A Near Complete Commercial Trade Ban on Ivory in the United States

ivory crush

Ivory Crush at Times Square (photo from the Creative Commons)

It is estimated that one elephant is killed in Africa every 15 minutes, mostly conducted by militias and militants turning tusks into cash to be used for funding efforts towards destabilizing nations and looting them of their resources. Elephants could be extinct in a few decades at this pace.

Two years ago in Tanzania, President Obama announced an executive order to direct action and better organize the U.S. government’s efforts to combat wildlife trafficking. This week, he proposed a new rule that is a derivative of that prior declaration. So much will come of this including investment by the U.S. Agency for International Development in new programs across more than a dozen countries to help combat wildlife trafficking. Congress has called for a study on the link between poaching and terrorism, and the Department of Defense is now getting involved to track down terrorist poachers. Private donations are resulting in additional weapons and game wardens to help fight, throughout Africa, the militants that target and kill elephants for ivory to fund their activities. Botswana has banned all sport hunting of elephants, and has begun humane ecotourism development to support their economy.

When I posted on the Facebook page for my own blog, The Whisker Chronicles, the news of President Obama’s issuing of a proposed rule that will establish a near-complete ban on the commercial ivory trade in America, some readers posted compelling questions. What does a near-complete ban mean? Why is there not a complete ban?

Existing U.S. ivory regulations mostly concern the import and export of the material from the country, while allowing some legal trade of the material between states. The new regulation, which will be finalized later this year, would restrict interstate trade to antique items that are over 100 years old or contain a minimal amount of ivory. The proposed rule also contains new restrictions on the international trade.

Prior to this past Saturday’s announcement, many animal conservationists had argued that allowing some legal ivory trade provided a cover for criminals who were actually selling illegal ivory. Ivory has been part of an international commercial industry for items such as piano keys, dominoes, false teeth, billiard balls, along with a multitude of every day items for various purposes. Unfortunately, there are also a multitude of trinkets, carvings and adornments from an era of luxurious indulgences that gave no regard to the life taken for such purposeless things.

Much of the world is no longer willing to participate in or tolerate this behavior. It is challenging and sometimes impractical to gather up every antique ivory item created decades ago or to spend resources to punish those long in possession of ivory items, however acquired. Now even antique dealers will be under more scrutiny. In a 2009 investigation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials seized more than a ton of ivory from a Philadelphia art store that had been manipulated to appear old enough to meet federal standards. Ivory from that seizure was destroyed at an “ivory crush” event in Times Square last month. For a full explanation of the changes, visit The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Proposed Revisions document.

Personally, I have legally handled ivory and other animal parts that are banned for commercial trade in various roles as a zoo keeper, aquarist and zoo volunteer. There are certain exceptions to the laws about possession when items such as ivory were not illegally obtained and will not be sold for commercial gain but will be used for scientific education. Even then, those possessors are merely being allowed to hold the items which really are property of the U.S. Government and can be seized at any time. The ivory I handled was the end of a tusk that had broken off naturally from a young, healthy elephant that lived in the zoo. There was nothing nefarious about it. But the looks on the faces of the kids that got to touch a real elephant tusk while looking out on exhibit at the elephant it once was attached to was priceless. I doubt that any of those kids started thinking about how to make money from that tusk.

Little Diamond at the North Carolina Zoological Park (Photo courtesy of NC Zoo)

Little Diamond at the North Carolina Zoological Park (Photo courtesy of NC Zoo)

Elephant and Rhino Conservation: Three Encouraging Events in One Year

Forest elephants.  Image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Forest elephants. Image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In September, 2013, conservation groups announced a three-year $80 million Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Commitment to Action to bring together NGOs, governments, and concerned citizens to stop the slaughter of Africa’s elephants. Funding has been provided by the governments of the United States, Europe, and Africa and multiple other organizations, institutions, foundations, and individuals.

Nations joining the coalition include Botswana, Cote D’Ivoire, Gabon, Kenya, South Sudan, Malawi, and Uganda. Commitment partners include African Parks Network, Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Frankfurt Zoological Society, Freeland Foundation, Howard Buffett Foundation, International Conservation Caucus Foundation, National Geographic, Save the Elephants, TRAFFIC, WildAid and WildLifeDirect. Commitment Makers include Wildlife Conservation Society, African Wildlife Foundation, Conservation International, International Fund for Animal Welfare, and World Wildlife Fund.

