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Elephants in the Media: A Conversation with Melissa Groo

Since 2001, elephant conservationist Melissa Groo has been managing the Save the Elephants listserv, a free news service that disseminates daily news about elephants from around the world. Save The Elephants (STE) is a Kenya-based international conservation organization founded by preeminent scientist Iain Douglas-Hamilton, who has been working across Africa on behalf of elephants since...

Photograph by Melissa Groo

Since 2001, elephant conservationist Melissa Groo has been managing the Save the Elephants listserv, a free news service that disseminates daily news about elephants from around the world.

Save The Elephants (STE) is a Kenya-based international conservation organization founded by preeminent scientist Iain Douglas-Hamilton, who has been working across Africa on behalf of elephants since the 1960s. Groo orchestrates the STE listserv from her home in Ithaca, New York, but previously worked as a research assistant for Katy Payne as part of the Elephant Listening Project at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology. Besides maintaining the listserv, Groo is a dedicated wildlife photographer. This is her first interview about the listserv.

Picture of Melissa Groo
Melissa Groo (Photograph courtesy Melissa Groo)

Why did you start this listserv?

Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, who is founder and chairman of Save the Elephants, and I cooked up the idea together. We wanted to create a free news service specifically about wild elephants that would connect the world’s elephant scientists, conservationists, policy makers, wildlife park managers, and elephant lovers. We really felt that objectivity should be its overriding principle, and that the listserv would be an unbiased record of what’s out there in the press. And we would try to represent all elephant stories, whether we agree or disagree with the opinions. We wanted it to be as comprehensive as possible.

How many subscribers does the listserv have?

There are 1,332 subscribers to the African elephant listserv and 834 subscribers to the Asian elephant listserv.

Why is there a disparity?

I think definitely part of it has to do with the fact that STE is based in Kenya, and Iain Douglas-Hamilton and his organization are focused on the conservation of African elephants. He is always spreading the word about the listserv, so it has grown that way through word of mouth. So, I think in an organic way, it’s simply more well known to those in the field in Africa.

Also, there are more people working on elephant conservation in Africa than in Asia. And we hear so much about how in crisis the African elephants are. But Asian elephants face other crises, living in competition with people for their habitats. Some say there are only 30,000 left. In some cases, like Vietnam, as you know, there might only be 70 left. Also, I think there is better reporting out of Africa—especially from Tanzania and Kenya. In fact, there was recently news about a census done in the Selous range in Tanzania, and the number of elephants now remaining in that area was shocking.

Yes, the numbers were startling.

There were approximately 40,000 elephants estimated in Selous in 2009, and now the number estimated is roughly 13,000. That’s a 67 percent decline in four years.

In total, how many news stories in 2013 focused on elephants?

I sent out about 1,030 stories to the African elephant listserv, and sent about 900 to the Asian elephant listserv.

What was coverage like when you started, and therefore the general situation for elephants on the ground in Africa?

We started this in 2001, and back then the main issue in the press was the continuing loss of habitat, the clash between elephants and farmers, trophy hunting, and the occasional report of poaching. But the situation is nothing like now, which really feels to me that the elephants could face extinction in my life—at least forest elephants. I truly believe that forest elephants may well go extinct in the next decade. That just devastates me.

But back then when I started, it all felt very different to me. I was concerned for the elephants’ loss of habitat, and then once in a while there would be a story about poaching. But there was no sense that there was an imminent crisis. There were a lot more stories on research being done and interesting stories on behavior and research results, etc. But all that is now overshadowed by the preponderance of stories about what is happening, which is a holocaust. There is a holocaust happening.

What do you think led to this point? Has it been a confluence of factors? Or was there a distinct catalyst?

I think there it was a confluence of factors, but I do think some things weigh more heavily than others. And it really has to do with China. Not only China’s increasing wealth but also its increasing inroads into Africa—figuratively and literally. There are now roads being built into the African forest. And China is now Africa’s biggest trading partner. It was the U.S. until 2009. So China is really deeply penetrating Africa.

And now China is also basing some media in Africa. Over the last decade, China has been investing large sums in building communications infrastructure across Africa and training journalists: Xinhua has 20 news bureaus in Africa. I worry very much about how that will affect media in the future.

I also want to say that there’s a lot of wildlife in desperation. The elephants’ cry for help is getting lost with all the other environmental issues of the day, many with equal importance.

Picture of African elephants
Photograph by Melissa Groo

Are there any countries in Africa that you think are effectively tackling the poaching issue?

No, you can’t speak in terms of individual countries. But there are pockets within countries. Iain’s work in the Samburu is one. But there’s no country that has a system in place that can effectively combat what is going on.

