Living Dinosaurs

_I1A4155 copy

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.



AI1A1136 copy

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!

Tusker’s Last Stand


Twas a rainy afternoon in the Ngorongoro Crater’s Lerai Forest, an ancient-looking place.  This old tusker seemed to relish the serenity brought about by an unexpected shower, continuing his perpetual quest for nourishment without any acknowledgement of our presence.  The scene transported all of us to another era, thousands of years ago, when elephants reigned over all of Africa.  As the largest land mammal, elephants had no natural predators, other than the rare, hungry human and Mother Nature when she withheld her blessings of rain and good forage.  But the human threat was benign and ancient migratory paths led the herds to other habitat, perhaps hundreds of miles away, when their current domain could no longer sustain them.  Life was good. Then.

Our view of this old bull became less romantic and more poignant as we quietly discussed that the scene — a lone bull — could also portend what lay ahead.  The Crater’s resident elephant population is unique in that it consists only of older bull elephants.  The walls of the caldera are nearly 2,000 feet high, and comprised mostly of dense forest.  As a result, breeding herds avoid the arduous trek in and out of the Crater.  Given the relative protection of the Crater, the old bulls of Ngorongoro could indeed become the last wild elephants standing in Africa if things up above in the real world don’t change soon.

On June 6, writer Matthew Scully addresses “the African elephant’s last stand” on the The Atlantic website.  “Inside the Global Industry That’s Slaughtering Africa’s Elephants” is lengthy and borrows much from the fine reporting that journalists such as Jeffrey Gettlemen of The New York Times and Bryan Christy of National Geographic have done this past year.  In the end, he concludes that if the “West” doesn’t do much more, the ivory trade will win.  Scully calls upon our leaders to demand more from Japan in abating the demand for ivory and upon our private sector to contribute more for on the ground and in the air patrol of elephant habitat.  Like others, he wants the UN to put more teeth into CITES and opines that President Obama should be discussing this with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

I tend to tune out whenever I hear “the West needs to. . .” as though the West is somehow perpetually aligned with respect to the rest of the world, but I digress.  Even if, and it is a big “if,” China were to prohibit the legal sale of ivory, illegal markets would likely continue. Look no further than the drug trade for proof that demand overrides diplomacy.   As long as there is a market for ivory, elephants will die.  All governments have a role to play in terms of regulating and policing.  But market demand is an individual — and societal — matter.  You cannot convince people through legislation that owning an ivory trinket is not worth the death of a living creature.  The groundswell of public opinion should be the weapon of choice when it  comes to consumer demand.  Unless we all do what we can to make buying and owning ivory unacceptable, the wild elephant is doomed.  And should we as a global society decide that a world without wild elephants is acceptable, then we may be talking about humanity’s last stand.

A Lot of Bull

males bonding

Male elephants, called bull elephants, reach puberty around age 13, and leave the comfort of the breeding herd to head out on their own to propagate the species. Until recently, it was thought that they did not bond with other bull elephants once they left the highly communal breeding herd.  However, research conducted in Kenya and Namibia shows that many bulls have a “best friend” or hang out with a group of fellow bull elephants  (“How Male Elephants Bond”). The elephants in the photo above were certainly an example of male bonding.  I came upon them in Tanzania’s Serengeti on my recent trip, and watched the larger two engage in a friendship ritual for nearly an hour.  When two younger bulls joined them, they dialed up the level of  sparing, perhaps signalling the younger bulls to be respectful when in their presence.  Similar to the dynamic of a breeding herd, the more loosely-structured male groups have a hierarchy based on age and strength. It is logical to believe that younger bulls continue to learn from the older, more experienced bulls. While bull elephants go off on their own when entering musth — the highly agitated state a bull elephant enters when he is ready to mate — their isolation from other elephants is not as complete as many once thought. 

On another level of “a lot of bull,” writer Bryan Christy (author of National Geographic‘s highly acclaimed October 2012 cover story, “Blood Ivory“) writes on May 30:

“. . .In a recent poll conducted to supplement the National Geographic film Battle for the Elephants, 84 percent of Chinese middle class respondents said they intend to buy ivory in the future. They also said the number one reason they might stop buying ivory is if their government told them to stop. But the Chinese government is in the ivory business. It controls the country’s largest ivory carving factory as well as retail outlets. At a CITES meeting in Bangkok earlier this year, China’s delegate Wan Ziming of the State Forestry Administration (SFA) told CITES parties that ivory trafficking and elephant poaching were Africa’s problem, not China’s. He has condemned the ivory ban as ineffective, has pushed for more ivory sales to China, and has claimed it is reasonable to supply consumer countries with 200 tonnes of ivory a year.”  (click here for full report)

Any suggestion that China isn’t the single most important player in the ivory trade is just bull — and there seems to be a lot of that going around.  Christy opens his report by acknowledging the conviction of a major government-sanctioned ivory trader by the Chinese government.  However, he goes on to point out the many weaknesses in the CITES decisions that allow China to have a legal ivory market in the first place.  And that is no bull.

