Elephant Update — Asia and Africa

 

Asia and Africa — where the elephants live.  Separate species, the Asian and African elephants are unalike in many ways.  One of the most pronounced differences is their coloration.  African elephants range from griege to rust to golden, depending upon what color of sand they cover their body with to protect themselves from the sun and insects.  Underneath all that sand and mud, however, is basically a gray animal.  Asian elephants all start life with gray skin, but as they age, a depigmentation takes place around their ears, trunks and heads that results in a pinkish-cast.  Some say they develop “elephant freckles.”  But in fact, it is the opposite — a loss of skin color.

What they share is a history of genocide.  In all of Asia, there are now only 35,000 to 40,000 wild elephants.  Most of the elephants you see when visiting Asia are “working” elephants (some might say enslaved elephants) — in temples, festivals, logging forests, tourist attractions. “Local” demand for ivory long ago decimated Asia’s wild elephant population.  The same has been happening in Africa for centuries, culminating in the crisis of late, which finally focused the world’s attention on possible extinction of the roughly 450,000 remaining wild African elephants.

The convergence of media coverage, NGO commitments and celebrity created an awareness level that is actually making a difference, albeit incremental and not without substantial future challenges.  It’s a process of two steps forward, one step backward in many cases as evidenced by recent news reports.

China’s pledge to close legal ivory markets and trading by the end of this year is already having an impact on the market.  Prices are falling as demand is diminishing.  Some traders are now faced with an “over supply” although much of their supply is likely black market ivory.  Hong Kong has lagged behind the mainland.  This month, legislation has been introduced in the former British colony that would phase out the legal market over a five-year period.  Recent hearings contained a face-off between African rangers (who pleaded that the time frame be reduced as they put their lives on the line every day) and traders (who argue that they have too much stockpile to sell by 2021).

Legal markets in Japan remain, and there has been much less public attention paid to its markets than China’s.  Regulations exist, but enforcement is  reportedly lax, resulting in fairly vibrant legal and illegal markets.  Japan has an enormous consumer class, as well longstanding traditions of coveting ivory objects.  We should not assume China’s progress extends to Japan and other Asian markets.  In fact, surplus ivory in Hong Kong and China may well find its way into Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand and Laos.

In Myanmar, which has a population of 1,500 – 2,000 wild elephants, poaching has recently increased due to a new skin cure fadThe ashes of elephant skin, mixed with coconut oil, is the new cure for eczema while ground elephant teeth supposedly whitens skin.  Although there is no scientific basis for either, as we all know, fads can flourish without any basis in fact.

Overall, Africa’s elephant populations are alarmingly small. In East Africa, elephant populations are increasing in some areas, and in Southern Africa, national parks are over-crowded because the elephants know to seek out protected areas. In addition to stressing the environment in the parks, large elephant populations are increasing human-wildlife conflict. Even if the demand for ivory fell so low that poaching for ivory became history, challenges for the world’s largest land mammal remain.  Africa’s  human population continues to explode and its untapped economic potential is blossoming.

Again, two steps forward, one step backwards.  We should celebrate the accomplishments of recent years; particularly the decline of demand and prices in China and increased vigilance in African countries in catching and prosecuting poachers and traders.  Yet, we cannot let the positive momentum become undernourished; for if we take our foot off the pedal now, elephants everywhere will continue to decline.  Go to the Experts tab on this site, chose an organization whose conservation activities appeal to you and support them!  You really can make a difference.

The Beginning of the End

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Sunrise or sunset?  Beginning or end?  As one year comes to a close and another opens, it is natural to assess where we are and where we are going.

For the elephants, the end of 2016 comes with an announcement by China that it will close its ivory market in 2017. Here is the partial post from WildAid’s website:

The end of the world’s largest ivory market was announced today by the Chinese government as it released a detailed timetable for ending its legal ivory trade. Domestic ivory sales will be banned by the end of 2017 with the first batch of factories and traders to close their business by 31 March 2017.