Which countries do the most reportage on elephants?

Eighty percent of the stories that come out of Asia are from India. Sri Lanka would probably be second. In Africa, as I said, Kenya and Tanzania—Kenya especially—are the front-runners. Then, I would say Botswana and Zimbabwe, especially of late with the case of the cyanide poisoning in Zimbabwe.

One thing that concerns me is that the news is so weighted [in certain regions] because not only are there range states that are better at reporting, but some countries have more press freedom. And the issue of the freedom of the press has an influence on what’s out there in the media. Furthermore, many of the countries—16 or 17 of the 37 African elephant range states—have French as their official language. So I’m not seeing those stories.

There are other stories I don’t see due to language barriers. For example, I received a note from a woman today who is a leading Chinese conservationist. She wrote to me explaining, “There’s been a lot of reports in Chinese media on the ivory trade, but unless they’re in the English language media—China Daily or Global Times, the two Chinese state media which have English editions—few of the stories are getting picked up outside China. This hinders the understanding by the conservation community of the political and social dynamics that are changing in China on the elephant issue.”

Given the urgency of this issue, I’ve been in contact with a Chinese conservation organization which has agreed to identify and translate stories that appear in the press about elephants and the ivory trade. That will be very helpful. It’s also been encouraging to find out that an article in a Chinese newspaper on poaching and the ivory trade went viral in Chinese social media in November. So there is definitely a growing awareness there, which is critical, as China is where most of the demand is coming from.

Where are most of the stories being published in the Western media?

Most seem to come from the New York Times, Washington Post, National Geographic, CNN (U.S.). I do pick up quite a few stories from the AP and Reuters wires when they first come out. In the U.K., BBC, the Times. Also Agence France-Presse (AFP).

What countries do you sense probably have some coverage, despite the fact you may not be reading it?

I think there is probably more coverage in Cameroon, Gabon, and other Francophone countries. Once in a while someone will send me a news story in another language, or one that they will have kindly translated. If it’s in French, I’ll go to Alta Vista translation and send it around with, say, an automated French version.  But, I wish I had a way to get these stories translated regularly and present a more comprehensive and thorough coverage of the situation.

Actually, this ties into one of my biggest concerns—the future for African forest elephants. They live in countries that mainly have French as the official language: Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon. And forest elephants are really getting hammered very hard by the poaching. As you probably read, earlier this year Fiona Maisels and her colleagues reported the largest-scale study ever done on forest elephant numbers, and they say over the last decade we’ve lost more than 60 percent of forest elephants.

That story seemed to both receive and generate a lot of coverage.

I think so, but I think that is rare for that region. And we’re not getting stories at the local or regional level from that part of Africa, so we don’t know what’s going on day to day. These are countries where there is civil strife, there is poverty, chaos, and coups. For a number of reasons, we aren’t getting stories on forest elephants, and the fact is that forest elephants are a hidden species. They’re hard to see, hard to study— you can’t fly a plane over and census them. I think there’s a lot of devastation we aren’t even aware of. And the forest elephants’ ivory is more highly prized by carvers because it’s denser and thus easier to carve.

I’m really worried about the forest elephants. I worked with Katy Payne and Andrea Turkalo on this species in the Central African Republic. Andrea was a partner with us at Cornell, and we did two seasons with her, living with her for three months at a time and working from the platform at the Dzanga Bai (bai is the local word for clearing). We studied the elephants there and recorded their behavior and vocal communication. I feel very connected to that area.

Picture of African elephants
Photograph by Melissa Groo

Because you have spent time in the field and are linked with some organizations, I presume you often know what’s happening before the press is writing about it?

Some of the time, definitely. I’m in constant contact with Iain, and he’ll give me a heads-up and say: “This story is about to break.” I hear about things via Andrea Turkalo and also through the Elephant Listening Project. So, yes, there are times when I will hear about stuff beforehand.

Which media outlets do you think do the best coverage on elephants?

I always think Agence France-Presse does a really good job. Voice of America (VOA) sometimes has good, insightful overviews. I think more so in terms of landmark articles, however. Articles that I think have been game changers.

Were there any game changers in 2013?

No. In fact both game changers came out in 2012. I’m sure they won’t surprise you. The first was in early September 2012. Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times came out with first in a series (“Elephants Dying in Epic Frenzy”). Wow. That was a real wake-up call to everyone, and that article really raised the level of consciousness. And then on the heels of that followed Bryan Christy’s cover story for National Geographic (“Blood Ivory”), and that got a lot of attention and exposure. Those two articles have been seminal, and they both raised the consciousness far more than what any one newspaper in particular has done.

