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!

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!

Must the Past be Prologue?

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A timeless image — elephants crossing the grasslands, feeding, interacting, doing what they have done for millennia. They (and their distant, now extinct cousins) walked the earth long before the advent of homo sapiens. Some scientists believe that the vast areas they cleared in search of nutrition made it possible for our ancestors to come down from the trees and out of the caves and live in communities — a major advance that made us predators rather than prey.  Safety in numbers, stronger gene pools, development of sophisticated communication and planning skills.  Do we owe our alpha species status to the elephant?  Perhaps.  In any event, we seem to have returned the favor by coveting their ivory. And now we face the possibility that the earth we walk will one day be without elephants.

When facing a crisis, it is often insightful to look back at history to better understand what brought us to this point.  “A Brief History of the Elephant Ivory Trade”  released last week by Earth Touch News Network takes a look at the recent history of the ivory trade.  Featuring Dr. Paula Kahumbu, CEO of WildlifeDirect in Kenya, the report covers the dynamics since the 1970s. Well worth viewing.  But what about the longer perspective.  Just when did we get our insatiable appetite for ivory? And how has that appetite impacted the elephant, societies and world trade since then?

In John Frederick Walker’s Ivory’s Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants you can read all about it.  If the past is indeed prologue, then the future for the elephant is not very bright.  Ivory has seduced for thousands of years.  Elephants once ranged across all of Africa and from Syria to China. By 500 BCE, the lust for ivory in Egypt eliminated the African elephant populations along the Nile, and Syria’s Asian elephant herds had been eliminated. The list of cities and dynasties that sought ivory read like a who’s who of the ancient world: Carthage, Athens, Pompeii, Assyria, Babylon, Darius, Caligula, Alexander the Great, the Ptolemys, Julius Caeser. Diocletian fixed ivory prices. Pliny the Elder warned of elephant extinction in 77 CE.  Meanwhile in China, the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) was trading with markets as far away as Rome.  Included in their caravans along the ancient Silk Route were intricately carved ivory objects. Arabs raided the Swahili coast of East Africa throughout the 7th – 14th centuries and included in their bounty slaves and ivory. Then came the era of European colonization. The race for real estate, slaves and ivory ended interior Africa’s relative isolation from the rest of the world.  The arrival of firearms made large-scale harvesting of ivory possible. No need to go on, read the book, and be astonished as to how ingrained the human craving for ivory is in our global society.

Sadly, we are fighting the awful weight of history in the quest to prize life over ivory’s appeal.  Walker in fact does not believe it is possible.  Because of this, he favors limited, legal sales of Africa’s stockpiles to a regulated market.  Watch “A Brief History of the Elephant Ivory Trade” for clear reasons why most experts disagree.  Walker’s book published in 2009; in the six short years since then, elephant populations have plummeted, and the failure of regulated sales is now established.

Once there were more elephants than homo sapiens.  Now, we are 7 billion and growing while the elephant population is perhaps 350,000 and shrinking.  What separates us from our pre-20th Century relatives is the knowledge that the resource is not unlimited. It’s time to reverse course and let the allure of ivory be relegated to the past.  Tick Tock. Tick Tock.

 

 

 

Eye on Elephants

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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!

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

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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”

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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.

Migration

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Migration is a natural part of an elephant’s life. Once, their migratory routes took them thousands of miles in search of nourishing habitat.  With the advent of large human populations, their routes have become much shorter and contained. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the wet season, herds today still roam extensively as part of their inbred, survival wisdom.  Now, an unnatural migration takes place after life ends.

Tuesday of this week, Malaysian authorities seized more than 1,000 elephants tusks, possibly the largest seizure ever (click here for story).  24 tons of ivory were hidden in large, wooden boxes labeled “floor tiles.” The tusks traveled a circuitous route to reach Malaysia.    “. . .  originating in the small West African nation of Togo, then going north to Spain, then east to Malaysia’s port of Klang and eventually destined for China. It is not clear where in Africa the ivory was from; conservationists say Togo is an emerging hub in the underground ivory trade and therefore the ivory might have been drawn from elephants killed across the continent” (source The New York Times).

Such an elaborate route of illegal merchandise requires the resources of highly sophisticated and organized crime rings. The poaching that is threatening the very existence of elephants is not that of poor individuals who kill for a once-in-a-lifetime bonanza.  Rather, armed militias with AK47s and other wartime fire power track herds from the air, with night vision goggles and radios.  They converge on a herd and slaughter it, removing the tusks with lightening speed and disappear into the bush.  There, they may hide the tusks until vehicles arrive to whisk the tusks to a main artery, which leads eventually to a port or airstrip.  The logistics are as finely tuned as those of UPS or Federal Express.  It is big-time crime and will eventually destroy the elephant populations IF the demand for ivory continues to grow and be tolerated.

Help fight this criminal activity and create a future where elephants can continue their annual migrations, albeit more limited than what existed just one hundred years ago.  For more on modern day elephant migration activity, go to Elephants Without Borders.