The Ivory Game

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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

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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

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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.

 

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.

Join the Elephant Lobby

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On February 11, 2014, President Obama announced he would take administrative action to ban the commercial trade of elephant ivory in the United States.  In addition, he outlined a national strategy to more effectively combat overall wildlife trafficking. (For complete details, click here.)

Now for the difficult part — making it happen.  Why is it difficult if the President has the authority to accomplish this through the power he already possesses?  Because in our democracy everyone has a right to participate in how such action is actually implemented.  As they say, the devil is in the details.  Since his announcement, a number of special interests have descended upon Washington with all sorts of reasons why banning trade in elephant ivory is bad for America.

One of the loudest protests has come from the Safari Club International (SCI), an organization representing the interests of trophy hunters.  Sport hunting of elephant is allowed in Zimbabwe and Tanzania.  Recognizing the importance of revenue generated from hunting in those countries, the Administration proposes to “limit the number of African elephant sport-hunted trophies that an individual can import to two per hunter per year.”  However, in a press release, the SCI states:  “It is unknown precisely when the decision by the U.S. FWS will occur, but SCI will do everything in its power to fight this reckless decision that has no basis in law, science, or conservation policy.”

Over the years, the SCI and its members have contributed significantly to conservation causes, but this stance is selfish and short-sighted.

Along with the NRA (another opponent to the President’s proposal), the SCI has some powerful resources at its disposal.  The elephants need us to rise to the occasion and let the administration know that the majority of us think the proposed ban is a good idea.

Here is what you can do.  Beginning tomorrow, a new website, www.elephantsusa.org/, goes live. Created by a group of concerned citizens, Sign for Elephants, the purpose is to collect 100,000 signatures on an online petition to ban the commercial trade in ivory in the US.  Based on the First Amendment of our Constitution, our government is required to respond to any petition having a minimum of 100,000 signatures. Using the White House sponsored website, “We the People,” you can register and sign any petition that has been posted on this site.  On May 1, Sign for Elephants will be available for signing.

Click here to begin the process to sign the petition and join the Elephant Lobby.

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

Close to Home

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July has been a busy month for elephant news, abroad and in the United States, beginning with President Obama’s July 1st Executive Order calling for monetary and technical assistance in the fight against poaching and wildlife trafficking (click here).  While not exclusively devoted to elephants, the current poaching problem provided the impetus behind and focus of the Order.  As outlined in the Fact Sheet, a new Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking will develop a strategy to oversee the program.  The PR value of this is as important as the actual financial and technical aid as other G8 countries are being called upon to follow the U.S.’s lead.

Cynics may question the impact all this will have given the sometimes glacial-like pace of action through task force and talk.  We need to keep the fire lit under our public officials to do even more.  One way you can help is to contact members of the U.S. Congressional International Conservation Caucus.  It is the second largest, bi-partisan caucus and has a special focus on the African poaching crisis (click here).

Also, we need to get our own house in order.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just released results of Operation Wild Web”—a coordinated undercover law enforcement operation which sought to bring illegal wildlife traffickers to justice. Agents and volunteers searched marketplaces, forums and classified ads on the Internet for suspicious wildlife sales.  The results were astounding: after just 14 days of tracking, “Operation Wild Web” netted 154 “buy/busts”—30 involving Federal wildlife crimes and 124 for violations of State laws.

And, on the same day President Obama announced his Executive Order, an ex-Defense attaché to the American Embassy in Nairobi was arrested trying to board a flight to Amsterdam.  He had two pounds of ivory objects (jewelry and carvings). He pleaded guilty and paid a meager fine of $350.  As the New York Times said: “His arrest meant that a former official of a government dedicated to stopping the poaching that has threatened the very existence of Kenya’s elephants was engaged in ivory trading himself.”  We have work to do!

Go to “In the News” to see more headlines from July.

 

Mara Elephant Project

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The Masai Mara National Reserve in southwestern Kenya is perhaps the most famous game reserve in all of Africa.  A rich ecosystem of grassy plains, riverine forests and high escarpments provides  for an abundance of wildlife seen in no other place on earth.  While the annual migration of wildebeests and zebras, with the plethora of predators that feast on the young and feeble, is the draw for many, elephants are also an integral part of the scene.  The Mara does not boast the density of elephants found in certain other game reserves, but it is an important habitat for the savannah elephant.

The Mara is an extension of the Serengeti ecosystem across the border in Tanzania.  For centuries,  Masai tribesmen have herded their cattle and claimed the territory in both countries as theirs.  Because the land is rich, farming is adjacent to and sometimes spills over onto the reserve.  The Mara’s accessibility, natural diversity, international movements of animals and proximity to human settlements combine to make it an ideal laboratory for elephant research.