CITES Protection Plan?


Is this elephant family in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park better off as a result of the CITES meeting just concluded in Bangkok?

While the sessions certainly generated media coverage of the plight of elephants and other endangered species, will anything change?

The jury is out (see In the News for coverage).

The summation of TRAFFIC, the highly-respected wildlife trade monitoring network, is:  “On elephants, a number of measures were agreed that will improve control of ivory. They included requirements for the compulsory reporting of all ivory stockpiles held by governments on an annual basis, that all ivory seizures of more than 500 kg in weight will be forensically examined to determine their country of origin and for counties to report on measures taken to prevent illegal trade in live captive elephants. In addition, eight countries implicated as having significant involvement in the global illegal ivory trade—China and Thailand as end-use markets, Malaysia, Philippines and Viet Nam as transit countries, and Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda as source and exit points in Africa—agreed to to develop action plans to address the illegal flow of ivory along the trade chain.”

Good intentions, great ideas, but focused on the control of ivory once it is already in the market,  be it legal or illegal.  The fact is the elephant family in the photo above is no safer today than it was before the CITES meeting.  The most meaningful and immediate action to help the elephants remains reducing demand for ivory.

May 25 is the deadline for the eight countries to submit their action plans to the Standing Committee of CITES.  Then they will have one year to implement the plans.  Perhaps in mid-2014 the steps taken in Bangkok will produce results. But for now, plans, reports and protocols don’t produce protection.

Elephants in the Dust


Numerous headlines abound from the CITES meeting ongoing in Bangkok, including the release of the long-awaited report on the status of the African elephant, entitled “Elephants in the Dust — The African Elephant Crisis.”  (Click here for News and here for the Report).

A grim title for a grim subject, and disturbing because it indicates that the elephants have pretty much have had it, or “bitten the dust.”  More a compilation of existing knowledge and thought, the report confirms (1) demand for ivory has tripled in the past decade, due largely to China’s growing middle class; (2) organized crime directs the killing of elephants and flow of ivory to Asia; (3) record numbers of elephants are being slaughtered; (4) more international cooperation is needed to enforce laws and capture the criminals and (5) consumers need to be educated that elephants do not shed their tusks annually, they must die for the ivory to be harvested.

CITES has put three African and five Asian nations on notice that they have failed to adequately crack down on the ivory trade, and that they must come up with a detailed and credible plan of action for curbing the trade across and within their borders (within the next week). They must then meet those targets or face trade sanctions next year. The nations threatened with sanctions are Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and China. Sanctions would keep those nations from trading even in legal wildlife products by barring other CITES member nations from buying from them.  A great deal of bravado but does anyone believe those eight nations will be able  or willing to create a meaningful plan by next week?

In fact, the Chinese government is lobbying to ease restrictions on ivory trade.  China’s wildlife trade official has insisted that African elephant herds could endure a robust international ivory trade. Late year, he wrote the CITES Secretariat, saying that China should be allowed to buy confiscated tusks from poached elephants in addition to those legally obtained. Asian demand, he wrote, required about 220 tons of raw ivory — equaling the lives of roughly 20,000 elephants — every year.

“Elephants in the Dust” promotes 10 recommendations for action, one of which is:  “Reduce market demand for illegal ivory by conducting targeted and effective awareness-raising about the devastating impacts of the illegal trade in ivory, and aimed at potential or current buyers in East and Southeast Asia.”  There is little any of us can do about poverty in Africa, corruption in governments, organized crime and human-wildlife conflict.  And, as individuals, we cannot conduct education campaigns in Mandarin.  However, we can make a difference by raising awareness among everyone we know and enlisting them to do the same.  Our message can reach beyond our own borders. Let’s do what we can to keep elephants literally, not metaphorically, in the dust!

Reaching Our Goals


Maasai Mara, February 2013:  Located in southwest Kenya, the Maasai Mara boasts vast acacia-dotted grasslands and riverine forests that support world-famous concentrations of animals. Sometimes you are surrounded by animals as far as the eye can see.  Other times, you may feel totally alone in this vast landscape. . .until one animal appears on the horizon.

