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!

Life Insurance

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The African elephant’s natural life span in the wild is up to 70 years.  The median age is 56, meaning that half die before 56 and half live to be older than 56.  These statistics, however, assume no human intervention.  The poaching crisis has altered the metrics of wild elephants in many ways, none of them good.  Studies of female elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli Park between 1960 and 2005 estimate their median age to be 36, a good 20 years shy of the natural median age.  While Amboseli suffered a devastating drought in the late “aughts,” poaching has been virulent for the life of the study and is largely responsible for the shortened life span of these elephants.

Worse yet, the impact on longevity goes far beyond the body count from poaching.  The elephants with the longest tusks are the oldest, most experienced and most blessed genetically.  Poaching has robbed Africa of most of its big tuskers, and with them, their contribution to the gene pool and knowledge banks of the herds, particularly in the case of the matriarchs who lead the breeding herds.  This raises the risk for those who survive and the yet-to-be-conceived.  Much like a dysfunctional human family, a herd without the wisdom and leadership of the older females will not learn behaviors they need to survive and contribute positively to their pachyderm community.  For example, young female elephants learn nurturing skills from their mothers and aunties.  Should they give birth absent their 20 years of motherhood apprenticeship, they will not know how to react to their newborn or give it the intensive care the baby requires.  And, any baby elephant younger than two cannot survive without its mother.  Without the elders’ memory, herds will not know where to migrate to during droughts.  The stress level of elephants in groups lacking good leadership is much greater; behavior is erratic and sometimes belligerent.  The dysfunction of elephant groups that have lost their elders could accelerate the  decline of elephant populations just as surely as the poachers bullet has been doing.

The young elephant in the photo above is a lucky guy, with a doting mother, lots of aunts and cousins.  Without poaching, he has a good chance of living well beyond 56.  But how can we help insure he has this opportunity?

The best life insurance policy for all elephants would be to eliminate the demand for ivory.  Much attention is deservedly paid to the role of the Chinese is driving demand.  Yet, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the US is the #2 market for ivory.  President Obama announced plans for upping US involvement in fighting poaching and reducing demand, including a ban on most commercial sales of ivory in the United States (USFWS fact sheet on the ivory ban).

Like much of the federal budget, the appropriations to implement these actions are being held hostage to special interests and congressional dysfunction.  If you are inclined to get involved politically, here is an excerpt from a Wildlife Conservation Society mailing I received that may help you compose a communication to your elected representatives:

I’m writing to you as a constituent and supporter of the Wildlife Conservation Society to ask you to help save elephants from extinction. Please oppose any appropriations riders that would interfere with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) efforts to strengthen controls on the commercial trade in elephant ivory. Riders, like Section 115 of H.R. 5171, would prematurely stop a regulatory process that will consider public comments prior to finalizing any rule changes. It would also result in a return to prior regulations that were fraught with uncertainty for buyers, sellers, and enforcement agents.

An estimated 35,000 African elephants are killed by poachers each year for their ivory. At this rate, African elephants will be wiped out across large areas of their range within our lifetime. Individual elephant tusks can sell for tens of thousands of dollars, and reports indicate that the substantial portions of these illegal profits are ending up in the hands of transnational organized crime syndicates that also conduct trafficking of humans, drugs and weapons and extremist groups like Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and al Shabaab that use the proceeds to finance human rights abuses and terrorist activities.

And attach the short video from the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, WILD: Saving Africa’s Elephants.  This says it all. Let’s do everything we can to help elephant communities not only survive, but also thrive.

 

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.

Remover of Obstacles

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I have just returned from three weeks in India, exploring and photographing the country’s two holiest cities — Varanasi and Vrindavan. While shrines to the pantheon of Hindu deities are abundant throughout the subcontinent, they are seemingly attached to every building in these two cities.  None is more evident than the elephant god, Ganesha.  Equipped with the head of an elephant and body of a pot-bellied, older man, Ganesha is the Lord of success and destroyer of evils and obstacles. He is also worshipped as the god of education, knowledge, wisdom and wealth. With such an arsenal of favors to bestow, Ganesha is perhaps the most popular of the Indian gods.  He is invoked at the beginning and end of most celebrations and called upon throughout the day to help his believers realize success and help good triumph over evil.

The stories of how Ganesha came to have the head of an elephant vary, as is to be expected with anything in India and the fact that he has been around for at least 7,000 years.  The most common explanation is as follows.   Ganesha is the first born child of Shiva and Parvati (Shiva being one of the top three India deities). While Lord Shiva is away from home, Parvati asks little Ganesha to protect her by denying anyone entrance to her bath or bedroom.  Shiva comes home unexpectedly, entering either the bath or bedroom.  When Ganesha tries to prohibit him from entering, Shiva in a rage cuts off his head, not recognizing Ganesha as his son. Parvati is devastated. Shiva sends his people out with instructions to bring back the head of the first sleeping being they come upon.  That being is a young elephant. Ganesha is thus given the head and his father decrees that henceforth people will worship Ganesha and invoke his name before undertaking any venture.

This story may seem Disneyesque to Westerners, but it is very real to the hundreds of millions of Hindus who adorn their front doors with paintings or sculptures of Ganesha.  I keep several Ganeshas around my home — just in case.  Having been immersed in Hindu celebrations and wisdom this past month, it seemed reasonable therefore to make several offerings of my own to Ganesha on behalf of all elephants. The obstacles to eliminating trade in illegal ivory and poaching are staggering. The resolve shown recently is encouraging (visit In the News for highlights); however, the road ahead is littered with obstructions, including organized crime, corruption, lack of education, poverty, limited resources and human-wildlife conflict.

