Photo Essay: Life Without Mom

rain

The ancients thought that rain was the tears of the Gods. During my most recent visit to the David Sheldrick Trust orphanage for elephants in Nairobi, the heavens opened up and poured on these babies during their afternoon feeding. But no amount of rain or thunder could keep them from their “bottles” of milk, a formula developed by the Sheldrick Trust over decades or trial and error. millk

This milk and the care of the Keepers at the Trust have given a new lease on life to scores of baby elephants whose mothers were taken by poaching or natural causes.  Without the care of his or her mother, any elephant younger than two will likely not survive.  The wonderful thing about the Sheldrick program that rescuing baby orphans is only the beginning. After a rescued baby is stabilized physically and emotionally, reintegration to the wild becomes the priority.

Later in the trip, we stayed at the Ithumba outpost in Voi, where “juniors” (aged 3 to 6) are reintroduced to the wild. At sunrise, we arrived at the stockades, where the youngest juniors sleep, to observe their morning feeding, followed by the opening of the stockades.

out

Meanwhile, from the surrounding forests, emerge several herds of wild elephants plus the older juniors who sleep outside the stockades.

greeting

By now, there are more than 70 elephants, from the youngest juniors to orphans who are spending half their time with wild herds, to the wild elephants who love the waterhole at the stockades as well as this integrated community of elephants.

drink

As the morning progresses, we need the keepers to tell us which elephants are ex-orphans and which are wild, the interaction is so complete.

reunion

integration

Perhaps the most touching event was seeing several females, one-time orphans who have reintegrated into the wild, and now pregnant. It completes the cycle of recovery, to be integrated back into the wild, and bringing into the world a new life.  We met Wendy (below), who is due to deliver any day now.

wendy

It remains an unknown — will a female elephant, who was not raised in the traditional manner, know how to be a mother?  We know in breeding herds that have lost their matriarch and other experienced females, younger elephants sometimes exhibit dysfunctional behavior.  And, young females from those herds who become pregnant often do not know how to handle a baby. As a tribute to the “mothering” the Trust employs in training orphans for normal, “real” life in the wild, an incredible event recently took place.  In December, another ex-orphan, Emily, who has already given birth to two wild-born calves, returned to one of Sheldrick’s Voi outposts to deliver her third baby – a highly unusual occurrence as most females go into seclusion to deliver their babies. This film shows the amazing event.

Over Thanksgiving holidays, I lost my mother. No matter how old you are, losing your mother is a monumental sadness, leaving a hole in your heart forever. My loss is strangely softened when I consider this summer’s visit with the orphans and appreciate the truly incredible work done by the Sheldrick Trust.  I originally intended to post this story closer to Mother’s Day.  But now, every day for me is a Mother’s Day of sorts as I give thanks for the special mother I was fortunate to have for my 63  years.

Please consider fostering a baby elephant as a tribute to your mother and all the mothers in the world who make each of our lives possible.  Click here for more information on the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.  And, for a complete history of the Trust, do read Dame Daphne Sheldrick’s wonderful book, Love, Life and Elephants: An African Love Story.” 

Life Insurance

_I1A8523 copy

The African elephant’s natural life span in the wild is up to 70 years.  The median age is 56, meaning that half die before 56 and half live to be older than 56.  These statistics, however, assume no human intervention.  The poaching crisis has altered the metrics of wild elephants in many ways, none of them good.  Studies of female elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli Park between 1960 and 2005 estimate their median age to be 36, a good 20 years shy of the natural median age.  While Amboseli suffered a devastating drought in the late “aughts,” poaching has been virulent for the life of the study and is largely responsible for the shortened life span of these elephants.