In the case of the photo above, that one lone animal was this male tusker.  He was our only sighting that hour so we sat contentedly, watching him rapidly approach, seemingly uninterested in the surrounding, high grasses.  He had a goal — the lone acacia tree near our parked vehicle.  Elephants balance their nutritional intake with soft grasses (for easy digestion) and tree bark and branch (for fiber).  A more determined elephant I have never seen as this umbrella acacia was not particularly elephant-friendly. Most giraffes would have passed it by. But with persistence, he was successful, devoting the better part of the afternoon to enjoying his meal (and delighting us with his stretches).

Bangkok, March 2013:  Reaching its goal (promoted on my January 15 blog entry “Call to Action“), the WWF  presented Thailand’s prime minister with a petition signed by 500,000 people calling for the end of that country’s legal ivory trade market (click here). In her opening remarks to the CITES conference, the prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, promised to amend the kingdom’s laws, which critics say include loopholes that have allowed smugglers to ferry African tusks to Thai markets and onward, often to China, the world’s top destination for illegal ivory.  Thailand is believed to be the second-biggest market for illicit elephant tusks.

We all know about promises made by politicians; they are not exactly reliable.  And Thailand has made previous pledges to bring its laws into accordance with global standards.  Nevertheless, the efforts of WWF and other conservation groups involved in forcing the issue should be applauded for reaching their goal. The hard work is ahead, in Thailand and in other nations that need to take action to end illegal trade in ivory.  Let’s make it our goal to help that process along, stretching our reach to its very limits.

Call to Action

sos ele levels3

Last week’s elephant poaching tragedy in Tsavo has received widespread global media coverage.  In response, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga has announced the establishment of a commission to explore ways in which the various government agencies in Kenya could collaborate to strengthen their efforts. He said that security agencies “must treat the emerging poaching threat as part of the insecurity griping the country and not a wildlife issue to be addressed solely by the Kenya Wildlife Service.” (emerging poaching threat?)  In addition, he has called upon the international community to help curb the illegal ivory trade by increasing policing and prosecution efforts.

Meanwhile, much of the international community is awaiting the CITES meeting in Bangkok  March 3 – 14, 2013 to see “what happens” or what plan will be adopted. (Thailand has the world’s largest unregulated ivory market.)

Commissions and meetings are by their very nature slow and lumbering, rarely igniting immediate and effective action.  But time is running out. For Africa at-large, the elephant body count in 2012 is greater than it was in 2011.  Experts predict at this rate wild elephants in Africa could be extinct in 15 years.  The poaching rate in Central Africa may well eliminate all wild elephants in that region even sooner.

Here is something you can do right now that will help.  Join the World Wildlife Fund‘s movement to call upon Thailand to ban ivory trade. While the world is watching during the CITES meeting, WWF wants to present 1 million signatures to Prime Minister Shinawatra, asking her to do the right thing in her own backyard. Thailand permits the sale of items made from indigenous ivory. Because the market is unregulated, much of the poached ivory from Africa finds its way to Bangkok and is sold in markets there as “Thai” ivory. Drawing attention to this may be the most compelling and effective near term consequence of the CITES meeting.  Be a part of that action!

Tusk Seizure


Over the weekend, authorities in Hong Kong seized two enormous illegal shipments of elephant tusks (Four tons of African Ivory Caught in Hong Kong).

Together, they represent the death of about 600 elephants.  Experts believe the ivory to be from elephants killed in Kenya and Tanzania.

During a press conference, a Hong Kong port official stated that discovering ivory in Hong Kong is an isolated incident; that the ivory was most likely on its way to Japan or Taiwan. Yet, Hong Kong has been a center in ivory carving for centuries, and 70% of illegal ivory shipments end up in China.  Beware of official statements.

Tanzania too finds itself in a compromised position as it has recently been lobbying CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) to be permitted to sell its ivory stockpile to raise funds for anti-poaching activities. Since the CITES ban on trading ivory in 1989, only a few such sales have been permitted. Those that have taken place involved price fixing and resulted in even more demand for ivory.

It is difficult to track down the truth when the drama involves wild animals in remote areas, organized crime rings, multiple countries with entrenched corruption and a buying public that think elephants shed their tusks every year, just like deer shed their antlers.

But this we know to be true:  harvesting tusks requires killing the elephant; elephant poaching is the highest it has been since 1989; stopping demand is the surest way to stop the killing.

Send the e-card above (click on dont_buy_ivory for a pdf version) to everyone you know. . .stopping the demand for items carved from elephant ivory is the only sure-fired way to make sure we have elephants forever.