On Elephants, the Illegal Ivory Trade, and Fiction

Image © Shutterstock

Editor's Note:

A world-renowned expert on elephants, Caitlin O’Connell holds a Ph.D. in ecology and is a faculty member at the Stanford University School of Medicine as well as director of life sciences for HNu Photonics. She is the author six nonfiction books about elephants and the Catherine Sohon Elephant Mystery Series. Here, she discusses her experience with elephants and the illegal ivory trade, and how they played in to her fiction writing.

My path to becoming a fiction writer was certainly not a direct one. Writing nonfiction narratives about my research as an elephant scientist came first. My intention was to reach out to a broad audience and to stir the imagination about the natural world, especially about elephants and the threat to their survival. Expanding into fiction didn’t seem like a fundamental change in direction but rather an attempt to reach an even broader audience—readers whose appreciation of elephants as sentient, complex social beings might well be triggered by an entertaining yarn. Hence the Catherine Sohon Elephant Mystery Series was born. Fictionalizing real events and characters was the next challenge.

The first installment, Ivory Ghosts, grew out of my experiences working for the Namibian government as a scientist studying elephant behavior and conservation, as well as being tasked with finding means to mitigate conflict between elephants and farmers. During the time I was deeply impressed by the courage of my boss and his ranger staff and their determination to stop elephant poaching, even if it meant facing down poachers wielding automatic weapons. I wanted to tell a story about their bravery and about the complexities of the ivory trade and local socio-economic pressures, as well as to provide an alternate perspective of elephants as crop pests. The resulting novel, set in the unique Zambezi region of Namibia, is a fictionalized version of characters, places and events reflecting a genuine and urgent reality. Before the book came out, I wondered if the story seemed too dark, but unfortunately, the reality is that the truth is often a much darker tale even twenty years later, as elephant poaching has escalated across the African continent since the time I was living there.

The second installment of the Catherine Sohon Elephant Mystery Series, White Gold, was inspired by the work I did for TRAFFIC International on the ivory trade in China. In this story, I wanted to depict the horrors of the illegal wildlife trade industry in general, with the underlying story being about the global illegal ivory trade.  As with Ivory Ghosts, it was the dedication of conservationists on the ground that inspired me to write about their challenges and the risks they faced in their heroic efforts to shut down the illegal trafficking rings. In working to craft a relevant amalgam of characters and situations, I found myself creating a secret underground society that ends up saving the day.

Mark Twain said in Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to the possibilities; truth isn’t.” Having faced the challenge of crafting fiction out of the truth, I couldn’t agree more. And yet it seemed that the only possible way to serve these stories while protecting the heroes on the front line was through fiction. I hope I did the cause a service in bringing a new audience to focus on an issue of great urgency. The full measure of the truth warrants an international response well beyond the scope of fiction.