Last year, President Xi Jinping made a public commitment to phasing-out the ivory trade, which may be falling out of favor with Chinese consumers. A recent survey by the conservation group Save the Elephants reported that ivory prices in eight mainland Chinese cities had fallen by half in a two-year period ending December 2015. Anecdotal evidence gathered by WildAid campaigners in China indicates prices may have decreased further this year: Market inquiries in May 2016 found raw ivory prices of around $450 to $900, representing a decrease of 57% to 78% compared with a2014 high of $2,100 per kilogram in mainland China. A ban was first proposed to the National People’s Congress by former NBA star, Yao Ming, who also led documentaries on ivory trade for state broadcaster CCTV in partnership with WildAid.

WildAid CEO Peter Knights said, “China’s exit from the ivory trade is the greatest single step that could be taken to reduce poaching for elephants. We thank President Xi for his leadership and congratulate the State Forestry Administration for this timely plan. We will continue to support their efforts through education and persuading consumers not to buy ivory.”

With China’s announcement, international attention is now shifting to Japan, which voted against all CITES proposals to protect elephants and has insisted its trade is not tainted by illegal ivory. However, a recent report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) found that the nation’s elephant tusk registration system widely allows for poached tusks smuggled from Africa to be sold legally in the domestic market.

While this won’t stop poaching overnight, it is the most significant step in dampening the global market for ivory to date.  We can only hope that the other Asian governments with significant ivory markets will follow suit.

2016 has been a landmark year for recognition of the devastating impact the demand for ivory has had on elephant populations.  Prior to the announcement by China that it would be closing its markets for ivory, the US adopted regulations to do the same in the US.  The first-ever, methodical, continent-wide count of elephants was completed, and  the results of The Great Elephant Census were announced at the end of August.  Confirming our worst suspicions, elephant populations had plummeted to approximately 350,000 in Africa, down 30% from 2007.  At the beginning of 1900, there were roughly 10 million elephants in Africa.

2017 could, therefore, be the watershed year for the African elephants.  On one hand, China’s move could inspire other countries to follow suit and we could truly see the evaporation of demand for ivory.  Conversely, the black market could be sufficiently established that the situation worsens, in that continued, illegal demand for ivory forces the prices even higher.  The former would reduce poaching; the latter, would accelerate the elimination of elephants from the African ecosystem.

Never has it been more important to advocate the end of ivory markets.  Any chance of having elephants in the wild for the next generation count on it.

As you make your New Year’s resolutions, please add supporting the end to any legal trade in elephant ivory to your list!

Happy New Years from Elephants Forever!

Cheers!

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This past Thursday, June 2, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service announced a near-total ban on the commercial trade of African elephant ivory. More than 1.3 million comments were filed during the public comment period for this proposal — the second highest number of comments received in the USFWS’s history.  Wildlife organizations flooded social media with cheers and praise for this long-sought strengthening of our laws governing the trade of ivory. Everyone who helped make this a reality should participate in the celebration.

Now for a reality check:  what does it really mean and what impact will it have on elephant poaching?  This is not a ban on the importation of ivory — that has been the law for decades. Rather, this new rule will govern how ivory can be traded in commercial and non-commercial situations in the United States across state lines.  The FAQ accompanying the news release states the following:

There will be no practical impact on the commercial import of African elephant ivory given the import prohibitions already in place under the African Elephant Conservation Act moratorium. Similarly, restrictions on intrastate commerce will remain unchanged under the final rule, since the ESA does not apply to sales within a state. However, CITES “use-after-import” provisions (in 50 CFR 23.55) continue to apply to sales within a state. In addition, certain states have enacted additional restrictions on the trade of ivory within a state. There is nothing in the ESA, this proposed rule, the AfECA, or our CITES regulations that prohibits the possession, donation or noncommercial interstate movement of listed species, including their parts or products, provided they were lawfully acquired. This will not change under the final rule.