Funds are being used to support national governments to scale up anti-poaching enforcement at the 50 priority elephant sites including hiring and supporting an additional 3,100 park guards. Anti-trafficking efforts are being increased by strengthening intelligence networks and increasing penalties for violations and adding training and sniffer dog teams. In addition, leaders from African nations have called for other countries to adopt trade moratoria on all commercial ivory imports, exports and domestic sales of ivory products until African elephant populations are no longer threatened by poaching.

The commitment runs through 2016 and addresses the problem on three fronts: stop the killing; stop the trafficking; and stop the demand.

So much of the burden of this commitment falls on the shoulders of wildlife rangers.  It just so happens that World Ranger Day is this week. World Ranger Day is observed annually on the 31st of July, and is promoted by the 54 member associations of the International Ranger Federation, by their partner the Thin Green Line Foundation, and by individuals who support the work of Rangers and the IRFs natural and cultural treasures.

More than 1,000 rangers have been killed worldwide over the past 10 years, with many more injured in the line of duty.  Rangers in Uganda, DRC and Rwanda have been directly responsible for an increase in the number of Mountain Gorillas, risking their lives to ensure the survival of this Critically Endangered species.  In Virunga National Park alone, 140 rangers have been killed in the last 15 years.  In Thailand, there are 20,490 rangers working in 411 protected areas. In the last five years, more than 40 park rangers have been murdered, with many more injured or left in a critical condition. Community Maasai Rangers in Kenya have helped increase the local lion population on their community lands from just 6 individuals to over 70.  So it is easy to see why the Partnership to Save Elephants and other similar initiatives are so important.

You can watch Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton announce the commitment Partnership to Save the Elephants at the 2013 CGI Annual Meeting in the following video. They were joined on stage by participating heads of state and leaders of groups partnering on the effort.

The second event relates to a topic I blogged about last week, the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK) annual Bowling for Rhinos event. Each year the AAZK sponsors a fund raising bowl-a-thon in which more than 60 AAZK chapters participate throughout the U.S. and Canada and typically raise between $200,000- $300,000 annually. However in 2013, $481,489 dollars were raised and a goal has been set to raise $500,000 in 2014!

Since 1990, the annual AAZK Bowling for Rhinos fundraiser has raised a total of $4,994,153. One-hundred percent of all funds raised goes directly to in situ conservation projects, conserving four species of rhino, their habitats, and hundreds of other endangered plants and animals. BFR helps preserve the black and white rhino in Africa and the Javan and Sumatran rhino in Indonesia.

Image courtesy of the American Association of Zoo Keepers

Image courtesy of the American Association of Zoo Keepers

The third event happened just last week. A South African court sentenced a rhino poacher to 77 years in jail, the heaviest penalty ever imposed. Mandla Chauke was convicted of shooting three rhinos, as well as murder and possession of illegal firearms, after he and two other poachers cut through wire fencing and illegally entered Kruger National Park in 2011. The murder charge was added because one of Chauke’s accomplices was killed in a shootout with park rangers. The third poacher escaped. “Our wish is to see a significant increase in such convictions,” South African National Parks chief executive Abe Sibiya said.

Stiff sentencing is needed to stamp out the medicinal demand for rhino horn, which is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and actually has no medicinal qualities. It is made entirely of keratin. The consumption of rhino horn is no different than the consumption of human toenails, in both futility and repulsiveness.

Unfortunately, poaching and poaching wars go on. In fact, I worry that there will be a surge in poaching activity in rebellion to a changing world as a painful but telling affirmation that new attitudes, bigger penalties and more effective protection of wildlife is actually having an effect. Old beliefs die hard and opportunities to earn a living are very challenging in many parts of the world where poaching bears the greatest threats to native wildlife. With so many partners in the fight to save wildlife and wild places, one can only remain hopeful that solutions will continue to be created that consider the balance of both man and beast. Call me a naïve optimist, but I believe the human spirit is capable of accomplishing anything.

You can be part of the fight by taking the pledge to help extinguish the demand for ivory.