The Rhino Horn Trade

My latest investigation with photographer Brent Stirton appears in the October 2016 issue of National Geographic. You can catch an advance view here on NationalGeographic.com.

Philippines Ivory Crush: Call to the United States

Friday, June 21, the Philippines became the first country outside of Africa to destroy ivory seized by its law enforcement.  I wrote about it for National Geographic here: In Global First, Philippines to Destroy its Ivory Stock and here: Pulling Teeth.

Philippines Ivory Crush Banner

The United States opposes the international ivory trade but its decades-old stockpiles of seized ivory gather in official places like the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Colorado repository and unofficially in places like its Philadelphia office.  Why? 

At the destruction ceremony in Quezon City I listened to one of Africa’s leading law enforcement officials, Bonaventure Ebayi, say he hoped this was the beginning, that other countries would now join the Philippines in its stand against the illegal ivory trade.

I’ve received countless emails asking what a person who cares about the future of the African elephant can do to help.  To many I’ve responded that there’s nothing you can do. You’re an American.  Our laws ban international ivory trade and they’re reasonably enforced.  But there is something you can do.  You can insist the US join the Philippines, which could not by any measure afford to waste >6.5 million bucks. Unless it cared.

Philippines Ivory Crush Backhoe

As Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Ramon J.P. Paje made clear, the Philippine people he represents did not see the ivory as a financial opportunity. They saw it as the proceeds of a crime to be destroyed.

Many without a sense of the poor state of international law enforcement when it comes to trafficked species such as elephants and rhinos complain that any seized ivory or horn should be sold. The animals are dead they say, Why not profit?  Why not put the money to law enforcement even?

But money from these materials disappears like blood on sand.  The illegal ivory trade is at least a $50 million a year business and since the ivory ban was put into place in 1990 not one kingpin has ever been identified.  China recently prosecuted a significant trafficker, but it is clear that the biggest players operate freely.  In that environment, expanding the ivory trade feeds crime.  Whatever the wild species–turtles, pangolins, elephants, rhinos, tigers–there just aren’t enough rare animals on earth to satisfy China.  It’s growing too quickly.

Legal ivory fed to China expanded that country’s appetite.  After the 2008 CITES-approved “one time” auction of 102 tons of ivory to Japan and China,  the Chinese government built the world’s largest ivory carving factory.  It began training college students to take up the trade. The goal was to process the ivory and to be ready for more, to be ready for an ivory consuming future.  China wants more ivory and every bit fed to its system causes that industry to grow, fueling poaching, killing elephants, murdering rangers.  China’s economic growth outpaces the natural death of elephants and in the breach is murder, corruption, and one day, extinction.  In an ideal world that wouldn’t be the case.  But this isn’t an ideal world.  It’s the one we have.

My Story on Ivory Policing and China on National Geographic’s Voice for Elephants

009I have a new story up on A Voice for Elephants at National Geographic.com.  It begins like this:

Chinese media reported last week that China has convicted a major ivory seller in Fujian and his accomplices for their role in an international ivory trafficking scheme that smuggled nearly eight tonnes of ivory out of Kenya, Tanzania, and Nigeria.

The arrest and conviction of a government-accredited ivory trader by Chinese authorities is a major law enforcement development, long overdue, and to be commended. It brings into further question, however, the decision by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to approve China in the first place. And it casts a further shadow over TRAFFIC, a World Wildlife Fund subsidiary hired by CITES to monitor ivory trafficking [read more]

ABSCAM: An Oldie But a Goodie for Wildlife Watchers to Relax By

Lot’s of people are writing me depressed about the state of affairs for wildlife in Africa, especially after CITES COP16.  I don’t know about you but when I get down about widespread incompetence, lack of political will, and detective work any elementary school kid with a MacBook Pro could outperform, I sit back and relax with old organized crime stories.  Here’s a classic that always makes me smile….

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CITES’ Ivory Trade Policy is on Drugs

By far the most dangerous threat now facing the African elephant is not poachers or Chinese ivory carvers, it is CITES’ rulemaking.  CITES is indispensible to the protection of wildife around the world, but for elephants the high dollar values, insignicant enforcement, and government corruption make the ivory trade unlike nearly any other animal product traded in the world.

As described in this National Geographic blog post, we used narcotics as a surrogate in designing and implementing our Blood Ivory story investigation.  Once you see the ivory trade through the prism of illegal drugs, you can understand the absurdity of the way ivory is regulated by CITES, and the danger of proposals now on the table.

The world would never leave policing of the narcotics trade to botanists even though cocaine and heroin are plant products, but we do leave wildlife trafficking to biologists (and economists), and that is a big part of the problem. CITES Secretary General John Scanlon is absolutely correct that we need to employ the same approach to wildlife crime that we do to drug trafficking.  That should not be news, but it is.