What articles in 2013 were of significance?

I think articles covering maybe the ivory crush in the U.S. raised some awareness. There was also the International March for Elephants. Also, I think the Executive Order that President Obama issued in July about the need to treat wildlife crime as a serious crime on par with narcotics and the trafficking of arms has been influential. The media seems to be really picking up on the link between the ivory trade and international crime. Reporters have really glommed onto that as an angle that will interest readers. But there hasn’t been a game changer like last year.

What was the least covered story that deserved a great deal more?

There are a couple that come to mind. The Selous story that I referred to is one. Secondly, it generally surprises me that there isn’t more Western media attention on Asian elephants, which are so highly endangered and are far fewer than African elephants. And this is more of a general thing, but I notice with Asian-based reporting, you get a lot of stories about human-elephant conflict, particularly coming out of India—elephants venturing into human territory, elephants or people getting killed, or elephants getting rescued by people.

But in these stories the elephants are inevitably demonized. There is this inflammatory language which seems to accompany these articles—words like attack, rampage, run amok, killer tuskers, raiders, terrorize. The elephants do damage, and they do kill, but there’s no mention of how the area where the conflict occurs might be part of a migratory path. Or the issue of human population growth. Or the extensive encroachment of crops into elephant range. The stories are skewed totally in favor of humans. There’s rarely strategies put out in the articles for how to coexist with elephants. And I think that is a real lapse in reportage.

And then the other thing that gets lost in the din of this catastrophe is really how extraordinary these creatures are and how much we have left to learn about them in the wild. When I worked with Katy Payne, I witnessed things like the joyful reunion of a mother and daughter introducing their new babies to each other. And the death of a yearling calf, and the reactions of dozens of unrelated elephants who came across it and showed extreme alarm and tried to assist the young animal. I witnessed the aural and visual mystery of what’s called the “mating pandemonium.” And all of that is disappearing. And I hope we can turn the tide before the wonder of these animals is lost to us forever.

Picture of African elephants
Photograph by Melissa Groo

Do you see a direct correlation between media attention and actions on the ground—actions combatting poaching—in Africa?

I can speak broadly to that. That was really reinforced when speaking to a government official about how valuable the listserv has been. The media attention brings the public along with it. And the public and that consciousness will resonate with political leaders.

The renewed slaughter began about five or six years ago. But it has finally reached a new level of heightened consciousness. It took a while for the media to catch on and then to have traction with the public and then the politicians. Think of things like Obama’s Executive Order. I just think there’s no way it would have happened if there hadn’t been all this media attention about the link between the ivory trade and terrorism, Al Shabaab, and organized crime. And so I think on a broad scale that the media is definitely increasing awareness and having an impact on policy now.

One thing I want to say also is that for some people, especially those in the remote field, this listserv is the only way that people can get information about what’s happening. As Andrea Turkalo said to me once, there are people in the field who can’t get the Internet but can get emails. So this can be a great value.

A lot more people have become aware of why one shouldn’t buy ivory. And the media has been instrumental in understanding where ivory comes from and what the ivory trade is doing to the elephants. I see this awareness spreading not just in the U.S. but also globally.

But back to the direct impact: Are you actually seeing an impact from these stories on the ground in Africa?  Bottom line: Is the poaching slowing down from all this media attention?


I think there are things that need to happen that just aren’t happening yet in Africa. Basically you need detection, you need apprehension, prosecution, jail time. You need this whole string of things that take money and infrastructure and political will. Corruption is reported as rife in the range states. I also think there is increasing prosecution of African journalists who would be the ones to write about corruption or the misuse of funds or where foreign investment money is going. There are a lot of things that need to happen. The awareness is finally there, and that is a huge step, but there are things that have to follow. And it is not an easy fix. It’s about banning the ivory trade and having pieces in place detecting, arresting, prosecuting, and putting people in jail.

There are some promising signs. With the order by Obama there is a task force on wildlife trafficking, and apparently they will be addressing enforcement issues. So I don’t mean to sound like I don’t think the media is doing anything. This has been a banner year for this leap in awareness that we didn’t have a year or two ago. Before, people just had no idea what was taking place.

Was there one article in particular you read five or six years ago that was an indicator to you that the current crisis was about to take place?

I think it was a cumulative thing. I was seeing a greater incidence of stories about people discovering carcasses, and I was opening up news articles with photographs of elephants with their tusks hacked out of their faces. So seeing stories like that, as well as the price of ivory starting to rise, along with China’s increasing wealth—it all started happening together.

Do you talk to reporters? Do they ever indicate to you that they want to do more reporting but are having a hard time getting approval from, say, editors?

