US Ivory Crush: Call to the World

Earlier this week the United States government destroyed its national ivory stockpile, nearly six tons of elephant ivory, representing the majority of ivory seized from American tourists and traffickers since the late 1980s.

My take, pre- and post-event for National Geographic, is available here:

National Geographic’s short film on the Ivory Crush:

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]

Papal Palace Video Exposes Ivory Use

On a day when the world is learning that yet again a massive slaughter of elephants has taken place, this time of 89 elephants in Chad, many of which aborted upon being shot, I am struck by this video from ABC news which takes us inside the Vatican Pope Francis now calls home.  At minute 1.15 we see what appears to be an ivory crucifix on the desk of Pope Benedict and at 1:53 we see two large elephant tusks on the back wall of a conference room.  What is the message to those who share this space?  Spiritual leaders have begun to recognize the cost in human lives and morals of the ivory trade.  Three weeks ago I did an interview on the ivory trade with Vatican Radio.  That show has yet to air.  It is insignificant, however, next to the possibility of a leader who need ask no deeper question than this:  What would St. Francis do?

“I have never heard or even read a word that would encourage the use of ivory for devotional objects,” Vatican spokesman Fr. Lombardi wrote National Geographic after letters from readers of Ivory Worship poured in to it.  When it comes to religion it is the seen as well as the read, the believed as well as the heard, that makes all the difference for life.

Father Lombardi also said this:  “I believe that the most important and most urgent action is that of raising the awareness of the Christian communities in the countries affected by the most serious phenomena so that they might act together with those in charge and with the other members of the civil communities in which they live in order to deal decisively with these very serious problems. This must be done, if possible, in collaboration between the followers of different Christian confessions or other religions. In fact, it is a serious problem that Christians can and should unite against….”