Remover of Obstacles

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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

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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

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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.

Elephant Numerology

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On New Year’s Eve, in his address to the nation, President Kikwete of Tanzania  renewed his pledge to fight poaching, citing shocking new survey numbers:  the elephant population in the huge Selous Game Reserve fell to 13,084 in 2013 from 109,419 in 1976. And Tanzania is hardly alone.  Since 2002, the pan-African elephant population has declined by 76%.  According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, the killing continues at a rate of nearly 100 elephants a day . The “supply side” is dangerously dwindling.

There are no numbers to suggest demand is abating. The Elephant Tracking Information System (managed by TRAFFIC) reports: “illicit trade in ivory rose in 2011 to the highest levels in at least 16 years and persisted at unacceptably elevated levels through 2012. Preliminary indicators suggest that even higher levels of illicit trade may have been reached in 2013. Although incomplete, the raw data for large-scale ivory seizures in 2013 (involving at least 500 kg of ivory in a single transaction) already represent the greatest quantity of ivory confiscated over the last 25 years for this type of seizure.”

China accounts for 70% of the world’s ivory market.  On January 6, China made global news by crushing six tons of confiscated ivory — good news, but that represents only 13% of its total stockpile.  The U.S., the next largest market for ivory, crushed its entire stockpile this past November.  Yet it is still legal to sell ivory (“old ivory”) in both countries.

By any measure, these numbers tell a tale of destruction and duplicity — elephants are killed; their ivory is smuggled, enriching criminals; keystone countries express horror and outrage, and destroy the ivory for show while still permitting legal sale of the substance.  It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss the possibility of change in China and the fact that momentum for outlawing the sale of ivory is growing.  For example, an article in China’s Southern Weekly publication about elephant poaching went viral, reaching over 10 million “netizens” from Tier 1 Chinese cities (Beijing, Chongqing, Guangdong), the most significant consumers of ivory. Research shows that “most” (between 60-70%) Chinese are unaware that an elephant is killed when sacrificing its tusks for trinkets. This media coverage resonated with the very people who are most likely to purchase ivory as a status symbol. Many Chinese, when presented with the facts, say the government should outlaw ivory sales.

In 2014, 100 million Chinese will travel overseas, comprising 75 percent of overseas travelers visiting Asia and Europe.  I’m willing to bet the bulk of the Chinese market for ivory is in that group. What an opportunity to expose them even more to the realities of the illegal ivory trade!  Now, to make those communications a reality . . .  to be continued

Happy Holidays

EF holiday greetings for website

I’m celebrating the holidays with carpal tunnel surgery tomorrow so this will be the last posting for this year!  Meanwhile, check out the four programs listed below for great programs you may want to support during this holiday season.

iWorry” by The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Space for Giants” Campaign by The Independent

“96 Elephants” by Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)

Elephant Crisis Fund” by Save The Elephants

For news on elephants, check “In the News” section of http://www.elephantsforever.net and “A Voice for Elephants” by National Geographic.

Wishing happy holidays to all and hoping 2014 brings more support for the elephants.

The Intelligent Gift of Knowledge

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Elephants are among the most intelligent creatures in the “animal world.”  Some of their most remarkable acts of intelligence include empathy; highly complex social structures; the ability to recognize themselves in a mirror; long memories of migratory routes and the behaviors of other species; and the ability to be taught.  Their level of intelligence enables them to be knowledgeable — to know how to handle various situations, make decisions, and communicate among the herd.  Elephants even know which branches to seek out if their tummy is upset.

Human intelligence was demonstrated earlier this week at summit held in Gaborone, Botswana, hosted by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and the government of Botswana. Representatives from 30 countries that are critical in deciding the fate of elephants participated:  key African elephant range states including Gabon, Kenya, Niger and Zambia and ivory transit states Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia, and ivory destination states, including China and Thailand.  The Associated Press reports:

“One of the 14 measures the delegates committed to involves classifying wildlife trafficking as a “serious crime.” According to the IUCN, this will unlock international law enforcement co-operation provided under the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, including mutual legal assistance, asset seizure and forfeiture, extradition and other tools to hold criminals accountable for wildlife crime. Other measures agreed upon include engaging communities living with elephants in their conservation, strengthening national laws to secure maximum wildlife crime sentences, mobilizing financial and technical resources to combat wildlife crime and reducing demand for illegal ivory.”  (click here and here for full story)

Helping to create a world in which elephants and humans can co-exist comfortably requires knowledge that we humans do not yet possess. Critical to these efforts is better knowledge on elephant populations and locations.  Elephants Without Borders, a Botswana-based conservation group, has the skill set to do a Pan-African survey of elephant populations, but not the means or equipment.  Enter Microsoft co-founder and eco-philanthropist, Paul Allen.  During the Summit, Allen committed $8 million to fund such a survey, including the three airplanes and two helicopters required by EWB scientists.  The donation will enable the survey to be conducted during the 2014 dry season across all 13 elephant range countries. (click here for full story)

This gift of knowledge increases the chances of success for all programs directed toward helping elephants survive, whether related to habitat, policing, prosecuting or education.  The noise level is increasing, and not a moment too soon.  Elephants are currently being killed faster than they can breed.  And there is nothing intelligent about that.

