World Elephant Day 2017

World Elephant Day, August 12, 2017.  This is the fifth World Elephant Day, a global event launched in 2012. This year numerous organizations dedicated to elephants are honoring this day in a range of  ways:  release of new studies, contests, fashion statements and fundraising.

The past five years have been no less than monumental for elephants.  2012 and 2013 were two of the worst years ever for elephant poaching.  Media coverage, NGO activities, celebrity activism, government cooperation and public outcry combined to put pressure on closing down ivory markets in Asia and elsewhere.  As a result, additional resources were put into “the field” to track down and prosecute poachers, China announced it would end the sales of ivory by the end of 2017, world awareness to the plight of elephants was advanced and the demand for ivory actually began to decrease.  Research increased and our understanding of elephant “hotspots” has improved immensely.

The crisis isn’t over and it’s important to keep the pressure on.  That should be our commitment this World Elephant Day.  The pressures on elephant habitat and wildlife-human conflict remain.  Much more must be done in order to ensure that future generations witness wild elephants and appreciate the importance of maintaining balance between all species that rely on earth’s resources.  Keep your commitment and spend some time on the links below that offer information and opportunities to do your part.

Reports:

ECF 2017 Mid Year Report Partner & Donor Version

Traffic/World Wildlife Fund Report on China’s Ivory Market

Traffic:  Reports on Elephant Ivory

Fundraising and Awareness:

David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust “Say Hello in Elephant”

World Wildlife Fund:  Saving Asian Elephants

Wildlife Conservation Society

Every Elephant Counts Contest

Fashion:

The Elephant Pants

 

The good news, all feel every day is World Elephant Day

Living Dinosaurs

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Could elephants really become extinct in our lifetimes?  Media coverage is now referring to elephants as “living dinosaurs.”  An oxymoron? Not really. More of a prediction.

A grim future for elephants is suggested when we take a long term look at what has happened over the passed 600 years, using information from the recently released Great Elephant Census:

1500:  Around 26 million elephants are estimated to roam the African continent when Europeans began exploring there.

1900:  In 400 years, the population has been reduced to about 10 million due to aggressive trophy hunting and the ivory trade.  The US consumes 200 tons of ivory a year.

1950s:  250 elephants are killed each day to satisfy demand for ivory.

1979:  Elephants are listed as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act in the US; internationally, CITES is to regulate ivory trade. Ian Douglas Hamilton conducts first pan-African survey, estimating the elephant population at 1.3 million.

1989:  Elephant population halved over last decade with 600,000 remaining.  CITES lists the African elephant on Appendix I, creating a ban on the international trade of ivory.

1990s:  Elephant populations in East Africa begin to recover.

1999:  CITES approves a “one time” sale of ivory from Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe ivory stockpiles to Japan. A second sale to China and Japan is permitted in 2008.

2007:  CITES implement 9 year moratorium on ivory sales from stockpiles as the increasing demand for ivory is not satisfied by these sales and leads to dramatic increase in poaching.

2016:  Death rate is one elephant every 15 minutes. Great Elephant Census shows elephant populations at 352,000, down 30% from 2007.

The calculus of this population decline is unassailable.  We will not have healthy, sustainable elephant populations in the wild in our lifetimes if the demand for ivory is not shut down. And, yes, like the dinosaurs who once walked this earth, our present-day largest land mammal could also become extinct.

Thank you to the Great Elephant Census , a partnership between Paul Allen and Vulcan, who provided the funding, Elephants Without Borders, African Parks, Wildlife Conservation Society, TheNature Conservancy, Frankfurt Zoological Society and the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group.

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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!

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.

 

 

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.

Crime and Punishment — Finding a Balance

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All of us take risk and reward into account in our daily decision making.  Legislators, judges, administrators, churches, communities — all elements of a given society contribute to a risk-reward structure that guides social and economic behavior.  Those who step outside the boundaries of “acceptable behavior” risk some manner of punishment, generally deemed to be severe enough to discourage that behavior.  Always there are those who ignore the rules, driven by motivations outside the norm.  Finding the right balance between the crime and the punishment is an ongoing pursuit in all societies.

Kenya is considering stiffer penalties for poaching (click here), a step many feel is way overdue.  Currently, Kenya’s wildlife act caps punishment for the most serious wildlife crimes at a maximum fine of 40,000 Kenyan shillings (about $470) and a possible jail term of up to 10 years.  Recently, several Chinese nationals caught in possession of $24,000 and $10,000 worth of illegal ivory were fined $340 and $439 respectively and released without serving any jail time. Not much of a disincentive in practice I’d say.  By contrast, a US lobster fisherman caught with one lobster with claws that were 1/4 inch below the legal minimum size for harvesting lost his boat for eight months (his livelihood) and was fined $1200. Given the differences in our economies, one might argue the Kenyan penalties are as strict, if not stricter.  After all, their laws were crafted for a society in which many who poached lived on less than a dollar a day.

Today’s poaching problem however is not driven by people living at a subsistence level.  The illegal ivory trade is driven by highly sophisticated, international organized crime rings whose “soldiers” on the ground in Africa have no fear of the current laws.  Those caught with the ivory are rarely the individuals who killed the elephants.  There is no easy formula to find the right balance, and it will take more than effective capture and prosecution to diminish the rate of slaughter.  But we need pressure on all points in the system.  We should keep our eye on Kenya to see what that important country is willing to do in terms of passing and enforcing new laws with real teeth — or should we say tusks?

 

Tuskless in Tanzania

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This brown-eyed beauty was born without tusks — a shortcoming perhaps, but not a deformity. I photographed her in Tanzania’s Lake Manyara National Park in 2008.  She was with her two children, both of whom had tusks.  She is unusual only in that Lake Manyara has been known for its large tusked elephants.

Lake Manyara was first introduced to many by Iain Douglas-Hamilton, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the African elephant, and his wife, Oria, both of whom are saints in my book.  They pioneered the first in-depth scientific study of elephant social behavior.  Their books “Among the Elephants” and “Battle for the Elephants” are must-reads!  But back to Tanzania and being tuskless.

Tanzania has been blessed with abundant wildlife and has some of the best elephant habitat in Africa.  Sadly, year-end summaries of illegal ivory seizures in 2012 indicate that a substantial portion is from Tanzania. Experts now apply DNA analysis to contraband ivory and are able to determine country of origin.  Earlier this week, a Member of Tanzania’s Parliament estimated that over 25% of blood ivory is from Tanzania and that 23,000 elephants were slain last year — 67 a day.  Furthermore, he alleged government and police officials are involved in the racket and announced his intentions to launch an inquiry.

I am returning to Lake Manyara in two weeks.  Perhaps I have a good chance of seeing Ms. Tuskless again as she would have no appeal to poachers and her children are still young.  As for many other elephants in Tanzania, being tuskless means being dead.