U.S. Ivory crush helps signal strong stance on elephant conservation
Last week, the US Fish & Wildlife Service (US FWS) made a big statement for the conservation of elephants – it destroyed six tons of confiscated ivory – nearly the entirety of the US’ ivory stockpile – in what has been called a global call to action. This type of statement, which is more than symbolic, as it represents millions of dollars-worth of ivory, follows similar courageous acts in other countries. In 2011, Kenya’s President Daniel arap Moi destroyed twelve tons of tusks, worth an estimated $3 million. The next year, Gabon’s President Ali Ben Bongo burned his country’s entire stockpile of confiscated ivory that is thought to have come from around 850 elephants.
In addition to the vitally important role these acts play for increased awareness, deterrence, and elephant conservation, the US FWS’ ivory crush has a personal importance to me. My friends and former colleagues in Gabon and other parts of Central Africa are taking an on-the-ground leadership role in protecting forest elephants by engaging with local communities, stepping up enforcement efforts, and expanding their conservation activities into the courts. The Last Great Ape Organization, or LAGA, really started the trend of enforcing wildlife laws in Central Africa. Its founder, Ofir Drori, has worked tirelessly with his teams in Cameroon and an expanding radius of jurisdictions, to bring poachers and other illegal wildlife traffickers to justice. (See my review of Ofir’s book, The Last Great Ape: A Journey Through Africa and a Fight for the Heart of the Continent.) These efforts are increasingly important as illegal wildlife trade, according to Bas Huijbregts, my friend and now head of WWF’s campaign against illegal wildlife trade in Central Africa, is valued at over $8 billion worldwide.
Tools such as quick DNA analysis have been perfected by groups such as the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology to help law enforcement and scientists determine where ivory confiscated in Asia, Europe, and the Americas came from; this analysis can point back to specific family groups in Africa. This work has vastly improved the ability of Interpol, governments, and non-profit groups such as WWF to up the ante as they tackle what has increasingly become a highly organized, international criminal activity that helps finance wars and terrorist activities in Africa.
The forest elephants of Gabon are part of what makes that country what it is, an amazing, rich, beautiful place. Tackling the illegal ivory trade at the demand and supply side is necessary, and I’m encouraged by the US FWS’ most recent foray into the battle against wildlife trafficking.