She's fighting to save elephants

The elephant's head had been hacked into with machetes so poachers could prise out its tusks to sell as ivory.

"Most people don't know that the elephant always has to die for the ivory tusks to be removed," said former MTV Asia host Nadya Hutagalung, who is in her late 30s.

Ms Hutagalung, who has acted, modelled, hosted and judged Asia's Next Top Model, met The Straits Times last month to discuss her latest passion - saving wild elephants.

She has helped film a documentary about the gentle giants' slaughter and the ivory trade with Australian conservationist and author Tammie Matson.

The half-hour film premiered on National Geographic channels across Asia last month.

A public screening was held here at the Australian High Commission about two weeks ago.

The two women had travelled for a month last year in Kenya, Africa, with a skeleton crew of just two other people to capture the elephants' plight.

They observed elephant herds across the plains of Kenya's Chyulu Hills and spoke to experts such as the Amboseli Trust for Elephants' Dr Cynthia Moss.

They also went to Thailand to film the open - and legal - sale of ivory in Bangkok's Chatuchak markets.

Ms Hutagalung has been an ambassador for the Earth Hour conservation campaign for seven years. Dr Matson, who is married to Earth Hour founder Andy Ridley, opened her eyes to the elephants' plight and invited her to Africa to learn about them.

What she learnt on the trip - and from Dr Matson and other experts - charged her with the urgency to help save the animals.

"I thought the crisis was over because I remember reading about the outrage over the poaching in the 1980s and the legislation that followed to limit it," she said.

"But actually the elephant poaching and illegal ivory trade has been booming," she added.

Last year's illicit ivory trade may be the highest in at least 18 years, according to figures of seized ivory compiled by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), which limits trade in vulnerable animals.

Dr Matson, who has written three books on African wildlife, said there are only about 500,000 African elephants left, and about 30,000 are killed each year.

"If you do the calculations, that means the elephants will most likely be extinct within my lifetime," she said.

"Think about it - no more of them in the wild."

The documentary was a start, but it is only part of the two women's Let Elephants Be Elephants education campaign.

They will tour Asia - including Thailand, China, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Vietnam - giving talks and arranging screenings of the documentary to boost awareness of the trade and slaughter.

Their goals include collecting at least 100,000 pledges of people saying no to ivory, and to use that to ask governments to clamp down on the illegal ivory trade.

Ms Hutagalung said they also want governments to incinerate ivory stockpiles if they have them, as a symbolic gesture.

The Philippines destroyed five tonnes in June last year. China crushed about six tonnes in January to discourage the illegal trade. Singapore has seized millions of dollars worth of illegal ivory over the years.

The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) said the seizures are handled in line with Cites recommendations.

These include returning them to the origin country for investigations, donating them to scientific institutions and keeping them with AVA for reference and the training of enforcement officers.

The agency added there is now about one tonne of seized ivory and ivory products in Singapore.

Ms Hutagalung said people should be more concerned about the illegal trade as its impact may be felt beyond the environment - for example, if the ill-gotten gains are used to fund terrorists.

She said Singapore's and Indonesia's reception to the campaign has been positive, with many asking for the documentary's screenings and talks.

The two women believe enough pressure can be brought to bear on Asian countries - where the bulk of ivory demand is thought to be now - to spur greater action to protect the elephants and reduce ivory trade.

The outrage over poaching had spurred action and turned people off ivory in Western countries in the 1980s.

"I'm sure we can do it again in Asia," said Ms Hutagalung.

To add to the pledges and learn more about the campaign, go to

This article was published on May 12 in The Straits Times.

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