Worse yet, the impact on longevity goes far beyond the body count from poaching.  The elephants with the longest tusks are the oldest, most experienced and most blessed genetically.  Poaching has robbed Africa of most of its big tuskers, and with them, their contribution to the gene pool and knowledge banks of the herds, particularly in the case of the matriarchs who lead the breeding herds.  This raises the risk for those who survive and the yet-to-be-conceived.  Much like a dysfunctional human family, a herd without the wisdom and leadership of the older females will not learn behaviors they need to survive and contribute positively to their pachyderm community.  For example, young female elephants learn nurturing skills from their mothers and aunties.  Should they give birth absent their 20 years of motherhood apprenticeship, they will not know how to react to their newborn or give it the intensive care the baby requires.  And, any baby elephant younger than two cannot survive without its mother.  Without the elders’ memory, herds will not know where to migrate to during droughts.  The stress level of elephants in groups lacking good leadership is much greater; behavior is erratic and sometimes belligerent.  The dysfunction of elephant groups that have lost their elders could accelerate the  decline of elephant populations just as surely as the poachers bullet has been doing.

The young elephant in the photo above is a lucky guy, with a doting mother, lots of aunts and cousins.  Without poaching, he has a good chance of living well beyond 56.  But how can we help insure he has this opportunity?

The best life insurance policy for all elephants would be to eliminate the demand for ivory.  Much attention is deservedly paid to the role of the Chinese is driving demand.  Yet, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the US is the #2 market for ivory.  President Obama announced plans for upping US involvement in fighting poaching and reducing demand, including a ban on most commercial sales of ivory in the United States (USFWS fact sheet on the ivory ban).

Like much of the federal budget, the appropriations to implement these actions are being held hostage to special interests and congressional dysfunction.  If you are inclined to get involved politically, here is an excerpt from a Wildlife Conservation Society mailing I received that may help you compose a communication to your elected representatives:

I’m writing to you as a constituent and supporter of the Wildlife Conservation Society to ask you to help save elephants from extinction. Please oppose any appropriations riders that would interfere with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) efforts to strengthen controls on the commercial trade in elephant ivory. Riders, like Section 115 of H.R. 5171, would prematurely stop a regulatory process that will consider public comments prior to finalizing any rule changes. It would also result in a return to prior regulations that were fraught with uncertainty for buyers, sellers, and enforcement agents.

An estimated 35,000 African elephants are killed by poachers each year for their ivory. At this rate, African elephants will be wiped out across large areas of their range within our lifetime. Individual elephant tusks can sell for tens of thousands of dollars, and reports indicate that the substantial portions of these illegal profits are ending up in the hands of transnational organized crime syndicates that also conduct trafficking of humans, drugs and weapons and extremist groups like Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and al Shabaab that use the proceeds to finance human rights abuses and terrorist activities.

And attach the short video from the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, WILD: Saving Africa’s Elephants.  This says it all. Let’s do everything we can to help elephant communities not only survive, but also thrive.

 

Eye on Elephants

_C1A4693eleye

Did you know?  Elephants have relatively small eyes for an animal of their size. Their eyes’ position on the sides of their massive heads produces better peripheral than binocular vision.  Elephants rely much more on their senses of smell and hearing than on their eyesight.  In fact, there have been reports of blind matriarchs leading their herds just fine.

You may think I have taken my eye off elephants since my last blog post was in June.  Between a gloriously long trip to Kenya this summer, followed promptly by a move from CT to AZ and all that entails, I have been negligent in posting.  The good news is that many others have kept their eye on the elephants, creating more awareness of their plight than ever before.

A landmark study, published in the August 19 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, led by George Wittemyer of Colorado State University,  concluded that three-quarters of local, African elephant populations are declining. The bottom line: in the past three years, at least 100,000 elephants have been killed by poachers. Combined with death due to natural causes, more elephants are dying than being born.  While the killing rate had been estimated by various NGOs, this is the first, scientifically-based study that quantifies births and deaths on a continent-wide basis.  For policymakers who had any doubts about the conservation community’s calls for action, this documentation should put those doubts to rest.

At the same time, several major, awareness-raising campaigns have been launched or are in the works.

WildAid has been particularly busy.  Working with Yao Ming, the legendary NBA Chinese national, WildAid has funded a documentary, “The End of the Wild,”  which chronicles Yao Ming’s 2012 trip to Kenya and South Africa.  A related PSA, “Say No to Ivory,” launched in 2013, while the documentary premiered this past August.  Both are carried by CCTV, China’s primary state-owned network.  A companion book, “A Journey in Africa,” is also being published in China. In March 2014, Yao delivered a petition during the opening session of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) asking China’s government to ban sales of ivory.