No. But that doesn’t mean that isn’t happening.

What has been the most surprising news story to you recently?

Lately I’ve been reading that the U.S. is second after China in its demand for ivory—and this is an area where I question the accuracy a bit. And I wonder why it’s being touted like that. There’s no question that countries like Thailand and Japan are ahead of the U.S. So I’m not sure what the thinking is here, or the goal of those promoting this idea. That story is giving me pause.

You mean that you question the spin?

The spin. Exactly.

Personally, I think the story that has had the most impact on me is the story about the Central African Republic. After Andrea left the country, the Seleka rebels came to the bai, and they slaughtered at least 26 of “our” elephants. Due to Andrea’s 30-plus-year study of the population of elephants in that area, those elephants have become family to her, and we all grew to love them as well. I thought that place—the bai—was sacrosanct, and that it was valued by the world as a real treasure. The only place to closely study forest elephants. When I read that story, it brought me to my knees. Talk about bringing it home. I never thought that would happen there.

Picture of African elephants
Photograph by Melissa Groo

Where are the stories now heading? For example, I’ve been reading that a wave of poaching is about to hit South Africa?

Yes, I read that, too. Historically, elephants have been considered safer in South Africa because of management and oversight of the parks. But the circumstances are changing, and I think we’re going to see some pretty serious poaching coming out of there, as is already happening in neighboring Mozambique. Elephant poaching is going to hit Kruger, where the rhinos have been absolutely devastated. I’m also worried about the cyanide poisoning episode in Zimbabwe and the various new strategies poachers will be taking in the future. However, I’m guardedly optimistic about various new efforts being used to combat poachers and detect ivory. I don’t want to sound all doom and gloom, because I think there is a sea change of awareness.

As for other predictions: We are starting to see more stories from Nepal and also Myanmar, and I hadn’t been getting any stories out of those countries until this year. The trigger for stories there are crop raiding and elephants “trampling” people. In India the triggers are these as well as elephants getting electrocuted and trains hitting and killing elephants.

How do you think non-traditional media are telling stories about the poaching crisis?

One thing that is happening increasingly is that blogs and YouTube are becoming a useful source of information. Videos might feature a talk by an elephant expert or demonstrate fascinating elephant behavior. Blogs, too, can often be equally helpful. I will every month or two send out a list of blog posts, videos, and other various online resources for people to check out.

I want to mention that doing this listserv for all these years has really been a lesson for me in how journalism works. It already starts with a bias, and you can’t use it as an objective measure—it’s subjective. Writers and editors often choose to cover what they think is newsworthy or relevant to readers rather than what is reflective of reality. The media always want a larger audience, and that weighs into a lot of the stories. You see that with the sensationalism in the articles in Asia with the “drunken tusker runs amok!” kind of headline. They think that’s what people want to read. But it’s never a story about how to live with these creatures whose habitat we’ve completely taken over. A lot, therefore, gets left out in these articles, and it’s presented in a lopsided way.

Is there anything you want to add?

I get so many emails of gratitude and people saying that they couldn’t do their jobs without this listserv. Testimonies like that make it worthwhile to keep going.  One high-ranking U.S. official concerned with elephant policy and funding wrote me about the value of the listserv. He wrote that it’s the first thing he reads every day, and it keeps him current and informs his decisions. And that “the listserv has been one of the great game changers of what we are able to do at the highest levels.” He feels that the listserv is critically important in the context of discussions, as officials are all able to be up to date on what is going on at local, regional, and national levels for elephants.

These words help. You know, I see these gruesome pictures of slaughtered elephants, and my heart is breaking anew. Sometimes I really think, maybe I can’t do this anymore, and maybe I should go into the wilds and just do my photography. But then I think, if I stop doing this, I will be complicit somehow. If I have helped just one, or a few, elephants from being killed, it will have been worth it. I really feel that way. And that is what keeps me going.

To sign up for Melissa Groo’s listserv, click here.

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Meet the Author

Christina Russo
Christina Russo is a freelance journalist. For nearly 15 years, she has worked as a producer for a number of public radio programs, including NPR/WBUR’s "On Point" with Tom Ashbrook. Christina also freelances for Yale Environment 360, where her written work focuses mainly on wildlife conservation issues. She is the co-producer, with WBUR, of the nationally syndicated documentary on American zoos, From Cages to Conservation. She has written numerous articles about animals, including a story about caring for donkeys in Ethiopia; a veterinarian saving horses in Sonoma County, CA; an elephant sanctuary in northern Thailand; and the work of pre-eminent whale biologist Roger Payne for her hometown newspaper, The Gloucester Daily Times.