Historic Rules Take Effect to Stop Elephant Poaching

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African elephants and rhinos continue to be ravaged by ever-more sophisticated ivory poachers, but serious action is finally being taken to stop it.

In 2013, President Obama issued an executive order to stop the poaching, and today, the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) announced regulations that will help get us there.

As of July 6, Elephant Ivory can’t be sold anywhere in the US and can’t be imported or exported. It allows for very limited exceptions for antique ivory over 100 years old and for musical instruments, furniture and firearms that contain tiny amounts of ivory.

“Since we proposed this rule in 2015, we received more than 1.3 million comments from the public, demonstrating that Americans care deeply about elephants and overwhelmingly support African elephant conservation,” says Dan Ashe, Director of FWS.

“Given the unparalleled and escalating threats to African elephants, we believe a near-complete ban on commercial trade in elephant ivory is the best way to ensure US domestic markets do not contribute to the decline of this species in the wild,” he says.

States Too

California also banned ivory sales as of July 1, including most antiques, with penalties up to $50,000 and one year in prison. In addition to bans, New York strengthened penalties and New Jersey closed loopholes. In Washington state, voters approved a ban through a referendum that applies to all wildlife trade, including body parts from lions, tigers, cheetahs, leopards, sea turtles, sharks and rays.

In other states, the NRA and other pro-ivory groups have managed to block such measures, such as Oregon and Illinois. In Congress, Republicans attempted to insert a provision in the Interior Department’s budget, blocking the regulations announced today.

“People want to protect elephants, rhinos, and other creatures. And they are tired of the selfish, self-centered arguments of opponents, who say the restrictions are too burdensome or unnecessary or impact private property rights. Time for all of politicians to recognize ivory and other endangered-animal body parts as contraband, and join the movement to protect the marvelous creatures who share our planet and enrich it with their mere existence,” says Wayne Pacelle, Executive Director of the American Humane Society.

Every 15 minutes, an elephant is killed for its ivory, destroying families and creating orphans – 100,000 elephants a year. Without drastic measures, this iconic animal will be wiped out in a decade. Rhinos are already close to extinction and every animal counts.

With ivory more precious than gold, trafficking brings in $18 billion a year for terrorists and transnational criminal syndicates.

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What’s Been Happening

Last year, the US and China signed an agreement banning imports and exports of ivory in both countries, closing ivory sales in the world’s two largest markets.

The US burned a ton of confiscated elephant ivory in New York’s Times Square, much of it from an antique dealer caught smuggling the ivory. China and 18 other countries followed and on April 30, Kenya burned the largest ivory stockpile left in the world.

Kenya’s elephant population is down to 35,000 from 175,000 in the 1970s because of the merciless onslaught of poachers, including Al-Shabab militants from Somalia.

In Tanzania, the elephant population is down 60% in just five years, to less than 44,000 as of 2014.

Courts are cracking down on ivory smugglers. The “Queen of Ivory,” a Chinese woman, was arrested in Tanzania for smuggling 706 elephant tusks. She faces 30 years in jail, as do two men convicted in March after being caught with tusk from 226 elephants. They face an additional five years for attempting to bribe police and wildlife officers. They are appealing the verdict.

In the US, “Operation Crash” has prosecuted 30 people.

Conservation nonprofits are using drones to counter poaching and British troops provide military training to park rangers.

US Actions

President Obama’s executive order established an interagency Task Force charged with developing a National Strategy for Combatting Wildlife Trafficking.

Its goals are to stop wildlife trafficking by:

  • strengthening enforcement
  • reducing demand
  • expanding international cooperation

Out of that the US Wildlife Trafficking Alliance formed. It helps African countries fight poaching through technical assistance and reduces demand for products through collaborations with Asian countries and here at home.

The Interior Department, which heads the Alliance, challenged US companies to raise awareness about the crisis and to root out illegal products from their supply chains.

In March, 16 companies and US zoos announced they would work with the Alliance.

“We want to create a mass movement in American society, where the average person is aware of poaching and trafficking and stands up to say this is not acceptable and it must stop,” explains Patrick Bergin, Executive Director of the African Wildlife Foundation, an Alliance member. “We feel we are nearing a tipping point that would get wildlife numbers headed in the right direction again, but we need a surge in awareness and action to get definitively over that hump.”

As examples, JetBlue Airlines will show a video on wildlife trafficking and products during flights, and Etsy and eBay are training employees to identify trafficked products being sold on their platforms. Google and Facebook are creating campaigns to raise awareness. Tiffany, Signet Jewelers and Ralph Lauren promise to get it out of supply chains.

Wildlife trafficking is bringing many species to the brink of extinction, such as tigers, apes, parrots and sea turtles. “Products” come in many forms: jewelry, carvings, fashion accessories made from exotic skins, and culinary and “medicinal delicacies” from increasingly rare animals.

While China agreed to close the country to ivory, it has yet to announce an implementation plan. Instead, it “will strictly control ivory processing and trade until the commercial processing and sale of ivory and its products are eventually halted.”

The Chinese public is very supportive of wildlife protection and is not aware of poaching for ivory.

Overall, the value of global environmental crimes – from illegal logging to wildlife trafficking – is about $258 billion a year, according to Interpol and the United Nations Environment Program. Only counterfeiting and human and drug trafficking bring in higher revenue for transnational organized criminal groups.

Then Came Cecil the Lion

After Cecil was killed by a trophy hunter, 45 airlines banned transporting hunting trophies on their flights from Africa’s Big Five – lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and cape buffalo. It started with Delta and American, and then many more joined including: JetBlue, United Airlines, Air Canada, Virgin, Air France, Finnair, Austrian Airlines, British Airways, Brussels Airlines, Emirates Airlines, Ethiopian Airways, Lufthansa, Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines. FedEx and UPS have yet to do so.

After four years of pressure, FWS announced it would list lions in Central and Western Africa as Endangered, and lions in Southern and Eastern Africa as Threatened under the US Endangered Species Act. A special rule prohibits importing trophies unless they come from countries with lion management plans approved by the US government.

Australia and France also banned imports of lion trophies.

Lion populations are down 60% with less than 30,000 left because of hunting and habitat loss. They can be found in just four protected areas, compared to 21 in 2005.

Last year, 54 African countries signed the Cairo Declaration, which addresses climate change and commits them to creating an “inclusive green economy,” including improving protection of the continent’s natural resources and wildlife.

Learn about what’s happening on the ground to turn the poaching situation around: http://magazine.africageographic.com/weekly/issue-42/elephant-charities-the-good-the-bad-the-ugly/

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