These great beasts are being killed at an alarming rate. Here’s how to choke off the illegal ivory trade
This month has seen troubling headlines: A rising demand for elephant ivory in Asia and the introduction of global criminal networks into the illegal wildlife trade in Africa are pushing wild elephants ever closer to extinction. Eight out of 10 elephants today die as a result of poaching rather than from natural causes.
As the October cover story in National Geographic, “Blood Ivory” describes, more than 25,000 of these majestic, highly social, and intelligent animals are slaughtered annually — and thousands of those are being killed for use of their tusks in statuary and religious artifacts.
What do crimes in Africa and Asia have to do with the five boroughs? More than you might care to know.
This summer, a joint investigation by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service led to the arrest of two jewelers selling illegally-obtained ivory. In the heart of midtown’s diamond district, Vance’s staff seized a wide variety of decorative ivory with a staggering combined retail value of more than $2 million .
Under New York State law, selling ivory is legal — but dealers must have a permit, and that permit can only be obtained by those who follow strict federal regulations that require ivory either to be proven antique or to pre-date the listing of the species as endangered (1976 for Asia, 1978 for Africa).
The international community has its own strict regulations — a complete ban on the world trade in ivory that began in 1989.
For a long time, these prohibitions saved thousands of elephants from slaughter. But in recent years, a rising middle class in China and elsewhere in Asia has increased consumer demand for ivory.
And now the situation on the ground has slipped out of control: 2011 was the worst year for elephant deaths since the global ivory ban was first imposed.
The numbers are bad, but that cannot compare to the carnage one sees firsthand in elephant range countries.
Field staff of the Wildlife Conservation Society working in Africa and Asia have followed the expanding elephant carcass count with increased alarm. It is gruesome, shocking and infuriating. Full-grown elephants are brutally cut down. Juveniles and babies, too.
They’ve seen how roads into forests built for industries like logging and mining are providing poachers access to wildlife. They worry that, with more Asian companies and nationals moving into Africa, the situation could only get worse for these elephants, whose tusks are coveted for use in carvings, inlays and ornamental objects.
Obviously, better protection on the ground from Central Africa to the Far East is crucial.
But an equally critical key to saving elephants’ lives is drying up demand for products made out of their tusks in places like Hong Kong and Manhattan.
We must not only catch ivory traders and confiscate their contraband; we must prosecute and punish them.
In 2011, a 35-year-old Chinese national was apprehended by Republic of Congo officials as he attempted to board a flight for Beijing. He was carrying five tusks, 80 ivory chopsticks, three ivory carvings and several other ivory items.
The smuggler was eventually sentenced to four years in prison, sending a clear message that Congo will not tolerate the illegal killing of wildlife.
But these kinds of sentences are, regrettably, all too rare.
If we want our children and grandchildren to share the planet with elephants, we must make the world far more dangerous for the poachers who are driving them toward oblivion.