Legal Rights for Elephants

Posted by Joyce Tischler, ALDF's Founder and General Counsel on May 13, 2015


We’re obliterating African elephants, killing 96 of them every day: 100,000 in just three years. The reason is simple and familiar: human greed. Elephants have many wonderful qualities, yet they are being killed to supply their tusks to the ivory trade. And, despite the efforts of many great organizations, passionate advocates, and even some governments, the slaughter continues at an unprecedented pace, a pace that the elephant birth rate cannot keep up with. The result will be the extinction of African elephants within one decade.

For an optimist like me, this is a trying time. I’m losing hope. As long as we humans view African elephants as nothing more than a commercially useful body part, the mass slaughter will continue. And, time is quickly running out. Therefore, I propose that we radically change how we view, discuss and ultimately protect elephants.

My view of elephants has been influenced by the scientific studies that inform us that they are large brained, highly intelligent and sentient social beings with complex communication skills. One recent study showed that wild elephants distinguish the sound of bees from the sound of human voices, and communicate those distinctions to other members of their herd. They signal each other, not only that there is danger, but also to identify the type of danger, bees or humans.


Other scientists are recording that elephants form lifelong matriarchal family units, in which they teach their children everything they need to know to survive in the wild; that they cooperate with each other to solve problems, and that some of them suffer from PTSD. Anecdotal examples of elephants exhibiting compassion, both to their own kind and ours, abound.

One of my favorites is the story of an African elephant who accidentally injured a man in the bush, breaking his leg. Displaying the sort of empathy and intelligence that was once thought to be possessed only by humans, this elephant moved him out of the hot sun and placed him under a tree. Even though her own family moved on, she stayed with him for a day, until his villagers realized he was missing and came to rescue him. Once he was safe, the elephant moved on to rejoin her family.

Leading elephant expert, Joyce Poole, has observed that when elephants are ready to do a group charge, they look at each other to make sure everyone is ready, and after the charge, they celebrate, lifting their heads high into the air, clanking their tusks, and making trumpeting and rumbling noises.

If we can learn to see elephants as the remarkable individuals they are, then we will cease asking the question “what is the sustainable use of wild elephants?” All use, all exploitation must stop. I am part of a growing group of people who no longer view elephants as merely things, who recognize their extraordinary capacities, and who want to engage in a dialogue about completely altering the way we view and treat these wonderful beings. And, we need to start now, because, by the end of this day, another 96 will have died horribly and senselessly.

In an article appearing in the latest issue of the Quinnipiac Law Review, I argue that elephants must be granted legal rights. “In all legally relevant ways, elephants possess qualities that compel us to put aside convention and convenience, and to realize that for too long we have ignored and violated their rights. Elephants are not things. Legal systems which treat them as such are inherently flawed.”

Legal rights for elephants would enable us to codify and enforce broad new legal protections of their lives, well-being, and dignity. We could no longer exploit them, kill them, or use them for our own purposes. We would allow them to live out their natural lives, with their families, in their native lands. Now that would be something to rumble and trumpet about.

20 thoughts on “Legal Rights for Elephants

  1. ursula bateman says:

    please sign and share, thank you

  2. Gina Wright says:

    We must save our elephants before its too late.These magnificent mammals must be saved from extinction caused by poachers who have no compassion for these and other animals.

  3. Margaret Schmueck says:

    Yes I believe that animals should all have legal rights but more so those animals that need urgent protection and are face with extinction.

  4. Me psrece que urgente hay qye proteger estosmaravillosos animales

  5. let the elepants live free and safe

  6. Diane says:

    Where go I sign?

  7. Help the elephants live the life they deserve.

  8. Darlene Dueweke says:

    elephants are such awesome animals. We need to stop this slaughter and explore their intelligent ways and learn from them. They’re such smart , loyal, compassionate, strong, empathetic animals and they should live their lives out with their familes where they are needed to survive. This world would be a very sad
    Place without our awesome elephants. God protect them please.

  9. Anna Hernandez says:

    With all the rich people in the world I find it hard to believe no one can put an end to this Killing after all it always comes down to money .How sad is that!!!!!!!!

  10. Holly Brookman says:

    Every day I cry and cry because of the cruelty all creatures face at the hands of human beings. I detest hunters and poachers and consumers of ivory. How can god allow so much suffering?

  11. Maria Bonnici says:


  12. kymberly deschamps says:

    Where do I sign

  13. jane passman says:

    Money is the route of all evil !!

  14. Joyce this is a moving argument for changing the flawed views the world has of elephants. Thank you for continuing to help achieve change! I agree, they should not be viewed as things here to line the pockets of humans. This is a true tragedy! Thank you for speaking out!

  15. Robert Monk says:

    Give elephants rights, for Christ’s sake…

  16. tara thomas says:

    I was very impressed with this article, it was written very well. I agree with its author as well. I often feel like there is nothing that I can do to change things, no matter how many petitions I sign, or how many times I have shared – nothing – changes.
    Elephants deserve so much better from us, I will continue to sign petitions and share on facebook, articles to the atrocities committed against them by humans, and share the great stories that show how compassionate and loving they really are. It does get disheartening day after day with no changes.

  17. Jay Ball says:

    This is outrageous! Please stop the killing of our planets animals.

  18. rita mason says:

    Help these souls lead a dignified life with their families…protect them and let them live peacefully without human interference as much as possible.

  19. Neal Anderthal says:

    Most of us reading this article agree with your stance. But what is the call to action? How do we make this happen now?

  20. Jennifer A says:

    Great post Joyce and couldn’t agree more! Elephants are extremely social/intelligent animals and its sad to see their populations dwindle.

    I was recently doing research about where elephants live in captivity and the wild and came across a story about elephant tourism in Thailand. They use “The Crush” to beat and torture elephants until their “souls are crushed”. It basically turns the elephants into slaves so they will allow humans to ride them etc. Very sad, but I’m glad stories like yours are creating awareness.

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