Each year, tens of thousands of African elephants are killed for their ivory. The death count is so troublingly high that in the first reliable continent-wide survey published in 2014, researchers estimated that on average one elephant falls victim to illegal ivory poachers every 15 to 16 minutes. These gentle giants face a critical situation, and to bring that point home, for World Elephant Day on Saturday, a roughly 18,000-pound ice sculpture of an African elephant was carved in the heart of New York City and then left to evaporate in the summer heat.
It took renowned ice sculptor Shintaro Okamoto and his team roughly eight hours to complete the massive carving, which they began working on using chainsaws and chisels at midnight on Friday. By sunrise, the roughly 10-foot sculpture, made up of 85 blocks of ice, had begun to melt, and it continued doing so throughout the day until all that was left by late afternoon was a few squares of ice in Manhattan’s Union Square.
WildlifeDIRECT, a Nairobi, Kenya-based non-profit, was behind the event.
“Every year the African elephant population decreases by 8 percent,” CEO Paula Kahumbu, an expert on elephants in Kenya, who holds a PhD from Princeton University in Ecology, tells Smithsonian.com. “At that rate, they’ll be gone in our lifetimes.”
Currently, the organization reports, there are only about 400,000 African elephants left in the wild.
The melting mammal was part of the “Don’t Let Them Disappear” campaign, a global effort in partnership between WildlifeDIRECT and Amarula, a South Africa-based cream liqueur company, which has committed to donating $1 for every bottle sold through the end of the year to support anti-poaching efforts.
“We’re working together as Africans to raise attention at a more global level,” Kahumba says.
Other “elevents” around the country organized for World Elephant Day included behind-the-scenes barn tours at the Los Angeles Zoo, an elephant water salute at the Zoo Miami and a 70th birthday party at the Smithsonian National Zoo for Ambika, one of the oldest Asian elephants in the United States.