The Ivory Game

the-ivory-game

Thursday, November 4, Netflix will premier on its service the award-winning documentary, The Ivory Game (link to full press kit).

The Ivory Game  (link to website) poses the dark world of ivory trafficking.  In the past 100 years, the elephant population has plummeted 97%.   The Ivory Game dramatically portrays the fact that we are facing a potential crisis of extinction — an extinction that is totally human-induced.  Award-winning director Richard Ladkani and Academy Award® nominated director Kief Davidson filmed undercover for 16 months infiltrating and documenting the deep-rooted corruption at the heart of the global ivory trafficking crisis.  The production also features the people who are doing the most to keep this extinction from happening.

The Netflix Original Documentary is a production of Red Bull’s Terra Mater Film Studios and Microsoft co‐founder Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Productions in association with Malaika Pictures and Appian Way, with Leonardo DiCaprio as Executive Producer.

Giants’ Steps

_C1A5079

Did you know that the largest land mammal — the multi-ton elephant — can walk by you in such silence that you may not even know they are present unless you see them?  If they do break silence, it is with the sound of their eating process or the occasional trumpet or squeal to communicate.  You won’t hear their footstep in open grassland.  The padding on their large feet cushions their step to the degree that they are able to cross great distances in relative silence.

And so it goes sometimes with the biggest news concerning elephants — if you rely on the mainstream media for all your information, you may have missed hearing the very good news in the fight against the illegal ivory trade.

This past week, when Presidents Obama and Xi Jinjang met in Washington, DC, they agreed to halt the commercial ivory trade in the U.S. and China.  The official fact sheet on their meeting states:  “The United States and China, recognizing the importance and urgency of combating wildlife trafficking, commit to take positive measures to address this global challenge.  The United States and China commit to enact nearly complete bans on ivory import and export, including significant and timely restrictions on the import of ivory as hunting trophies, and to take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory.  The two sides decided to further cooperate in joint training, technical exchanges, information sharing, and public education on combating wildlife trafficking, and enhance international law enforcement cooperation in this field.  The United States and China decided to cooperate with other nations in a comprehensive effort to combat wildlife trafficking. “

This is huge — a giant step by giant nations for a giant animal and megafauna species.  China and the United States are the two largest economies and markets for ivory in the world.  Their commitment to end the market for ivory is essential for ultimately realizing this goal. We can now move beyond finger pointing and on to collaboration.  Ending demand for ivory won’t happen overnight; and it won’t happen without tackling monumental obstacles such as the entrenched, criminal groups that sponsor poaching and the movement of ivory from Africa to the carving factories of Asia.  Nevertheless, the combined commitment of these two giant nations moves us much closer to overcoming these obstacles.

We must keep the pressure on and keep funding the programs that are making a meaningful difference on the ground in Africa and Asia where elephants still live in the wild.  To that end, here is a fun way to help:  take a safari!  The Bodhi Tree Foundation has worked with some leading safari operators to produce eight different safari itineraries.  Ten percent of the proceeds from each safari will be contributed an affiliated elephant conservation project each respective country.  The program, S.A.F.E (Safeguard the Future for Africa’s Elephants), sponsors projects in Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique, Uganda, Tanzania, Cambodia and Thailand — all wildlife treasure chests where you can experience a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with elephants and scores of other wildlife.  If a safari isn’t in your near future, you can also contributed directly to these projects, which the Bodhi Tree Foundation has carefully vetted.  The projects focus on countering the forces elephants face today: poaching, habitat loss, human-elephant conflict and lack of vital rehabilitation and veterinary care.  Any amount you contribute will make a difference as 100% of your donation goes directly to the project of your choice.

Remember, baby steps are just as important as giant steps when taking on a challenge as big as this one!

Cecil’s Legacy

cecil copy

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.

 

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!

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.

Elephant Numerology

_MG_1656 copy

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

“White Gold”

whitegoldimage

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.

The Elephant and the Tourist

ele and tourists

Last Friday, the U.S. government issued a travel warning for Americans who are planning to travel to Kenya and for those who live in Kenya (click here).  On Sunday, Kenya’s Interior Minister responded, calling the warning “unnecessary and unfriendly. . .” (click here).  Both points of view have merit — our government, albeit overly protective, exercises its obligation to protect American citizens, and the Kenyan government believes one reason for the Westgate Mall terrorist attack is its friendly relationship with the U.S. and that this is no time for its “friend” to withdraw support.  

Travel warnings come with the territory when going almost anywhere in Africa.  It is incumbent upon all travelers to be informed about risks and to take necessary precautions.  Travel for tourism is a discretionary activity; it is up to each individual to decide his or her tolerance for different kinds of risk.  In this case, I would not cancel plans to go to Kenya.  In spite of the “wild animals,” being in a game park with a legitimate guide/tour operator is a very safe activity.  Avoid the cities and areas where tribal or rebel conflict is occurring, but don’t avoid the game parks.  Not only will you be depriving yourself of one of life’s great experiences, but you will also inadvertently be reducing the safety net tourism provides animals from the brand of terror they know — poaching.

Throughout East and Southern Africa, tourism has helped to fund better park management, private and government-sponsored anti-poaching rangers, and general conservation projects.  In addition, local people gain employment and respect the role wildlife plays in their economic betterment and tourists go home with a realistic  understanding of wildlife and human issues in the countries they visit, making them better global citizens. 

In the case of elephants, tourism is enormously important, particularly in East Africa.  Great strides have been made in Kenya in elephant research, patrolling efforts, conservation and education.  All these efforts (in both private and public sectors) depend to a large degree on revenue from tourism.  We can ill-afford to have these programs go un- or underfunded when poaching is at an all time high.  I have had longstanding plans to be in Kenya next June to attend a wildlife symposium and to go on safari.  Have not considered changing those plans even for a nanosecond.  I know the elephants are looking forward to my visit!

Meanwhile, remember tomorrow is the International March for Elephants in 15 cities around the world (click here).  Nairobi is home to the organizers and was scheduled to host one of the 15 marches. That march has fallen victim to the acts of terror, as Nairobi continues to mourn and recover.  The website states:  Please note – due to recent events which took place in Nairobi from 21/09 – 24/09 we have decided to cancel the International March for Elephants in Nairobi. We will hold a vigil for those who so tragically lost their lives in the attacks and also for the elephants who continue to fall victim to the ivory trade. This will be held on the day of the March October 4th at the Nairobi Nursery. More info at: www.dswt.org