The Soul of Giving

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It’s “Giving Tuesday.”  Following Black Friday and Cyber Monday, we return to the spirit of the season, giving thanks, celebrating that which nourishes our souls and opening our hearts and wallets for those we love as well as those who need our help.

As you make your gift lists, remember the elephants and the wonderful organizations who are truly making a difference on their behalf.  Check “Experts” for a list of those organizations.

If elephants had credit cards and access to the Internet, they too would probably partake in holiday gift giving.  Elephants possess an innate feeling for each other, well-documented, cradle-to-grave behavior  –  from the care of a newborn to the mourning of a  lost one.

Earlier this year, The New Atlantis, a journal of technology and society, published an article,  “Do Elephants Have Souls?”.  While lengthy and scholarly, the article contains a wealth of information on elephant behavior, from fact to “elephantasies.”    Or, if you find that article too dense to finish, read this link about the tribute elephants paid to conservationist Lawrence Anthony when he died Spring 2012.  This story will make you believe!  It is worth considering what is it about the elephant that has so drawn humans to it, from the dawn of civilization.

We are concluding another dreadful year for elephant populations and, some might say, elephant souls.  Please take some time to appreciate what special creatures elephants are and pledge some of your giving to their future.

A Crushing Experience

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Watching — and listening to — a full-grown, adult elephant walk by is an incredible experience.  At five to six tons, an elephant makes almost no noise when strolling across open territory — a remarkable feat when you consider the crushing weight each step places upon whatever is underfoot. The elephant´s foot is formed in such a way that it is essentially walking on tiptoe, with a tough and fatty part of connective tissue for the sole. This spongy “shock absorber” helps an elephant to move silently.

It may also surprise you to know that the United States remains an enormous market for illegal elephant ivory.  The U.S. is second only to China in terms of the market for illegal wildlife products, such as rhino horn, tiger bone and ivory.  Later this week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) plans to destroy its stockpile of ivory — six tons of ivory objects seized upon entry into the U.S. since the late 1980s when ivory trade was banned. Blaming increased demand for a devastating rise in poaching, largely by organized crime syndicates, the Administration wants to send a message of zero tolerance and reduce the appeal of illicit animal products.  (Click here for full story.)

Working with conservation organizations, the USFWS plans to crush the ivory, then use it to build memorials around the country against poaching. (Hopefully, they will mix the ivory with other materials like concrete so that the memorials aren’t prone to theft).  I am anxious to know more about the plans for such memorials as many Americans remain complacent about ivory and the plight of the elephants.  Too often, we are under the impression that this is a problem in Africa and Asia, but not here in the U.S.  Let this be a wake-up call that our markets are part of the problem, and inspire us to help crush the demand for ivory and the poaching that feeds that demand.

 

 

“White Gold”

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A new documentary, which chronicles the plight of the endangered African elephant and black market for the animals’ ivory, is set to premiere in New York.  The 38-minute film, “White Gold,” which is narrated by Hillary Rodham Clinton, will have its world premiere in a private screening at the Museum of Modern Art on November 12, and will be followed by a public screening on the 18th.  Pace Gallery founder Arne Glimcher served as producer on the Simon Trevor-directed documentary.  (Click here for details.)

“White Gold is a frontline exposé of the modern day ivory trade – its effect on African countries and wider regional stability, its potential to fund terrorism and its global reach. Produced by professionals from the conservation, filmmaking and security fields, the film illustrates the awe-inspiring complexity, beauty and emotional intelligence of the elephant, Africa’s most majestic and iconic wild animal. It documents how, as the demand for ivory escalates, the stakes rise for elephants, people and peace. And, amid growing speculation from analysts around the world that ivory is likely to have partially funded the September 2013 terrorist massacre in Nairobi, Kenya, the film poses the question: is this luxury commodity really so desirable, considering the ugly reality of corruption, organized crime, terrorism and looming species extinction?”

‘White Gold’ will also be screening at DOC NYC on the evening of Monday November 18th, 2013 at the IFC Center in lower Greenwich Village (323 Sixth Ave at West 3rd St.), followed by a Q&A session featuring the film’s producers.