Yao has serious credentials as a conservationist; previously, he was the primary spokesperson for WildAid’s campaign against the killing of sharks for sharks’ fin soup.  A 2013 survey of major Chinese cities revealed an 85% drop in demand for shark soup; of those who quit ordering the delicacy, 65% cited public information campaigns as the reason.

Here in the US, which remains the second largest market for ivory (behind China), Academy award-winning producer, Kathleen Bigelow, premiered “Last Days” at this year’s New York Film Festival.  This three-minute PSA, also developed in conjunction with WildAid, delivers a message that carries the same impact as her films “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Hurt Locker” : When a person buys an item made of ivory in a market in China, it is quite possible that they are actually funding the next major terrorist attack somewhere in the world; based on strong evidence linking the illegal ivory trade to some of the most notorious terrorist groups in Africa. And it is certain that they are complicit in the illegal slaughter of elephants– which face imminent extinction in the wild if the demand for ivory in China and elsewhere is not curbed.

If that isn’t enough star power, Angelina Jolie recently signed on to direct “Africa,” a drama based on Richard Leakey’s fight against ivory poachers in Kenya. Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) wrote the script.  David Ellison’s Skydance Productions, known for blockbusters such as the “Mission: Impossible” series and the upcoming “Terminator: Genisys” trilogy, is behind the picture.  Meanwhile, back in Africa, Richard Leakey is still waging his war against poaching.  This has block-buster potential!

These efforts have the most potential to stop poaching — by killing demand, rather than elephants.  Keep your eye on the elephants and stayed tuned!

Mourning in Kenya

eulogy copy

I am packing for my annual visitation to elephant country.  Thirty years have passed since my first visit to Africa. . .to Kenya, a place so filled with wildlife and beauty that I immediately was infected with safari fever, a terminal condition from which I never want to recover.  But the sweet sensations of anticipation are somewhat muted this time.  Media sources have just confirmed that the two elephants with the largest tusks in Kenya have been savagely poisoned and mutilated this past month.

Satao lived in Tsavo in eastern Kenya and carried the unique gene that produces exceptionally large tusks.  His (pictured above on the left) were 6.5 feet long. Dr. Paula Kahumba, Executive Director of WildlifeDirect and the Kenya Land Conservation Trust, wrote a moving tribute to Satao, describing how he lived recently, aware that poachers were after him for his ivory.  In the area surrounding Mt. Kenya, another large bull with enormous tusks, Mountain Bull, was killed in the same manner, by poisonous arrows.   Mountain Bull, who I wrote about in “The Tale of Two Tusks,” was famous for alluding poachers, seemingly having nine lives.  Wildlife officials chose to saw off part of his tusks (in photo above right) to make him less appealing to poachers.  Both Satao and Mountain Bull were regarded as national treasures and were closely monitored by wildlife professionals.  Mountain Bull even wore a radio collar.

The stories of their demise are heartbreaking, not just because of their celebrity but because even the two most guarded elephants in Kenya fell victim to poaching.  In their honor, and to bear witness to how difficult it is to “protect” wild animals, I am quoting the full release from The Tsavo Trust, which provides amazing detail on how closely the Trust and Kenya Wildlife Service personnel followed Satao’s movements.

KWAHERI SATAO – SAYING GOODBYE TO A TSAVO ICON

With great sadness, we report the death of Satao, one of Tsavo’s most iconic and well-loved tuskers. This magnificent elephant was widely known in Tsavo East National Park, where he was observed with awe by many thousands of Tsavo’s visitors over the years. No longer will Tsavo and Kenya benefit from his mighty presence. Satao was shot dead by poisoned arrow on 30th May 2014. The arrow had entered his left flank and he stood no chance of survival. We spotted his carcass on 2nd June but to avoid any potential false alarms, we first took pains to verify the carcass really was his. Today it is with enormous regret that we confirm there is no doubt that Satao is dead, killed by an ivory poacher’s poisoned arrow to feed the seemingly insatiable demand for ivory in far off countries. A great life lost so that someone far away can have a trinket on their mantelpiece.

