It’s estimated that if nothing is done elephants could be wiped out in the next five years, since about 35,000 are killed a year, which is about 96 every day.
Animal-rights advocates around the world are celebrating an “elephant-sized” win after governments around the world, including the U.S., agreed to implement a ban on the commercial trade of elephant ivory.
As part of a National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking, the U.S. government announced last week it will work to “protect iconic species like elephants and rhinos by prohibiting the import, export, or resale within the United States of elephant ivory except in a very limited number of circumstances.”
Now rules once relaxed under the Endangered Species Act will be revoked for African elephants and the number of elephant sport-hunted trophies an individual hunter can import will be limited.
“Like other forms of illicit trade, wildlife trafficking undermines security across nations,” said President Barack Obama while introducing the new U.S. ivory policy. “Well-armed, well-equipped, and well-organized networks of criminals and corrupt officials exploit porous borders and weak institutions to profit from trading in poached wildlife …
“… The entire world has a stake in protecting the world’s iconic animals, and the United States is strongly committed to meetings its obligation to help preserve the Earth’s natural beauty for future generations.”
News of the U.S. and other world government’s decision to ban the commercial trade of elephant ivory comes after animal rights and conservation groups reported species of elephants, such as the forest elephant, have seen a dramatic decline in their populations in recent years due to poachers.
“At least a couple of hundred thousand forest elephants were lost between 2002-2013 to the tune of at least sixty a day, or one every twenty minutes, day and night,” said Fiona Maisels, a researcher with the Wildlife Conservation Society, who headed the research on how detrimental poaching was in particular for African forest elephant populations.
“By the time you eat breakfast, another elephant has been slaughtered to produce trinkets for the ivory market.”
Time for a US intervention
The Obama administration’s announcement that the U.S. will increase restrictions on the ivory trade and close some loopholes to protect the animals also comes after many countries began to destroy their ivory stockpiles, and came as several government leaders and NGOs met in London to specifically address wildlife trafficking.
“Today’s release by the Obama Administration of the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking and the issuance of a ban on trade in elephant ivory are an unprecedented and historic step by any government to commit all aspects of its operations behind addressing this crisis,” said WCS President and CEO Cristián Samper, who also serves as a member of the U.S. Advisory Council to the Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking.
“The United States is fully committing to take on this transnational organized crime from all angles by marshaling resources across all executive branch agencies and by taking steps to make our domestic laws tougher on wildlife criminals…
“The announcement of this ban comes as more than 111 partners and more than 100,000 people have sent letters to the administration asking for moratoria on ivory sales through the public awareness campaign, 96 Elephants,” Samper said.
“The poaching crisis facing elephants, tigers, rhinos and other wildlife demands this type of meaningful action, if we are to keep these species thriving into the next century and beyond.
“I am encouraged to see a unified, cross-cutting plan, including an emphasis on site-based conservation action, which will better equip the United States to take on all facets of this crisis – stopping the killing, stopping the trafficking, and stopping the demand,” he said.
Lesser known than their savannah cousins, a genetics study in 2010 found that forest elephants are in fact a distinct species, as far removed from savannah elephants as Asian elephants are from mammoths.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, forest elephants are smaller than their African elephant cousin, the savanna elephant, and have more oval-shaped ears, straighter tusks that point downward, as opposed to being curved. They also have a different size and shape for their skull and skeleton.
However, it should be noted the International Union for the Conservation of Nature does not recognize forest elephants as a distinct species.
Just as their name suggests, forest elephants primarily live in the Congo rainforest, located in Central and West Africa. A majority of the forest elephant populations used to call the Democratic Republic of Congo home, but WCS says because of “relentless poaching” the country has lost a lot of its elephants.
“The current number and distribution of elephants is mind-boggling when compared to what it should be,” said Samantha Strindberg, also with WCS and co-author of the study examining poachings effect on elephant populations.
“About 95 percent of the forests of the [Democratic Republic of Congo] are almost empty of elephants.”
Currently, the majority — 60 percent — of the world’s forest elephants are found in Gabon.
It’s estimated that if nothing is done elephant populations could be wiped out in the next five years, since about 35,000 elephants are killed a year, which is about 96 elephants every day.
Because the elephants live deep in the forest, researchers say it’s a challenge to monitor their populations closely, and it’s easy for poachers to kill the animals and get away with it, since the animals live in countries riddled with poverty, instability and corruption.
From an environmental standpoint the elephant genocide is concerning since elephants play a crucial ecological role in their habitats.
“A rain forest without elephants is a barren place,” said Professor Lee White, executive secretary of Gabon’s National Parks. “They bring it to life, they create the trails and keep open the forest clearings other animals use; they disperse the seeds of many of the rainforest trees – elephants are forest gardeners at a vast scale.
In addition to the environmental and conservation concerns, the mass slaughter of elephants is actually a national security issue for many nations around the globe, including the United States.
“Illegal poaching and trade of parts of animals such as elephants are major problems around the world, and harmful to U.S. interests,” WCS said.
“The criminal networks who engage in illegal wildlife trade, such as the Lord’s Resistance Army and al-Shabaab, are the same groups who engage in other illicit activities, including the drug and gun trades, and sales of ivory have been linked to supporting terrorist groups. This is a direct threat to U.S. national security.”
Elephants and crime
For poachers to obtain the ivory from the elephant’s tusks, they often use helicopters, GPS equipment, night-vision goggles, and automatic weapons to find the elephants. Once the animal is located, poachers “hack their tusks out with an axe” often while the elephant is still alive.
Poachers usually leave the remains of the elephant in the same spot the animal was killed, and since elephants mourn their dead, other elephants can be spotted standing by the bodies of slain herd members for hours or even days.
Illegal poaching and wildlife trafficking is the fourth largest transnational crime. Around the globe, Hong Kong is the number-one market for ivory, but the U.S ranks number two. The only other industrialized Western nation on the list is Germany, which ranks number five.
Sometimes referred to as “the white gold of jihad,” demand for ivory skyrocketed in the 1980s. By the time the world recognized the tragic result the demand for ivory had on elephant populations, many banned the commercial trade.
While the killings slowed initially, conservation groups say poachers are now back in full force.
U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague, who led delegates from 50 countries last week in a conference on the illegal wildlife trade said that since the ivory trade has connections to drug trafficking and terrorism, it’s an issue that world leaders need to address as well.
“Unlike in previous years I believe that this should be a foreign policy priority,” Hague said.
“If we defeat this trade then we solve a whole host of other economic and social problems at the same time. I hope today’s conference will provide the boost we need to make this dream a reality.”