That is why attacking the matter of demand remains so critical. Yet, even bold moves to do so encounter obstacles. For example, recently announced regulations to be issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ban Americans from importing and  exporting (almost) any item that contains even an iota of ivory. The rules do not ban private ownership, but outlaw interstate sales of most ivory items. Yet, this week’s New York Times carries an article, “Limits on Ivory Sales, Meant to Protect Elephants, Set Off Wide Concerns.”  It seems that snuff bottles, violins and chess sets with ivory may lose their value without an open interstate or international market. So on one hand you have The Duke of Cambridge (Prince William) calling for the destruction or removal of all ivory in the royal collection at Buckingham Palace to raise awareness. . .and on the other, collectors of ivory, musicians, museums and the National Rifle Association crying foul — don’t mess with my ivory.  (Why the NRA you may ask?  Many old guns have decorative, inlaid ivory on the stock.)

Obstacles everywhere. I feel a need to commune with Ganesha over this (again).  He seems so appropriate a god for endangered elephants.

Olympians

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If elephants had their own Olympic games, I imagine them being staged in Amboseli (Kenya) under their Mt. Olympus, Kilimanjaro.

I had the privilege of attending the first week of the 2014 (human) Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and was struck by the similarity between media coverage of the Olympics and that of the elephant.  On one hand, the themes of corruption, terrorism, environmental impact and international tension dominated media coverage, particularly leading up to the opening ceremony.  Once the games began, however, the stories of courage, strength, commitment and resolve took center stage as these amazing athletes competed in the rinks and on the slopes. Heroes and heroines all, the athletes inspire people around the world to strive to reach their personal best. As incredible as the talent these people possess is, their stories impress me even more.

Meanwhile, on a different international stage, calls for a UN Special Representative dedicated stopping wildlife crime and a proposal to ban the trade in elephant ivory within the United States showcased heroic efforts of a different kind.

The London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade (February 12-13) committed to taking “decisive and urgent action” to stop the illegal trade of all wildlife. Heather Sohl, Chief Species Advisor at WWF-UK, said:

“Governments signing the London Declaration today sent a strong message: Wildlife crime is a serious crime and it must be stopped. This trafficking devastates species populations, but also takes the lives of rangers, impedes countries’ economic development and destabilises society by driving corruption. This is a crisis, not just at a national or regional scale, but one that demands urgent global attention, and so warrants high-level political support through the appointment of a dedicated United Nations Special Representative. It is down to governments to stand by their commitments now and put in place procedures and resources to tackle the crime back in their homelands.”

At the same time, following President Obama’s proposed National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking, the U.S. Department of Interior announced a ban on commercial trade of ivory.  The details of this (near complete) ban on ivory trade include:

  • Prohibit Commercial Import of African Elephant Ivory: All commercial imports of African elephant ivory, including antiques, will be prohibited.
  • Prohibit Commercial Export of Elephant Ivory: All commercial exports will be prohibited, except for bona fide antiques, certain noncommercial items, and in exceptional circumstances permitted under the Endangered Species Act.
  • Significantly Restrict Domestic Resale of Elephant Ivory: We will finalize a proposed rule that will reaffirm and clarify that sales across state lines are prohibited, except for bona fide antiques, and will prohibit sales within a state unless the seller can demonstrate an item was lawfully imported prior to 1990 for African elephants and 1975 for Asian elephants, or under an exemption document.
  • Clarify the Definition of “Antique”: To qualify as an antique, an item must be more than 100 years old and meet other requirements under the Endangered Species Act. The onus will now fall on the importer, exporter, or seller to demonstrate that an item meets these criteria.
  • Restore Endangered Species Act Protection for African Elephants: We will revoke a previous Fish and Wildlife Service special rule that had relaxed Endangered Species Act restrictions on African elephant ivory trade.
  • Support Limited Sport-hunting of African Elephants: We will limit the number of African elephant sport-hunted trophies that an individual can import to two per hunter per year.

    Together, these efforts are Olympic-sized in their ambition and international scope. Right now, we have more words than demonstrated action. The difficult part remains ahead of us. Nevertheless, this is more than we had before the Olympic Games began just two weeks ago. One thing we can all do immediately is urge everyone we know not to buy ivory — and to spread the word.  As one organizer of the London Conference concluded:  “Key to supporting those efforts are the agreed actions targeting the consumer end of the supply chain, where reducing the demand for wildlife products is an essential part of the process,”

A Crushing Experience

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Watching — and listening to — a full-grown, adult elephant walk by is an incredible experience.  At five to six tons, an elephant makes almost no noise when strolling across open territory — a remarkable feat when you consider the crushing weight each step places upon whatever is underfoot. The elephant´s foot is formed in such a way that it is essentially walking on tiptoe, with a tough and fatty part of connective tissue for the sole. This spongy “shock absorber” helps an elephant to move silently.

It may also surprise you to know that the United States remains an enormous market for illegal elephant ivory.  The U.S. is second only to China in terms of the market for illegal wildlife products, such as rhino horn, tiger bone and ivory.  Later this week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) plans to destroy its stockpile of ivory — six tons of ivory objects seized upon entry into the U.S. since the late 1980s when ivory trade was banned. Blaming increased demand for a devastating rise in poaching, largely by organized crime syndicates, the Administration wants to send a message of zero tolerance and reduce the appeal of illicit animal products.  (Click here for full story.)

Working with conservation organizations, the USFWS plans to crush the ivory, then use it to build memorials around the country against poaching. (Hopefully, they will mix the ivory with other materials like concrete so that the memorials aren’t prone to theft).  I am anxious to know more about the plans for such memorials as many Americans remain complacent about ivory and the plight of the elephants.  Too often, we are under the impression that this is a problem in Africa and Asia, but not here in the U.S.  Let this be a wake-up call that our markets are part of the problem, and inspire us to help crush the demand for ivory and the poaching that feeds that demand.

 

 

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.