INCIDENT REPORT

For the last 18 months, KWS and TSAVO TRUST jointly monitored Satao’s movements using aerial reconnaissance, and KWS deployed ground personnel in his known home range. But with today’s mounting poaching pressures and anti-poaching resources stretched to the limit, it proved impossible to prevent the poachers getting through the net.

Immediately reports of a fresh carcass in this area of Tsavo were received by KWS, a TSAVO TRUST reconnaissance flight took off with a KWS officer on board. It did not take long to locate the carcass near the boundary of the National Park. A joint KWS / TSAVO TRUST ground team followed up immediately. Despite the mutilated head, they deduced that the carcass was most probably that of Satao for the following reasons:

• Satao was well known by the KWS / TSAVO TRUST units operating continuously in this area. When he was alive, his enormous tusks were easily identifiable, even from the air. Although the poachers had hacked off his face and taken his ivory, there were other physical attributes and circumstantial evidence that pointed to this carcass being that of Satao.

• Satao was very much a creature of habit. He roamed a very specific area, known to KWS and TSAVO TRUST, most often in the company of small groups of bull elephant.

• With the recent rain, over 1,000 elephants have moved into the area to take advantage of the green and plentiful vegetation. Satao had not moved from this area for the last two months.

• Satao was last seen alive by TSAVO TRUST on 19th May 2014, just 300 meters from where his carcass now lies. He was with four other bulls that he was frequently seen with. During May 2014, TSAVO TRUST had observed him no fewer than 9 times from the air and several times from the ground. Protection efforts were stepped up when he ventured right up to the boundary of the Park (an area that is a historical and present poaching hotspot, especially for poachers using poisoned arrows).

• Satao had “clean ears” – there were no cuts, tears or obvious scars, making him easily identifiable when he was alive and now that he is dead.

• The mud caked on his mutilated forehead and back was similar to that seen on him when he was alive.

• Since locating the carcass, several joint KWS / TSAVO TRUST reconnaissance flights have tried and failed to locate Satao in his known home range.

The facts all point to the same appalling conclusion and we are left with no choice but to acknowledge that the great Satao is no more.

THE ENORMITY OF THE TASK AT HAND

The area Satao frequented is a massive and hostile expanse for any single anti-poaching unit to cover, at least one thousand square kilometers in size. Roads and tracks are few and far between and in parts the vegetation is very thick, making access difficult. Elephants concentrate here in large numbers after the rains which come in from the coast. The communities living just beyond the National Park boundary persistently carry out illegal activities inside the Park in this area. Understaffed and with inadequate resources given the scale of the challenge, KWS ground units have a massive uphill struggle to protect wildlife in this area. There is a tremendous will amongst the KWS field units and the TSAVO TRUST personnel working alongside them to protect Tsavo’s elephant herds but more help is needed.

COOPERATION IN THE FACE OF ADVERSITY

At times like this, it is hard to see any positive side to the situation. But let’s not forget that Satao’s genes survive out there, somewhere in the Tsavo elephant population and they too need protecting. Satao would have been at least 45 years old. During his lifetime he would have weathered many droughts and seen many other poached elephants, and he would have sired offspring that, given a safe environment to grow up in, may become tomorrow’s generation of great Tsavo tuskers.

We also wish to emphasize the level of cooperation and coordination between KWS and TSAVO TRUST that this incident proved. Without the regular joint KWS / TSAVO TRUST aerial reconnaissance of this section of the Park, Satao’s carcass may not have been found, and as a result KWS’s swift and successful follow-up may not have ensued. Following TSAVO TRUST’s report from the air, KWS ground units were immediately deployed. The KWS reaction was rapid and decisive, and is still ongoing. Due to the sensitivities of such operations and the risk of compromise, we cannot comment further on the progress being made. We hope to relay additional updates in due course.

Meanwhile, we applaud KWS’s success in arresting the main poison dealer and supplier in Kilifi, whose deadly product has been the cause of many painful and wasteful elephant deaths in Tsavo.

Working together – and often against the odds – we can continue to make a positive difference to Tsavo and to Tsavo’s elephants.

