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Making the ‘elephant in the room’ go global

Elephant in Kenya s Amboseli nature park
The tools of direct democracy can help protect elephants and show universal humanity AFP

Animal welfare and modern direct democracy are like twins. Together they are able to unify people in a way many other issues aren’t.

The world is awash in uncertainty. I hear almost daily from friends, family and perfect strangers telling me they have never been so concerned about their future and the future of the world as a whole.

Their reasons for concern vary. Some fear the leaders of nations are taking actions that are the antithesis to human rights and world security. Others voice concerns of natural disasters and the lack of respect for the rule of law and the concern that the simple morals and values that have served as the bulwark against tyranny are quickly eroding.

But as I have these conversations both with people and myself, I struggle to find a commonality that would inspire people around the world to act for a common good.

Dane Waters
Dane Waters is the founder of The Elephant Project, a US-based NGO advocating free market solutions to elephant conservation efforts. He has worked on over 60 ballot campaigns and is the founder and Chair of the Initiative & Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California wbur

This is a question that I have written on before: What motivates people to take action and what is the emotional tipping point that leads them to act?

Emotions bubbling

In many cases people are motivated based on some unknown feeling deep within themselves – it defies logic, explanation or rationalisation and can be triggered at any moment. I believe these emotions are bubbling up and the people are in search of a reason to act and come together for a common purpose.

That purpose, I believe, will be the protection of animals and more specifically elephants.

One has never been able to fully explain the true bond between humans and animals. Some people try and explain it by quoting scripture, Gandhi or a hundred other famous people whose words we have quoted in some cases for millennia.

But it is one of those things that truly can’t be explained.

Inexplicable bond

A few years ago, I had a job interview to run an elephant sanctuary, and during the interview, they asked why I loved elephants so much. In some ways, it was the toughest question during the interview to answer because the only response I could muster was that there is an inexplicable bond between me and these majestic and gracious creatures. I think most people who have an animal in their life can relate to that response – and there are a lot of us.

According to a 2013 global survey by Live Science magazine, 57% of consumers own pets. In the United States, that number is 68%. The number of pets is staggering:


                          142 million freshwater fish

                             3 million cats

                             8 million dogs

                             16 million birds

                             3 million small animals

                             8 million horses

                             4 million reptiles

                             6 million saltwater fish

These are just the responses from 22 countries, and I can personally attest to the fact that in every one of the 138 countries I have visited, people have and love their pets. And this feeling for animals carries over into all animals and especially those that are endangered around the world – like elephants.

From Lincoln to Roosevelt

Once I was driving with a colleague on a cold and snowy night. Suddenly, without warning, she darted out of the car and began running into the darkness. I didn’t know what was happening.

Then I noticed, faint in the distance, a dog running through the snow near a busy intersection. She must have possessed some magical sixth sense to have noticed the dog, but at risk to her safety, she did what she could to help this defenceless animal.

I have seen this behaviour over and over again. I have seen people stop in the middle of freeways to help a flock of geese cross the road, or risk their lives to help a shark get untangled from a fisherman’s net. I have seen, as probably most of us have, the impact a pet can have on a person.

I have seen the hardest of people break into a smile at the sight of their dog, cat, horse or another companion animal.



Animals in the circus of democracy

This content was published on Animals are almost always popping up in politics. This is because politics is almost always a question of grabbing people’s attention.

Read more: Animals in the circus of democracy

It is well-documented that, during some of the darkest periods in the world’s history, leaders turned to their pets for comfort. Abraham Lincoln had his dog Fido. Winston Churchill had his wartime cat Nelson, and marmalade cat, Jock, and Franklin Roosevelt had his black terrier Fala.

Animals in direct democracy

But in addition to being a comfort, animals have been a political unifier around the world. This is evidenced in the US by the fact that animal welfare issues have won via direct democracy more than any other issue – regardless of whether the voters are in a conservative or progressive area.

It is an issue that unites voters of all political persuasions.

As Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States wrote for the upcoming Initiative and Referendum Almanac:

“[T]he ballot initiative process has been central to the progress of the contemporary animal protection movement, driving reforms concerning the use of animals in agriculture, entertainment, the pet trade, and wildlife management, among other sectors of the economy, and dramatically and favorably reshaping political perceptions of the cause. Between 1990 and 2016, animal protection advocates squared off against factory farmers, trophy hunters, and other animal-use industries in 56 statewide ballot measure campaigns, winning 38 campaigns – a 68% success rate.”

Global issue

I am a believer in direct democracy and its ability to empower the people. I have seen how animal welfare advocates have used direct democracy to unite people at the ballot box.

I am a believer in the protection of animals as well and particularly elephants. I feel strongly that saving this majestic, iconic, keystone species is a testament to our humanity and if we fail, then, in my opinion, we have failed as humans – and I am not alone in those beliefs.

As I have traveled the world, the welfare of elephants seems to be the only true unifying cause that I can find. Billions of dollars are donated by people on every continent every year to help elephants, and these efforts have been met with various levels of success. 

Elephant petition

One of the biggest obstacles has been governments and their unwillingness in many cases to address the issues that are causing the death and inhumane treatment of elephants.

This article is part of #DearDemocracy, the platform for direct democracy of

But there is a way to address this: to use the tool that has empowered the people for generations to bring change when lawmakers have chosen, for whatever reason, to ignore reforms that the people want.

A tool that has a proven track record in helping animals.

We should build on that track record AND the undeniable commitment of people around the world to help elephants. The plan would be to collect signatures on elephant protection petitions and place them on ballots around the world over a specified period.

Our goal would be to make elephant protection a global issue and to become the true elephant in the room – so it can no longer be ignored by governments. What better way to show our universal humanity than by working to protect this amazing animal via the power of direct democracy? 

Unifying purpose

During these challenging times, the world needs a unifying purpose. Though we might think the grand issues — the environment, human rights, universal living wage, military reduction, and government accountability — would be that unifier.

But such issues actually divide us – everyone has their own definition of what the answer is to these challenges. What we are lacking is an idea that unifies us, helps restore our humanity, and brings about tangible reform.

Elephant protection can be that issue. And direct democracy provides the tool to change the geo-politics of the world to save these animals – and ourselves.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of

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