THE BLOG

Crush the Ivory Trade

11/07/2013 03:11 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Next week, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service will preside over the destruction of 5.4 tons of seized elephant ivory -- confiscated from nefarious smugglers and other participants in the bloody ivory trade. I applaud the United States government for taking this bold and very public step to show the world that only elephants should wear ivory. And while Kenya and other nations have set piles of ivory ablaze previously, I hope that America's action will spur similar efforts to permanently remove elephant ivory from circulation from other nations worldwide.

Born Free has been on the front lines working to protect elephants from the ivory trade for a quarter century now. I was there in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1989 when the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) put all African elephants on Appendix I, thus prohibiting trade in ivory that is primarily commercial.

But I was also in Harare, Zimbabwe in 1997 when this ivory ban was weakened for Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. The key message I have found through my experience is also a simple one: A uniform and universal prohibition on international trade in elephant ivory is the best way to stop elephant poaching. Ivory becomes taboo in the marketplace. Prices drop. Markets dry up. Poaching diminishes. Populations stabilize. Send a signal that ivory is profitable, and the reverse happens in every regard.

And, after trying to get individuals at the highest levels of government to take notice of the plight elephants continue to face, I am so thrilled that attention has been paid -- from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to President Barack Obama.

Hillary Clinton and her daughter, Chelsea, both representing the Clinton Global Initiative, have spearheaded efforts to bolster on-the-ground protection for African elephants across their range. Born Free, with elephant conservation and anti-poaching projects in Kenya, Tanzania, Burkina Faso, and elsewhere, knows first-hand what it takes to protect elephants in the wild, where they belong.

Meanwhile, in July, President Obama signed an Executive Order (E.O.) to improve the U.S. Government's response to combating wildlife trafficking. The E.O. has established a Presidential Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking (consisting of eight non-governmental experts from NGOs, academia, and the private sector) to recommend actions to increase enforcement of existing laws (for example, thwarting the organized crime and money laundering that run rampant in these networks); provide technical assistance to other nations through grants (as in an existing grant to Cameroon, which has resulted in the arrest of an average of one major wildlife dealer per week since 2006); and decrease consumer demand for wildlife parts and products.

A reduced demand is key. Wildlife trafficking involves increasingly sophisticated criminal networks and ranks as one of the largest global sources of international crime. The wildlife trade is responsible for killing elephants, rhinos, and other species at alarming rates. "Rising demand for ivory is fueling a renewed and horrific slaughter of elephants in Africa, threatening remaining populations across the continent," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell stated at a recent White House forum. Last year, an estimated 35,000 African elephants were poached -- 96 elephants per day. In 2012, poachers killed 668 rhinos in South Africa, a country that has only 21,000 rhinos to begin with. Sadly, 2013 is already worse; more than 700 animals have been killed already.

Wildlife trafficking not only threatens species, but harms communities. State Department officials even consider wildlife trafficking to be a national security crisis. As Hillary Clinton has noted, "Wildlife trafficking has serious implications for the security and prosperity of people around the world." This practice politically destabilizes impoverished African nations through widespread corruption, damages economic development, and endangers public health. And, tragically, poachers have killed an estimated 1,000 wildlife rangers in the past decade.

Despite our best efforts, wildlife traffickers may still find the financial rewards of trafficking to be so attractive that they're willing to risk potential penalties. David Hayes, former Deputy Secretary of the Interior Department, admits, "We're not creating the kind of disincentive for wildlife trafficking that this problem deserves."

There is so much work to be done, but I, for one, am thrilled to know that the issue of wildlife trafficking is getting much-needed attention; I only hope this focus hasn't come too late for the rhinos, elephants, and other imperiled species of the world.