Tsavo is our home, our passion and our life’s work but, as the untimely death of Satao so tragically proves, we cannot win every time. Rest in peace, Old Friend, you will be missed. Rest assured the fight to protect Tsavo’s elephants goes on.

 

Ivory’s Curse

targetele

An abundant endowment of high-value wildlife can be a resource curse that ultimately leaves human societies worse off. The damage being done to African elephants from poaching is very real, but so is the damage being done to African societies.”

So begins a new report entitled  “Ivory’s Curse:  The Militarization and Professionalization of Poaching in Africa” prepared by C4ADS, a not-for-profit firm that evaluates global conflict and security issues and sponsored by Born Free USA.  Chronicling the poaching dynamic in eight African countries, the report demonstrates:

• In Sudan, government-allied militias complicit in the Darfur genocide fund their operations by poaching elephants hundreds of miles outside North Sudan’s borders.

• In the Democratic Republic of Congo, state security forces patronize the very rebels they are supposed to fight, providing weapons and support in exchange for ivory.

Zimbabwean political elites, including those under international sanction, are seizing wildlife spaces that either are, or likely will soon be, used as covers for poaching operations.

• In East Africa, al-Shabaab and Somali criminal networks are profiting off Kenyan elephants killed by poachers using weapons leaked from local security forces.

Mozambican organized crime has militarized and consolidated to the extent it is willing to battle the South African army and well-trained ranger forces for rhino horn.

• In Gabon and the Republic of Congo, ill-regulated forest exploitation is bringing East Asian migrant laborers, and East Asian organized crime, into contact with Central Africa’s last elephants.

• In Tanzania, political elites have aided the industrial-scale depletion of East Africa’s largest elephant population.

In its concluding section, the report states:  “Targeting trafficking profits and intercepting containers to disrupt criminal demand and drive up organized crime costs is a necessary stopgap until end-user demand for ivory can be reduced.” Yes, this should be done but it will take time, unprecedented international cooperation and financing.  The fact remains as long as there is a market for ivory, there will be poaching.  And as long as that is the case, the fabric of many African societies and the well-being of many Africans will be jeopardized. The elephant has long been an unofficial logo of Africa.  One may argue that as goes the fate of the elephant, so goes the fate of Africa.

Never has it been so important to use every communication and legal tactic to convince people not to buy ivory.  Please increase your outreach efforts.  World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) both have advocacy programs underway; click on their red initials and join their efforts now.  Do it for the elephants; do it for the millions of Africans who are suffering or will suffer from the violence and economic disruption this crisis presents.

Join the Elephant Lobby

elephant lobby

On February 11, 2014, President Obama announced he would take administrative action to ban the commercial trade of elephant ivory in the United States.  In addition, he outlined a national strategy to more effectively combat overall wildlife trafficking. (For complete details, click here.)

Now for the difficult part — making it happen.  Why is it difficult if the President has the authority to accomplish this through the power he already possesses?  Because in our democracy everyone has a right to participate in how such action is actually implemented.  As they say, the devil is in the details.  Since his announcement, a number of special interests have descended upon Washington with all sorts of reasons why banning trade in elephant ivory is bad for America.

One of the loudest protests has come from the Safari Club International (SCI), an organization representing the interests of trophy hunters.  Sport hunting of elephant is allowed in Zimbabwe and Tanzania.  Recognizing the importance of revenue generated from hunting in those countries, the Administration proposes to “limit the number of African elephant sport-hunted trophies that an individual can import to two per hunter per year.”  However, in a press release, the SCI states:  “It is unknown precisely when the decision by the U.S. FWS will occur, but SCI will do everything in its power to fight this reckless decision that has no basis in law, science, or conservation policy.”

Over the years, the SCI and its members have contributed significantly to conservation causes, but this stance is selfish and short-sighted.

Along with the NRA (another opponent to the President’s proposal), the SCI has some powerful resources at its disposal.  The elephants need us to rise to the occasion and let the administration know that the majority of us think the proposed ban is a good idea.