 

So what is different?  Like many laws, the devil is in the detail and the final ruling, which goes into effect on July 6, 2016, will go into great detail about what existing ivory items can be traded, under what circumstances, and types of proof required to demonstrate that this is “old” ivory.  The interests that objected to the proposed ruling — museums, gun owners, musicians, etc. — were successful in having exemptions made for their pet ivory items; e.g., antiques, collectibles, musical instruments made with ivory, guns with ivory trim and big game trophies.  They collectively argued that their type of ivory has not and is not driving the poaching crisis.  Most ivory objects that are affected by the new rule are those which have been imported illegally and purchased under less than genuine conditions; for example, carved ivory trinkets that were smuggled into the U.S. and sold under the guise of being antiques.

The U.S. has been the world’s second largest market for illegal ivory for some time.  Yet, the number of law enforcement agents dedicated to wildlife trafficking is miniscule.   Without an increase in enforcement, will it be just as easy to ignore these new rules as it has been to ignore the old rules?  It took three years, beginning July 2013, to create, vet and finalize these new rules.  During that three years, 100,000 elephants died, mostly from poaching. .  . poaching driven by demand for ivory trinkets in China and other parts of Asia as well as in the U.S.  The old laws have not stopped demand; the new laws will not likely diminish demand.  The old laws have not been enforced effectively and without more law enforcement resources, the new laws will be difficult to enforce.  Reducing demand is what will save the elephant.  With all due respect to law, you cannot legislate morality or regulate desire.  Hard driving media campaigns, peer pressure and public education remain the greatest weapons in reducing demand and therefore poaching.

Don’t misunderstand — I too am celebrating the political victory and intent of the ruling.  A U.S. delegation to China next week will be discussing China’s pledge to adopt laws that are similar to what the U.S. is willing to adopt.  Meanwhile, the poaching disease is spreading, Kenya‘s burning its ivory while Zimbabwe and Namibia are lobbying to be able to trade their surplus ivory.  So this week we can take time to celebrate but next week, it’s back to work as much remains to be done in order to ensure we have wild elephants forever!

Join the Herd on World Wildlife Day

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Tomorrow, March 3, is World Wildlife Day. Established by the United Nations General Assembly in 2013, the purpose of World Wildlife Day is to build awareness of and develop solutions to threats to wildlife at the local and global levels. This year, the theme is: “The future of wildlife is in our hands.” African and Asian elephants will be a main focus of the Day under the theme “The future of elephants is in our hands.”

Awareness of the plight of the elephant is much higher today than a year ago.  But the poaching crisis continues.  Check this site tomorrow to see who the winners are in the International Elephant Film Festival.  Also, WildAid has declared 2016 “The Year of the Elephant” to continue the increase in awareness with the hope that 2016 will be the first year in a while that more elephants are born than killed, a key goal in stopping the path to extinction.  Join the Herd is a communications effort sponsored by WildAid  toward that goal. Do your part by joining the herd (it’s free and fun) and by supporting those organizations that are making a true difference.

And remember, all this will work only if we make every day about holding the future of elephants in our hands.

 

Elephants Forever Reached 102 Countries in 2015

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Word Press just sent me the annual report on the Elephants Forever site and thanks to all of you, we had 5,100 visitors in 2015 from a total of 102 countries!  On the map above, only the countries in white did not produce a visitor.  Our message is getting out!  Please continue to “like” Elephants Forever in  2016 and send links to the blog to others in and outside your social networks.  Such amazing reach with relatively little effort. I thank you, the elephants thank you, everyone involved in stopping the trade in ivory thanks you.

If the weather has you housebound this weekend and you have access to the Outdoor Channel, click here to see airing times this Friday and Saturday (January 8 and 9) for “White Gold” — Ivan Carter’s report on ivory poaching in southern Africa.  See how poaching has spread to Mozambique and into South Africa.  The challenge before us remains large and requires a global response!

New Year’s Greetings

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Nothing like a new year to reflect, reboot,  recommit and resolve!

From the elephants’ point of view, 2015 was a better year than recent years.  While poaching remains at a critical level, with more elephants dying than being born each year, progress was made on a number of fronts.  The price of ivory actually declined, while an increase in confiscations took more “product” out of the marketplace.  The coincidence of the two may appear counter intuitive (e.g., less product theoretically would raise prices) but perhaps demand for ivory finished products is finally declining and the supply chain just hasn’t caught up with that reality.  High profile campaigns by celebrities, NGOs and media outlets seem to have broken through the sound barrier, resulting in major political and policy efforts to shut down the trade in ivory.

