Cures for Cancers

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Did you know that elephants rarely get cancer?  For some time, scientists have been studying the incidence of cancer in various animals and have been baffled by the absence of cancer in African and Asian elephants.  Recently, two independent research efforts have uncovered the reason for this.  In simple terms, most species have a gene, TP53 (known as the “guardian of the genome”), which attacks damaged genes and keeps them from replicating.  Cancer is an example of damaged genes growing, causing tumors and infecting large areas of their host, human or otherwise.  Elephants, as it turns out, have 20 copies of this gene whereas humans have one copy.  Researchers believe that this unusual abundance of TP53 is responsible for the resistance elephants have to cancer.  Now, they are examining ways in which elephant DNA may be introduced into humans to help our species be more resistant to cancer.  For a more detailed description of this research, click here.  (The full scientific report is 028522.full.)

Cancer comes in many forms.  All of us are familiar with its devastating effect. The slaughter of hundreds of thousands of elephants for their ivory is a form of social cancer that has spread across all of Africa and parts of Asia.  This week’s carnage in Paris is symbolic of another virulent social cancer — terrorism — a disease which has destroyed not only lives but also the quality of life for millions of people.

We seem to be at a crossroads in our global society regarding how to value life.  Terrorists, be they criminal networks responsible for wildlife trafficking or radical malcontents responsible for the death and displacement of millions, have one thing in common — they value their own selfish interests over the value of life, human, elephant or otherwise.  The great majority of us want to find solutions, but feel helpless, frustrated and often discouraged.

Put in this context, the solution to elephant poaching is fairly straight forward:  end the demand for ivory trinkets and the terrorists (those who kill animals illegally are indeed terrorists) will go elsewhere to fund their greed and warped agendas.  Killing all the poachers won’t end it; arresting all the existing traffickers won’t end it.  Others will replace them as long as there is a market for it.  So ending this war could be almost bloodless.

The terrorism of ISIL, Al Qaeda and others is less straight forward and will almost necessarily be bloody.  But killing won’t erase the roots of the rise of this terrorism.  We need fundamental changes in economies, tolerance and political policy before we can even begin to combat this terrorism. This will take some time and very wise, brave and open minded leaders — in many countries — before Paris 11/13, US 9/11, and all the other unconscionable acts of terrorism become less and less likely.  Perhaps elephant DNA will find its way into our bloodstream first.  In any event, let us all pray for less violence against all species on this planet we share.

 

 

Technology, Tusks and Terrorists

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The cover story of National Geographic’s September issue is entitled “Tracking Ivory.”  A companion piece,  “Warlords of Ivory,” aired last night on the National Geographic TV channel. Both cover the bold effort reporter Bryan Christy and National Geographic have undertaken to prove the link between ivory poaching and terrorism.  In a gripping report, we see the creation of a “fake” tusk impregnated with a GPS tracking device which Christy himself carries to Africa, the surreptitious  planting of the tusk in the northern, wartorn area of Congo and the subsequent path the tusk takes through Congo, CAR and Sudan until it reaches the nexus of LRA warlord Joseph Kony and the government of Sudan.

That ivory has been used to fund various terrorist groups is not news; however this evidence make indisputable the trade route between the elephant killing grounds of central Africa and the marketplace where two international criminals — Kony and al-Bashir — trade ivory for arms.  The human and wildlife devastation along the way is unspeakable.  Some of the sources interviewed by Christy are former soldiers of the Lords Resistance Army.  They have seen so much human destruction that they wonder why this western reporter is more interested in how many elephants were slaughtered.  The human body count and psychological damage is by orders of magnitude greater than that of the elephant community. The fact that the elephant population is moving towards extinction seems momentarily incidental.  The segment airs again on September 6 and I recommend you tune in.

 

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.

The Elephant and the Tourist

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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

 

Making Sense Out of the Senseless

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The news from Nairobi is devastating.  A senseless act of terror that killed and injured so many innocent people.  The violence transcends the immediate horror of death and destruction.  It will linger in the atmosphere indefinitely,  robbing Kenyans and visitors of their sense of security, disrupting daily routines in an already chaotic city and threatening an economy heavily dependent upon tourism and foreign investment. 

In the aftermath, some media have linked the illegal ivory trade to funding of Al Shabaab, the terrorist group responsible for this tragedy.  The Elephant Action League says that the terror group’s trafficking of ivory through Kenya “could be supplying up to 40% of the funds needed to keep them in business” (click here for story).

Today, an unprecedented coalition committed $80 million in combating the illegal ivory trade and slaughter of Africa’s elephants.   An alliance of conservation groups and African nations was announced at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) summit in New York. The group includes WCS, Conservation International, the World Wildlife Fund, the African Wildlife Foundation, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Together they will work towards solutions to stop the killing, stop the trafficking, and stop the demand.

Not only will the CGI commitment aim to stop the violence against wildlife, but the security threat that comes with the high-priced criminal activity. Funds will be used to support African governments – including Botswana, Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Kenya, South Sudan, Malawi, and Uganda – as they hire more park guards, toughen penalties for poachers, and strengthen intelligence networks (click here for details).

You can be part of this growing cry to stop poaching and halt the illegal ivory trade and the senseless crime it funds.  Join the Wildlife Conservation Society’s new movement, 96 Elephants (the number of elephants killed each day), urging President Obama to stop the senseless slaughter of elephants by clicking here.  Consider supporting any of the organizations participating in the CGI initiative or those listed in Experts.  Walk in the March for Elephants on October 4.  Stay informed by following the news posted on In the News.  And don’t buy ivory!  Becoming part of this growing global movement is one of the most effective things we can do to not only to stop the senseless killing of  elephants, but also to reduce revenues to groups that perpetrate senseless acts of terrorism.