She hopes this book will be more accessible to reluctant readers who may not be inclined to read “fat books about the history of elephants.”

A Dangerous Life does not spare its young readers the unpleasant details. In it, a beloved elephant is killed by poachers, and her distraught baby taken to an orphanage, where her human handlers seek to care for and comfort her. Hamanaka told the audience this element of the story was directly inspired by her own experience on a trip to Kenya to research the book: “In Voi, [near Tsavo East National Park]… they had just brought in a tiny elephant… The little elephant was running in circles in the enclosure … so frightened. … We knelt down, got really small, and the elephant came up very slowly and put his or her trunk out and allowed us to touch fingers to trunk. I know it’s a cliché, but my heart just melted. And I began to realize, if I feel this way, the mother, of course, has to feel a thousand times more.”

Unfortunately, in a brutal example of life and art converging, just as the book was set to go to print, one of Kenya’s most renowned elephants, Satao, an older bull famed for his massive tusks, was killed by poachers. AWI’s president, Cathy Liss, made reference to this terrible tragedy at the event, adding, however, that “it is important that young people all over the world understand the true cost of ivory in innocent elephant lives. … It is our hope that A Dangerous Life will educate and inspire its young readers to become advocates for elephants and do their part to help society turn away from ivory.”