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For Africa’s Elephants, Bearing Witness Bears Fruit

By James Deutsch

For the past week Chelsea Clinton and her father President Clinton have been touring Clinton Foundation projects across Africa. In August 2013, as Executive Director of the Africa Program for WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society), I had the great privilege of introducing Chelsea and her team from the Clinton Foundation to my WCS colleague Charles Foley and the work he and the rest of his staff based in Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park were, and still are, doing to protect elephants.

Elephant populations have held steady or even increased in several areas of Africa where park management, support from communities, and income from tourism have been strong. Northern Tanzania is one such place. In Tarangire, where WCS has worked in collaboration with the government, park officials and local people, elephant numbers have rebounded from the last poaching crisis of the 1980s by 7 percent per year.

In Tarangire, where WCS has worked in collaboration with the government, park officials and local people, elephant numbers have rebounded from the last poaching crisis of the 1980s by 7 percent per year. Photo: Charles and Lara Foley ©WCS.
In Tarangire, where WCS has worked in collaboration with the government, park officials and local people, elephant numbers have rebounded from the last poaching crisis of the 1980s by 7 percent per year. Photo: Charles and Lara Foley ©WCS.

In addition to Tarangire, Clinton Foundation staff had the opportunity on that 2013 trip to visit the Sekute Conservation Area in the Kazungula Landscape – comprising parts of Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Angola – and to meet with members of a community trust working with the African Wildlife Foundation to maintain a primary school built among other reasons as an incentive to support a community-protected wildlife area.

The Clinton Foundation visited Tarangire and Sekute in part to learn about and publicize the dreadful ongoing slaughter of Africa’s elephants. Driven by a seemingly insatiable demand for ivory across the globe (and make no mistake – this is an international crisis), elephants have been killed in Africa at the rate of approximately 35,000 per year. That’s 96 per day, or one every 15 minutes.

Chelsea and President Clinton are back because they understand that Tarangire and Sekute don’t have to be the exception. With sufficient resources and political will, they can be repeated across the continent where elephants, rhinos, and other threatened species continue to be poached. Indeed, with her return to Africa, Chelsea Clinton and her father are reminding us that bearing witness can sometimes bear rich fruit.

In the fall of 2013, WCS joined leaders of elephant range states, NGO partners, and the Clinton Global Initiative in a commitment to stop the killing, stop the trafficking, and stop the demand for elephant ivory. Photo: Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS.
In the fall of 2013, WCS joined leaders of elephant range countries, NGO partners, and the Clinton Global Initiative in a commitment to stop the killing, stop the trafficking, and stop the demand for elephant ivory. Photo: Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS.

In the wake of Chelsea’s first trip, the Clinton Global Initiative, or CGI, joined WCS and more than two dozen other international conservation NGO’s, along with the leaders of nine African elephant range countries, to support a commitment to stop the appalling killing of African elephants, stop the trafficking of their tusks by increasingly well-organized criminal syndicates, and stop the demand for ivory in Asia, the United States, and elsewhere.

The CGI commitment, among other complementary efforts, helped galvanize a global movement for the protection of elephants before they are lost forever from Africa’s forests and savannahs. To stop the killing, more governments in Africa are committing funds and action to wildlife enforcement efforts – both in the field and in the courts, where poachers are increasingly prosecuted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

It is vital now to focus that enforcement and prosecutorial attention on traffickers, middlemen, and kingpins. Corruption and weak governance remain big problems, but progress has been made—in Republic of Congo, where forest elephant numbers are stable in the three national parks; in northern Kenya, where poaching has declined and security improved; and across Africa where governments, communities, NGOs, and donors are working together.

One new interdiction tool is the use of so-called sniffer dogs, trained to detect small amounts of ivory and other wildlife parts. Photo: Ruth Starkey ©WCS.
One new interdiction tool is the use of so-called sniffer dogs, trained to detect small amounts of ivory and other wildlife parts. Photo: Ruth Starkey ©WCS.

To stop the trafficking, interdiction efforts have been expanded both in Africa, where ivory is shipped from airports and seaports, and in destination countries in Asia and the west. One new interdiction tool is the use of so-called sniffer dogs, trained to detect small amounts of ivory and other wildlife parts.

Most important, however, are intelligence-led efforts to enhance the enforcement operations that result in the successful arrest, prosecution, and conviction of targeted wildlife criminals along the trade chains – thus degrading, disrupting, and dismantling the organized trafficking networks and reducing poaching pressure on elephants, rhinos, and other targeted species.

WCS launched the 96 Elephants campaign in September 2013 to educate consumers about the link between ivory purchases and the elephant crisis and affect policy change in the United States and abroad.

Through a series of social media mini-campaigns developed in China more than 8,000 Chinese have taken pictures documenting their pledge to “Bring No Ivory Home” on shouhudaxiang.org. Photo ©WCS.
Through a series of social media mini-campaigns developed in China, more than 8,000 Chinese have taken pictures documenting their pledge to “Bring No Ivory Home” on shouhudaxiang.org. Photo ©WCS China.

One area where that effort has been particularly effective is China, the world’s largest ivory market. Through a series of social media mini-campaigns developed in China more than 8,000 Chinese have taken pictures documenting their pledge to “Bring No Ivory Home” on shouhudaxiang.org. Through social media and traditional media, the 96 Elephants campaign has generated close to 235 million exposures in China on elephants and ivory-related issues.

The 96 Elephants campaign has been equally impactful on the policy side. Because illicit ivory sales continue right here in the Unites States, with new ivory masquerading as old, just as in China and other parts of Asia, the campaign has fought for bans on sales and trade of ivory within states. Last summer, state ivory bans were passed in New Jersey and New York (the largest U.S. ivory market) and today similar bills are working their way through the state legislatures in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts and elsewhere.

Finally, at the national level, President Obama launched a Strategy to Combat Wildlife Trafficking and the Administration followed up with an important Implementation plan and significant actions across multiple Federal departments and agencies. The European Parliament likewise passed a ground-breaking resolution calling for a new EU Action Plan against wildlife crime and trafficking. A new European strategy on wildlife conservation in Africa, including wildlife trafficking, is being developed.

A 2012 ivory bust by the Manhattan District Attorney's office suggests why more states must join New York and New Jersey is restricting all ivory sales. Photo: ©Office of the Manhattan District Attorney.
A 2012 seizure of illicit ivory with a retail value of more than $2 million by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office suggests why more states must join New York and New Jersey shutting down their commercial ivory trade. Photo: ©Office of the Manhattan District Attorney.

The fight to save Africa’s elephants, parks, and tourism industries has just begun, but the global mobilization since Chelsea Clinton’s last visit to Africa convinces me that it will be won, just as it was in the early 1990s. The Clinton Foundation has the power to bear witness and focus attention, vital first steps. Now the onus is on each of us to act.

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James Deutsch is Vice President for Conservation Strategy at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). Follow James on Twitter at: @JamesCDeutsch.