Here is what you can do.  Beginning tomorrow, a new website, www.elephantsusa.org/, goes live. Created by a group of concerned citizens, Sign for Elephants, the purpose is to collect 100,000 signatures on an online petition to ban the commercial trade in ivory in the US.  Based on the First Amendment of our Constitution, our government is required to respond to any petition having a minimum of 100,000 signatures. Using the White House sponsored website, “We the People,” you can register and sign any petition that has been posted on this site.  On May 1, Sign for Elephants will be available for signing.

Click here to begin the process to sign the petition and join the Elephant Lobby.

Remover of Obstacles

ganesh

I have just returned from three weeks in India, exploring and photographing the country’s two holiest cities — Varanasi and Vrindavan. While shrines to the pantheon of Hindu deities are abundant throughout the subcontinent, they are seemingly attached to every building in these two cities.  None is more evident than the elephant god, Ganesha.  Equipped with the head of an elephant and body of a pot-bellied, older man, Ganesha is the Lord of success and destroyer of evils and obstacles. He is also worshipped as the god of education, knowledge, wisdom and wealth. With such an arsenal of favors to bestow, Ganesha is perhaps the most popular of the Indian gods.  He is invoked at the beginning and end of most celebrations and called upon throughout the day to help his believers realize success and help good triumph over evil.

The stories of how Ganesha came to have the head of an elephant vary, as is to be expected with anything in India and the fact that he has been around for at least 7,000 years.  The most common explanation is as follows.   Ganesha is the first born child of Shiva and Parvati (Shiva being one of the top three India deities). While Lord Shiva is away from home, Parvati asks little Ganesha to protect her by denying anyone entrance to her bath or bedroom.  Shiva comes home unexpectedly, entering either the bath or bedroom.  When Ganesha tries to prohibit him from entering, Shiva in a rage cuts off his head, not recognizing Ganesha as his son. Parvati is devastated. Shiva sends his people out with instructions to bring back the head of the first sleeping being they come upon.  That being is a young elephant. Ganesha is thus given the head and his father decrees that henceforth people will worship Ganesha and invoke his name before undertaking any venture.

This story may seem Disneyesque to Westerners, but it is very real to the hundreds of millions of Hindus who adorn their front doors with paintings or sculptures of Ganesha.  I keep several Ganeshas around my home — just in case.  Having been immersed in Hindu celebrations and wisdom this past month, it seemed reasonable therefore to make several offerings of my own to Ganesha on behalf of all elephants. The obstacles to eliminating trade in illegal ivory and poaching are staggering. The resolve shown recently is encouraging (visit In the News for highlights); however, the road ahead is littered with obstructions, including organized crime, corruption, lack of education, poverty, limited resources and human-wildlife conflict.

That is why attacking the matter of demand remains so critical. Yet, even bold moves to do so encounter obstacles. For example, recently announced regulations to be issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ban Americans from importing and  exporting (almost) any item that contains even an iota of ivory. The rules do not ban private ownership, but outlaw interstate sales of most ivory items. Yet, this week’s New York Times carries an article, “Limits on Ivory Sales, Meant to Protect Elephants, Set Off Wide Concerns.”  It seems that snuff bottles, violins and chess sets with ivory may lose their value without an open interstate or international market. So on one hand you have The Duke of Cambridge (Prince William) calling for the destruction or removal of all ivory in the royal collection at Buckingham Palace to raise awareness. . .and on the other, collectors of ivory, musicians, museums and the National Rifle Association crying foul — don’t mess with my ivory.  (Why the NRA you may ask?  Many old guns have decorative, inlaid ivory on the stock.)

Obstacles everywhere. I feel a need to commune with Ganesha over this (again).  He seems so appropriate a god for endangered elephants.

Olympians

march of the olympians

If elephants had their own Olympic games, I imagine them being staged in Amboseli (Kenya) under their Mt. Olympus, Kilimanjaro.

I had the privilege of attending the first week of the 2014 (human) Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and was struck by the similarity between media coverage of the Olympics and that of the elephant.  On one hand, the themes of corruption, terrorism, environmental impact and international tension dominated media coverage, particularly leading up to the opening ceremony.  Once the games began, however, the stories of courage, strength, commitment and resolve took center stage as these amazing athletes competed in the rinks and on the slopes. Heroes and heroines all, the athletes inspire people around the world to strive to reach their personal best. As incredible as the talent these people possess is, their stories impress me even more.

