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

RIP Cecil the Alligator

I awoke to an interesting article on the cover of the New York Times today. A photograph, above the fold, front page, with the bold caption, “Hunting Something That Can Hunt You Back.”

Before studying the dark photograph I assumed it was yet another article on the killing of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe. Possibly, it was a story from the hunting industry’s perspective, an inside look to balance the predominantly negative reaction to the apparent poaching of the Zimbabwean lion. History suggests hunting has its place in conservation, but I had an uneasy feeling about the photo caption. “Hunting something that can hunt you back,” hearkens back to Victorian language legitimizing and celebrating the hunting of gorillas.

For more, I was directed to the Sports page. “‘Bama vs. Gators In a Deadly Game” is the story’s title, suggesting real mano a mano stuff, tinged with a bit of college football. It is the story of alligator hunting in Alabama, one of several southern states where it is legal to hunt gators. Once endangered due to over-hunting, the alligator is an Endangered Species Act success story: the US now has millions of alligators, occupying a range that extends from North Carolina down along the cup of all southern coastal states into the east coast of Texas. The gator is not at risk.

Still, after roughly 90 stories in the Times this summer referencing Cecil the Lion, I was surprised the alligator story, which is the cover of the sports page, and a 2-page spread inside, gave only a few sentences to big game hunting, declaring, “The hunting of large animals is a controversial topic, demonstrated this summer in the killing of a lion in Zimbabwe that caused international outrage.” Fair, if bland, enough. But the only anti-hunting voice is given to a kook, an anonymous voicemail caller who said of a gator hunter, “I hope to God somebody hunts her down and hunts her children down and lets her know how it feels to be murdered like that.” –Hardly a voice of reason.

So, here’s what I found disturbing:

When it finally rose, it shot up, snout first, shattering the surface’s calm. More hooks were cast, or a harpoon was jabbed into its side, which usually sent it underwater again, but not for so long. Weakening, the alligator was jabbed again, or its tail or snout was snared in a wire hoop.

Once the alligator was coaxed to the edge of the boat and its size was estimated by everyone on board, the group would agree either to let it go or to shoot it in the back of the head.

You get only one alligator. Make it a good one.

In other words, they snag it, harpoon it, and only then decide whether it’s good enough to shoot. The taking of the biggest carnivores is unusual in nature, and has recently led a group of scientists to dub man a “Super Predator”, a moniker which masks the negative impact of taking the best genes out of nature instead of doing what predators who live in the ecosystems they predate do: take the weak, the young, the sick.

My beef isn’t with the hunting, it’s with the manner of the kill, and its hyperbolic celebration in this piece. This kind of cruelty has no place in America. But the fact that it does, and that it can be celebrated on the front page of the New York Times, tells you how primitive we all can be.

Talking Ivory Crime on FRESH AIR w Terry Gross

The slaughter of African elephants is a wildlife story. But it’s also a crime story. –Terry Gross

I’ve gotten huge response to my NPR interview with Terry Gross this week. Terry got straight to the heart of the matter, bringing an important, fresh perspective to this issue.

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.