Looking back, here are some month-by-month highlights of ivory politics:

January:  Release of “The Last Days of Ivory” short film and campaign by award-winning producer Kathryn Bigelow and WildAid

February:  China announces a one-year ban on the import of ivory carvings for one year

March:  Britain’s Prince William calls for an end to all trade in ivory during a visit to China

April:  Singer Billy Joel and the Wildlife Conservation Society release a new video to raise awareness of elephant poaching

May:  Chinese government announces that it plans to shut down all domestic trade in ivory

June:  DNA from elephant tusks reveals poaching routes

July: UN adopts resolution on wildlife trafficking

August:  U.S. announces unprecedented coalition to fight wildlife trafficking

September:  U.S. and China agree to halt ivory trade

October:  California passes ban on ivory sales

November:  African countries demand total ban on international ivory trade

December:  Hong Kong legislature passes motion calling for smuggling crackdown

Just one year ago, these collective accomplishments would have been unimaginable. However impressive though, they are but a beginning not an end.  2016 is the year to build upon 2015’s achievements and turn “plans” and “intentions” into real, meaningful action.  We talked the talk in 2015, now we have to walk the walk in 2016.  Put another way, we were given tools in 2015, we must use them in 2016.  Happy New Year to all!

Cecil’s Legacy

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The outrage over the murder of Zimbabwe’s most famous lion, Cecil, by an American dentist is sparking renewed pledges to “do something” about illegal wildlife trafficking.  As it should.  And not a moment too late.  The extensive news coverage is reminding people that lions, like elephants, are a species under threat.  In the 1980s, there were an estimated 100,000 lions across the continent of Africa (down from half a million in 1940).  In the 1990s, only 50,000 lions remained.  Since then, the population has declined another 30%, with possibly only 20,000 lions remaining.

The causes are several-fold:  diminishing habitat due to human population growth; poaching as well as trophy hunting; disease; declining food sources outside of national parks; and a weakened gene pool where populations are the most under stress.  To the tourist, it is deceiving when visiting national parks in Botswana, Kenya, South Africa, Zambia and Tanzania, as lions seem plentiful, which they are in these protected areas. But a specie’s health cannot be evaluated based on narrowly defined geographies.  The lion is listed as “vulnerable” to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The African elephant is also  listed as “vulnerable” by the IUCN.  Together, the lion and elephant are universal icons of Africa.  Thousands of people venture to the big game countries annually to see these noble and iconic animals.  Already Zimbabwe officials are reporting a significant drop in tourism in Hwange, the national park where Cecil resided before being lured out of the park and killed.  According to USA Today, “many international tourists that were set to visit the country to see Cecil have canceled their trips.” This drop will hurt wildlife protection programs that are dependent upon tourist dollars.  The report goes on to say, “Conservationists fear Cecil’s death could lead to the deaths of other lions in the pride. ‘The saddest part of all is that the next lion in the hierarchy, Jericho, will most likely kill all Cecil’s cubs so that he can introduce his bloodline into the females,’ said Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force Chairman Johnny Rodrigues. ‘This is the standard procedure for lions.'”   On a happy note, since that report earlier today, scientists studying this pride have observed that Cecil’s brother is protecting the cubs from Jericho.

While the nature of Cecil’s death is truly appalling, let us not forget that everyday, nearly 100 elephants are brutally and indiscriminately murdered for their ivory — an average of one death every fifteen minutes.  We should feel that same level of outrage every day, and continue to recommit to ending this inhumane slaughter of African nations’ national treasures.  Cecil’s death should not be in vain.  Channel your anger into support for organizations committed to fighting wildlife trafficking as well as resolving human-wildlife conflict.  Go to the “Experts” page to see a list of these organizations and links to their sites.  Stay angry on behalf of Cecil and the elephants. And if you have plans to go to Hwange in Zimbabwe, don’t cancel your plans.  Cecil’s family is counting on you.

 

Ivory’s Curse

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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

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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.

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,”