"I thought the ivory trade was banned." How many times have I heard that in the last 15 years?!
Surely it's true: the bloody, corrupt and merciless ivory trade that precipitated the slaughter of 600,000 African elephants during the late 1970s and 1980s; the trade that outraged people all over the world and stained the savannah red; the trade that, at its height, accounted for the lives of 200 elephants a day; the trade that was banned by international agreement in 1989.
So why all the fuss about elephant poaching and the ivory trade? Well, the figures speak for themselves:
In the last six months more than 23,355 pounds of ivory has been seized by customs and police officials. That's the last mortal remains of over 1,700 elephants. Seizures have been made in Thailand, Vietnam, Mozambique, China, Kenya and Portugal. One seizure in April of 707 elephant tusks, 32 ivory bracelets, and a rhino horn, in Guangxi Province, China, took place just two days after the 30th anniversary of China becoming a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)!
If it's this bad then what is being done about it?
The first thing is to break the spell of silence and make sure that people everywhere know of the unfolding disaster.
So if you haven't had a chance to read Alex Shoumatoff's elephant odyssey, "Agony and Ivory" in the August issue of Vanity Fair you should.
Trust me -- 9,000 words is a huge article but somehow even the efforts of one of our greatest wordsmiths could not entirely capture the enormity of the plight faced by elephants across Africa and Asia... but he did a damn fine job, supported by a wonderful portfolio of both heart-warming and distressing images taken by acclaimed photographer, Guillaume Bonn. This landmark article -- a mammoth opus -- not only explores the reality of elephant lives -- their complex and social make-up, their communities, their families -- but follows the trail of bloody ivory from the plains and forests of Africa through the heaving markets of the Near East to the rapacious retail outlets of China.
China features heavily. That is where demand for ivory is greatest, driven by a booming and increasingly wealthy middle class. But, as Chinese nationals numbering more than a million, expand their footprint across the African continent, building roads, mining, and carrying out timber extraction etc., so it would appear that, according to Alex and experts in the field, it is the Chinese that are behind much of the poaching and associated corruption that comes with it.
Born Free is a longstanding supporter of wildlife law enforcement in a number of Central and West African countries helping bring poachers to book, making sure the laws which protect elephants on paper, protect elephants in reality. We support the frontline conservation work of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the Last Great Ape organisation (LAGA) based in Cameroon. We fund the groundbreaking research of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants. We gather and publish data on poaching and ivory seizures, exposing the true scale of its trade to the more than 170 countries that have signed up to the CITES Treaty (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) which is supposed to protect wildlife from unsustainable trade (www.bloodyivory.org). And make no mistake, it is an unsustainable trade -- an estimated 35,000 elephants a year are being killed for their ivory and with only between 400,000 and 500,000 elephants left in total ... you do the math.
Of course, Born Free, KWS, LAGA and Africa's enforcement agencies and the dedicated conservationists can only do so much. Without political will, we will fail. The international community, the USA, the European Union, the British Government, need to listen to the voice of Africa. They need to pay attention to the newly-approved African Elephant Action Plan, endorsed by every single one of the 37 African countries with wild elephants. This Plan is the blue-print for the survival of the species but while 'one-off ivory sales' continue, while the UK Government, the EU and others fail to withdraw the 'favoured ivory trading nation' status from China and Japan, while some continue to believe that limited, legal ivory sales stockpiled ivory can 'satisfy demand' and will lead to a reduction in poaching, then we will be fighting a losing war. Rampant demand is fuelling supply and far outstripping the potential supply of ivory. If all the elephants were to die, demand would not be 'satisfied' - let's get real!
The majority of Africa's elephant range states agree that legalising any future ivory trade would be a huge mistake. The 23 members of the African Elephant Coalition (which includes countries as diverse as Mali, Rwanda, Nigeria, Chad, Kenya and Ethiopia) are resolute in their rejection of trade and convinced of the need to prioritise field conservation, security, law enforcement and conflict resolution above all else.
However, without action to choke off the trade their efforts, their dreams, will be for nought. Therefore, the only appropriate and effective course of action is, once again, to make all ivory trade illegal. No more one-off sales. No more concessions to trade. No more ivory tusks being sold at a staggering $700 a pound. Only then will the message be clear, will the poachers realise they have nowhere to hide, will the enforcement agencies and customs authorities be able to act with certainty...and will the world's wild elephants stand a fighting chance.
Some years ago I took my nine year old son Wij and my daughter Lily on safari to East Africa. In northern Tanzania we came across a poached elephant. The smell and the flies and the sheer immensity of the crumpled body -- like a wrinkled, punctured 'blimp' -- was truly shocking. Wij took up his video camera and walked up to the suppurating carcass. "See the elephant... see how big it was" he said fighting for breath. The scale of the tragedy, perpetrated on an elephant by the greed of people, was summed up by a small boy in those few simple words.
Take heed world.