In 2011, the Escape Foundation, Save the Elephants and the Kenya Wildlife Service joined forces to employ satellite tracking technology to learn more about elephant movement and to address poaching and human-wildlife conflict issues.  The Mara Elephant Project has produced a superb video describing their work, which I highly recommend you view here.

Radio collaring an elephant is no small undertaking, and it is interesting to watch the process on the video.  A warning — there are graphic scenes of poached elephants with their faces hacked off.  Not for the faint of heart.  But this effort is full of big-hearted, committed people from a number of nations and represents in my view a fine example of the type of effort needed in many parts of Africa.  Watch the video, and if you are inclined, contribute to the project.

Gratitude

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These two elephants are happy to see each other. They are not strangers; nor have they been separated for long.  Part of the same breeding herd, they are just having fun at the watering hole, showing gratitude for water and being together. Elephants express their affection for family members regularly.  In fact, elephants have a need for affection and the touch of other elephants. Given their highly social nature, we have every reason to believe there is an elephant sound for thank you and a variety of trunk embraces to express gratitude.

We elephant lovers have reason to be grateful as well.  President Obama did in fact touch upon the poaching problems facing elephants and rhinos in his discussions with Tanzania’s President this past week, stating: “Poaching and trafficking are threatening Africa’s wildlife, so today I issued a new executive order to better organize U.S. government efforts in this fight so that we can cooperate further with the Tanzanian government and others. And this includes additional millions of dollars to help countries across the region build their capacity to meet this challenge, because the entire world has a stake in making sure that we preserve Africa’s beauty for future generations.” (click here for full story)

Specifically, the Executive Order calls for:

  • A $10 million pledge to improve protection for threatened wildlife populations in key African countries.
  • A Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking to develop a national strategy within six months to fight wildlife crime, which will receive recommendations from an Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking of independent experts.
  • A review of the federal government’s Transnational Organized Crime Strategy to consider adding wildlife trafficking to the list of crimes it covers, elevating it to the same level as arms, drug and human trafficking.

Although it is too early to speculate on how effective these measures will be, we should be grateful to the President and his advisors for making elephant poaching a priority topic during his African trip.  The current poaching “kill rate” is 80 African elephants a day; at this rate, they will all be gone in a decade.  In light of that, we should all take a moment to express our gratitude to the President and do our part by keeping up the efforts to stop consumer demand for ivory.

The Elephant in the Room

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This elephant has been in my room — my studio — since 2008 just after I photographed him in Tanzania’s Lake Manyara National Park.  While I have many elephants in my room, this one holds a special spot in my heart and on my wall.  The trip was the first safari in which my husband joined me, and Manyara was our first stop.  We encountered this giant on our first day, meaning that he was one of the first wild elephants Joe had ever seen.  He posed patiently, flaring his ears as though he might charge, but it was just for show.  I think this guy just liked to play with our adrenalin levels.  I’ve sold several prints of him, and it gives me great pleasure to know he occupies others’ rooms, a constant reminder of Africa’s majesty and the beauty of the wildlife living there.

More often than not, the “elephant in the room” is a metaphor, rather than a photograph, for something too sensitive or volatile to discuss.  We all have those elephants from time to time.  In politics and diplomacy, elephants are always in the room, and I’m not talking about the Republican type.  Case in point. President Obama is about to travel to Africa, his first, major African tour since becoming President.  As soon as the  trip was announced, innumerable special interests came forward with their wishlists for Presidential discourse during meetings with the leaders of Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania. Elephant advocates are part of the choir (click here for story), particularly where Tanzania is concerned, as much of the poached ivory comes from that country.

Most likely, the elephant in the room during the Tanzanian meetings will be China.  The U.S. agenda will involve advancement of democracy and good governance, as well as economic ties.  The Chinese agenda (President Xi Jinpang visited this past March) involves investment and generating markets for its products and services. Period.  No altruism, just business, which has proven to be a highly successful strategy for China in penetrating the continent of Africa.  The U.S. investment, and hence influence, lags that of China’s significantly, something the U.S. wants to change. Stressing ideals over tangible investments, however,  may prove counterproductive in achieving that objective.  To make things even more tricky, a bomb detonated in Arusha last week during a rally of the opposition party was made in China (click here for full story).  Tanzania’s opposition party has accused the ruling party of being in China’s pocket and cooperating with the illegal ivory trade.  Meeting planners better get a very big room for the meetings the U.S. President and his delegation have in Tanzania.  But sadly, it is unlikely they will be discussing the fate of real elephants.  (Due to the bombing and security concerns, the First Family’s planned safari while in Tanzania has been cancelled.)