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New York State Hearing Shows Ivory Crisis Should Be Everyone's Concern

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Elephants are well-known for their memories. In the wake an unprecedented slaughter of forest elephants in central Africa in recent years, the Wildlife Conservation Society's Samantha Strindberg and Fiona Maisels have described how mother elephants in the Congo Basin will steer their calves away from certain logging roads known to be associated with people.

Yet just as elephants remember us, it is a critical time for us to remember them. Inspired by the current poaching crisis, a new global awareness movement aimed at protecting wild elephant populations has arisen and is now making great strides in attracting attention and driving action at the highest levels of government.

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WCS Executive Vice President for Public Affairs John Calvelli joins WCS VP for Species Conservation Elizabeth Bennett, WCS President & CEO Cristian Samper and Jane Goodall at the Clinton Global Initiative's announcement of a 3-year, $80-million Commitment to Action to protect African elephants. Photo © Julie Larsen Maher/WCS.

In November of 2012 then Secretary of State Clinton helped to shine a spotlight on the crisis by bringing together NGOs, governments, and concerned citizens to discuss a strategy on how to stop the slaughter of Africa's elephants. An Executive Order by President Obama in July earmarked $10 million for training and technical assistance in Africa to combat wildlife trafficking and created the White House Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking.

Last fall, 18 global conservation groups announced a three-year, $80 million Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Commitment to Action to stop the killing, stop the trafficking and stop the demand for ivory. The organizations were joined by seven African heads of state calling on consumer and transit countries to ban the sale of ivory until elephant populations rebound.

In November, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made waves by crushing close to six tons of confiscated ivory at its repository in Denver, CO. And our Congress has shown its support by appropriating $45 million in new funding to combat wildlife trafficking in its recent Fiscal Year 2014 budget, along with real interest in a bill that would place a moratorium on all domestic ivory sales.

Such a bill would acknowledge that the U.S. is the 2nd largest market for ivory sales in the world after China. New York City is a major hub in this country for this trade. In 2012, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, seized more than $2 million worth of elephant ivory at just three jewelry shops in New York City.

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Some of $2 million in illegal elephant ivory seized by the in New York City in 2012 by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. Photo: Manhattan District Attorney's Office

To better understand the connection of the poaching crisis to our state, the New York State Assembly held a hearing recently on the ivory trade and wildlife trafficking -- the first such hearing at the state level. Assemblyman Robert K. Sweeney, Chair of the Assembly's Standing Committee on Environmental Conservation, pushed for the hearing after we met to discuss the issue at WCS's Bronx Zoo.

Assemblyman Sweeney is disturbed that "New York has become one of the main points of entry for the illegal ivory trade," and for that reason he wants to see a policy change on the local level. One outcome of the hearing may eventually be a push for a statewide ban on ivory sales. WCS will be supporting such action through its newly launched 96 Elephants campaign.

That campaign, based on the number of African elephants killed daily in 2012 due to poaching, is aimed at educating the public about ivory trade and consumption. If we can galvanize public support through local events, city and state leaders will be more compelled to take action. So far more than 100,000 people have shared their support and sent a message to our government leaders that something needs to be done.

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As a part of WCS's 96 Elephants campaign, 96 fourth, fifth, and sixth-grade students at Brook Park Elementary in Indianapolis gather to raises awareness of the elephant poaching crisis. Photo © Tim Ayler

Just this fall, the Indianapolis Zoo -- one of the more than two dozen Association of Zoos and Aquarium (AZA) institutions supporting the 96 Elephants campaign -- gathered 96 school children for a group picture to promote greater awareness of the crisis.

By keeping the issue on the minds of our elected leaders we uphold an obligation to remember elephants. In time, if we are fortunate to safeguard and stabilize our precious wild elephant populations, those animals may stop looking for daily routes aimed at avoiding contact with people and remember us instead as a fellow species with whom they share a fragile ecosystem greatly in need of protection.

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