Meanwhile, on a different international stage, calls for a UN Special Representative dedicated stopping wildlife crime and a proposal to ban the trade in elephant ivory within the United States showcased heroic efforts of a different kind.

The London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade (February 12-13) committed to taking “decisive and urgent action” to stop the illegal trade of all wildlife. Heather Sohl, Chief Species Advisor at WWF-UK, said:

“Governments signing the London Declaration today sent a strong message: Wildlife crime is a serious crime and it must be stopped. This trafficking devastates species populations, but also takes the lives of rangers, impedes countries’ economic development and destabilises society by driving corruption. This is a crisis, not just at a national or regional scale, but one that demands urgent global attention, and so warrants high-level political support through the appointment of a dedicated United Nations Special Representative. It is down to governments to stand by their commitments now and put in place procedures and resources to tackle the crime back in their homelands.”

At the same time, following President Obama’s proposed National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking, the U.S. Department of Interior announced a ban on commercial trade of ivory.  The details of this (near complete) ban on ivory trade include:

  • Prohibit Commercial Import of African Elephant Ivory: All commercial imports of African elephant ivory, including antiques, will be prohibited.
  • Prohibit Commercial Export of Elephant Ivory: All commercial exports will be prohibited, except for bona fide antiques, certain noncommercial items, and in exceptional circumstances permitted under the Endangered Species Act.
  • Significantly Restrict Domestic Resale of Elephant Ivory: We will finalize a proposed rule that will reaffirm and clarify that sales across state lines are prohibited, except for bona fide antiques, and will prohibit sales within a state unless the seller can demonstrate an item was lawfully imported prior to 1990 for African elephants and 1975 for Asian elephants, or under an exemption document.
  • Clarify the Definition of “Antique”: To qualify as an antique, an item must be more than 100 years old and meet other requirements under the Endangered Species Act. The onus will now fall on the importer, exporter, or seller to demonstrate that an item meets these criteria.
  • Restore Endangered Species Act Protection for African Elephants: We will revoke a previous Fish and Wildlife Service special rule that had relaxed Endangered Species Act restrictions on African elephant ivory trade.
  • Support Limited Sport-hunting of African Elephants: We will limit the number of African elephant sport-hunted trophies that an individual can import to two per hunter per year.

    Together, these efforts are Olympic-sized in their ambition and international scope. Right now, we have more words than demonstrated action. The difficult part remains ahead of us. Nevertheless, this is more than we had before the Olympic Games began just two weeks ago. One thing we can all do immediately is urge everyone we know not to buy ivory — and to spread the word.  As one organizer of the London Conference concluded:  “Key to supporting those efforts are the agreed actions targeting the consumer end of the supply chain, where reducing the demand for wildlife products is an essential part of the process,”

The Fate of the Forest Elephant

1Y7C7279 copy

I wrote about the forest elephant in September upon my return from the Republic of Congo. The thrill of seeing these secretive creatures notwithstanding, our visit was overshadowed in spirit by descriptions of twin evils plaguing the elephant populations:  commerce and war.

Odzala-Kokoua National Park is as remote as a national park can be.  The primary and sole “highway” in the region is a pitted, dirt (or mud, depending upon the season), single lane road that connects Congo to neighboring Gabon. Most of the park is accessible only by foot, and even that is near impossible in many areas.  Impenetrable and remote — this should be fairly secure habitat for all creatures.  But commerce is intruding, and the Chinese are the primary drivers.  As they are doing in many African countries, the Chinese offer to build roads as a goodwill gesture if they are permitted to harvest minerals and in this case timber. The “highway” is being paved by Chinese workers. The lumber is being harvested by Chinese workers. While improved roads are generally a “good thing,” increased accessibility to isolated elephants helps poachers as well.  The lumber operations will also reduce habitat.

