05/15/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Elephants - Ivory - and Organized Crime

A soft early morning. We luxuriate in the dawn of the African plainsland. We are at Kichwa Tembo - Head of the Elephant in Swahili - a safari camp whose tents are strewn at the foot of the escarpment of the Maasai Mara in Kenya. The Mara is the river that has run from the beginning of time, we are told, through the Serengeti, the endless plains home to ungulates of all sizes and movements, and the greatest creature of all, the savannah elephant. Not that there are no other elephants in Africa, but this is where Liz Claiborne, my wife and partner, saw them for the first time and that's when she had her epiphany, 5 a.m. November, 1987. Elephants became her religion. She had watched a small herd amble by led by the eldest female, the matriarch. A calf stumbled. The herd waited. The matriarch looked about to be sure there was no danger in stopping. She was ready to give her life to defend her herd.

Forward to 1989. The Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation had been organized in 1987. The fate of the African elephant was in the balance. Elephants were being slaughtered for their tusks at the rate of nearly five every hour. Clearly an ivory trade moratorium was crucial to elephant survival. In response to Bill Conway and Jonah Western, conservationists of weighty accomplishments and stature, Liz, shy person as she was, became involved.

This is from an Associated Press story dated October 18, 1989:

"About 70,000 elephants are killed each year, according to William Conway, general director of the New York Zoological Society. He said the African elephant population has fallen from 1.5 million ten years ago to 625,000. Last week major retailers pledged not to sell ivory and clothing designers said they would not use it in a campaign organized by Liz Claiborne.... A statement issued on their behalf read 'We believe that ivory must be kept out of fashion and in the possession of the magnificent creatures for whom it was originally designed.'"

Keeping elephants out of fashion was a major objective of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) CITES was formed in 1975 by scientists and conservationists concerned by the increasing international trade in endangered species. An annual convention was planned to deal with the regulation of export, transit and import of rare or threatened wildlife species. Categories of endangerment to the survival of a species had been specified at the outset--endangered and less endangered.

This week and next, March 13 to March 25, the most crucial meeting in the history of CITES will take place, in Doha, Qatar. The fate of the African elephant will be determined. Even though countries have been permitted to down-list their elephants in the past and have been granted ivory trade one-off sales (one-time only), an explosive increase in poaching elephants demands that no exclusions be granted. Tanzania and Zambia have requested permission to trade from their ivory stockpile. Granting their exclusions will serve to keep the trade alive, increase poaching, and quite probably forever remove elephants from the African landscape. .

Although a total ban on the trade in ivory became policy in 1989, the member Parties of CITES have requested and been permitted exclusions since then. It is these exclusions that have created a major problem.

Elephant numbers are imprecise, but what is not imprecise is that elephants are being poached for their tusks. Bill Conway's number of 625,000 African elephants in 1989 was stated earlier. Despite CITES and the international attention to dwindling African elephant numbers, the number of African elephants is now calculated at about 470,000. The African Elephant Coalition (AEC), an authoritative group of elephant experts, considers that number too high.

The loss of elephants and the trade in ivory has been a major thrust of CITES. TRAFFIC, an organization funded by both the World Wildlife Fund and the International Union on Conservation of Nature, has been working closely with the CITES group. TRAFFIC helps to keep us informed about the ravaging of elephants and the outcomes of "reconsideratons" that permit certain Parties (.for instance, in 1997, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia received permission to sell a certain amount of "stockpiled" ivory tusks to Japan). This was a one-time deal that effectively kept the Japanese carving market in business.

The following data has been supplied by AEC: In 2000, South Africa's elephants were down-listed. In November 2002, it was agreed that South Africa, Botswana and Namibia could export 66 tons of ivory. In 2007, a nine-year moratorium on trade by current Appendix II (less endangered species) countries was approved, intending to provide a "resting period" during which no further proposals would be presented for consideration A one-time sale of 120 tons of ivory from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe was approved, including the 66 tons approved in 2002.

It is not possible to quantify the size and syndication of "organized crime." TRAFFIC had this to say while describing a major ivory seizure in Thailand: "A remarkable surge in ivory seizures in 2009 suggests an increased involvement of organized crime syndicates in the trade, connecting African source countries with Asia end-use markets."

Seizures of illegally transported ivory are nothing new. Cameroon has been and continues to be a conduit for ivory tusks, many originating in poorly managed Gabon. In 2006, about 4 ½ tons of ivory transported from Cameroon was seized in Hong Kong. The same year 3,300 tons of ivory was seized in Taiwan. The ivory had been shipped from Tanzania via Malaysia.

A reporter for Bloomberg wrote that "more than a 10th of the elephants in
Virunga National Park were killed by rebels and soldiers for the income of ivory sales to China. In 1960 there were close to 3,000 elephants in the park. There are fewer than 200 today."

Headline March 26, 2009, "Tanzania Investigates Vietnam Ivory Seizure": After an initial "ho-hum" reaction, authorities in Tanzania decided to investigate. There seemed no question but that the shipment originated in Dar es Salaam, made its way to Malaysia, and thence, Vietnam.

Headline July 20, 2009, "Alarming Rise in Elephant and Rhino Poaching": A 660-pound shipment of elephant tusks and rhino horns was intercepted at the Kenyatta airport in Nairobi, Kenya .It was headed for Laos and according to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) had originated wither in Tanzania or South Africa.

DNA sampling, developed by Dr. Sam Wasser of the University of Washington, is now capable of identifying the point of origin and general harvest time of an ivory tusk. Dr. Wasser will be at Doha throughout the CITES convention.

Headline November 30, 2009, "Kenya Ivory Seizure 'Reflects Poaching Rise": Wildlife officials displayed more than 600 pounds of recently -seized ivory, reflecting a rise in poaching they said was prompted by the sale of stockpiled tusks last year.

In mid February of this year, two tons of African elephant tusks were seized in Thailand. According to the Associated Press, "This was the largest ivory seizure ever in Thailand. Thailand has become a hub for both ivory carving in Thailand and as a trans-shipper to China. The director of the Customs department said 'smuggling of ivory from Africa is on the rise in Thailand as in much of Southeast Asia.' "

"For more than 7,000 years, Chinese artisans have been crafting elephant ivory," wrote a reporter for the Financial Times in August 2009, in an article titled "Shopping Habits of China's Suddenly Wealthy." "Ivory has an illustrious reputation and an association with the wealthy and the elite...... elephant poaching largely takes place in central Africa, where poverty and instability are rife. Chronic unemployment, the availability of firearms and corruption all facilitate the illegal ivory trade." Thailand, as mentioned before, remains a crafts center as well as an ivory trans-shipper, and Japan remains an ivory user, both for personal seals and chopsticks for the wealthy.

What is to be done on behalf of the elephant?

The State Forestry Administration (SFA) in China is trying to keep its ivory carving industry alive by banning any new companies from entering the market. The move announced in early January will help extend existing supplies of ivory for another 15 to 20 years. So says the SFA.

The CITES meeting in Doha is critical to the future of the African elephant. It cannot be permitted to cease existing in our lifetime.

As I write my mind recalls the afternoon of April 27, 2006, the day of Liz's magical interchange with those assembled to meet her in the Liz Claiborne auditorium. She described our first trip to Africa and the early morning she had left her tent to view the passing animals, and the undulations of the giraffes. She smiled and moved her arms side to side. She described the elephant clan and her discovery of the bewitching compulsion that kept an elephant herd under the death-defying care of the matriarch. And then came the memorable moment. She broke into tears, wiped them away, and apologized for her emotional outburst. "If we can't save these magnificent creatures," she said, "then we can't save ourselves."