The impact is already being felt. A recent CNN Report reveals how Chinese construction camps are proving to be conduits to the ivory trade.  Chinese workers are suspected of poaching elephants and using the cover of their legitimate lumbering operations to transport the ivory out.  The meager law enforcement establishment is no match for the size and scope of the Chinese presence.  Tourism to the region is in its infancy; the poor and sparse local population has yet to appreciate what economic benefits their wildlife resources may produce as new safari camps are opened. Neighboring Gabon has lost 80% of its elephant population; Congo beckons to the poachers.

Just north of Republic of Congo is the war-torn, impoverished Central African Republic.  CAR is home to Dzanga Bai, the most famous and prolific Bai in the Congo Basin.  A large open, wetland, as in the photo above, the Bai is the social center for an abundance of wildlife.  This is where the most important research on the forest elephant is taking place. Andrea Turkalo, a scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, has been studying elephants at Dzanga for two decades and is widely regarded as the world’s leading expert in their behavior. In a recent interview, she described how the war in CAR forced her to leave her research post last spring. The insurgents have used poaching to fund their weapons.  While private interests have stepped in to guard Dzanga Bai, the rest of the area is completely unprotected.  It is not yet safe for her to return.

The Congo Basin region hosts all remaining forest elephants, perhaps 70,000.  It is a complicated part of the world and unlikely to become any less complicated in our lifetime.  The only hope for the forest elephant is a collapse of the market for ivory.

 

Elemental Ivory

this tusk is mine copyIt is elemental that ivory belongs on elephants, not our shelves.

The real world of course always makes things more complicated.  Recent, high profile destruction of ivory stockpiles (China, U.S. Philippines) have prompted pledges of more public acts of ivory demolition (France, Hong Kong, U.K.). Some of the ivory is burnt in ceremonial bonfires; some is crushed and will be turned into monuments that protest poaching.  If the majority of consumers do not realize that elephants must die in order for an ivory trinket to be produced, then dramatic media events such as these should help educate the consuming public. In a global media environment filled with the extreme of just about everything, issuing a press release can’t compete with media-genic sacrifices. We need an abundance of dynamic, high profile, attention-grabbing efforts to convince people not to buy ivory.

Having said that, as I watch the various parties schedule their ivory stockpile destruction events, I wonder about the lasting efficacy of this destruction.  The first thing that bothers me is the authenticity of the actions. You can still buy ivory legally in all these countries.  Most stockpiles are comprised of illegal ivory that has been confiscated.  Destroying it is an easier decision than reconciling what to do with a product you cannot monetize because ivory harvested after 1989 is illegal, even though it really isn’t possible to verify all ivory legally sold in your market was obtained pre-1989.  No one can figure that one out so the decision is made to destroy it and get some good press but put off dealing with the more difficult issue of should ivory be legal at all.

If you look at the ivory economy, there are three general categories of ivory in trade: government stockpiles, privately owned/held ivory objects, and ivory “in play,” or somewhere in the supply chain between being harvested and being sold to the end consumer.  I’ve expressed my thoughts about government stockpiles. I do not worry about ivory owned by individuals and collections.  It’s the ivory in the pipeline, or still “for sale,” that is unresolved.  If all poaching ceased today, how should we deal with the ivory in the pipeline?  Should it all be confiscated and destroyed?  Or is there some greater good that it can achieve?  The European Union is calling upon its member states to pass moriatoria on ivory sales until elephant poaching is no longer a problem.  If all European countries adopt such a law, what then should they do with the illegal ivory they will confiscate? In the long term, is there a viable, legal market for ivory objects that can fund conservation programs?

The idealist in me would love to see all confiscated ivory go to a secure global ivory bank, where it is kept as a silent monument to all the dead elephants.  People could donate ivory objects it to the bank, receiving an audited tax credit as a charitable donation. Limited sales of items to national museums only from the bank could fund a global communications program to convince consumers not to buy any more ivory.  Then, when the killing stops and the crime rings have moved onto another marketplace, perhaps we can find a “greater good use” of all that ivory.  But those are the ruminations of my idealistic side.

In the real world, I think we should keep educating consumers that ivory is for elephants — people don’t have a clue how to handle it responsibly.