"The question is, are we happy to suppose that our grandchildren may never be able to see an elephant except in a picture book?" -- David Attenborough
Today, we find ourselves amidst a sudden and vicious epidemic of wildlife slaughter and illegal trade. We are receiving reports of a potentially catastrophic slaughter of forest elephants in the Central African Republic as that nation has spiraled into chaos.
First, we heard 30 elephants were killed. Then it was 40. Now it is more than 80, and the death toll will likely climb. Definitive numbers are hard to come by, but it is clear that the world-renowned national park, Dzanga-Ndoki, and its large elephant population is now in harm’s way.
It is not just elephants – this is a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. USA Today reports that 173,000 people have been forced from their homes since December when a rebellion began. Reports suggest violence and mayhem continue to threaten the land.
We can’t forget the people on the ground there, but my job is to care for the wild things and wild places of the world. And that means the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must find a way – working with the global community – to halt the poaching epidemic that looms over elephants, rhinos, great apes, big cats and many other species.
In recent years, this crisis has meant well-resourced, heavily armed and savage poachers, who stop at nothing and not only take advantage of the political turmoil but are sometimes encouraged by it.
Poaching levels are the highest in years, possibly decades, and demand for ivory is soaring on a robust black market. Sellers can earn $1,000 a pound for elephant ivory on the streets of Beijing, the New York Times reported last year.
Thanks to laws like the U.S. Endangered Species Act and treaties like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), elephants had been staging a recovery in many parts of Africa since the 1980s; however, in the past few years, these gains have been reversed and forest and savanna elephant populations are now in steep decline. It is believed that rising prices for ivory, particularly in Asia, are the motivation for the enormous increase in poaching.
And it is not just the Central African Republic.
West Africa has lost most of its elephants, with few populations exceeding 100 animals.
In 2012, 450 of the estimated 550 elephants in Bouba-Njida National Park in Cameroon were slaughtered in a single season by Sudanese and Chadian horsemen who have been hunting elephants in Central Africa for decades.
A recent survey, which received support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, estimates that in Gabon, two-thirds of the forest elephants in Minkebe National Park have been killed since 2004, a loss of more than 11,000 elephants.
Agency leaders met with several members of Congress Friday to try to come up with a solution. We are attacking the problem in several ways.
Through our Wildlife Without Borders African Elephant Conservation Fund, we support the 37 African elephant range states with financial and technical assistance for essential protection activities, especially anti-poaching. With the 2012 appropriation of $1.65 million, we contributed on average about $50,000 per country. That doesn’t sound like much in today’s world, but it is often the first or most significant funding a particular activity gets.
We also need to squelch the growing international demand for ivory, particularly in Asia, that is the major driver of poaching and illegal trade.
The United States plays a role in illegal wildlife trade as a consumer, supplier and transit point. People need to know that importing elephant ivory into the United States is almost always illegal. We will find smugglers, confiscate the ivory and prosecute them.
People use many reasons to argue why they should illegally buy elephant ivory. We need it for artistic or religious reasons, people tell themselves, so our purchase is OK.
They are wrong … dead wrong.
We work with the global community through CITES to clamp down on illegal trade in elephant ivory. At the recent CITES meeting in Bangkok, significant strides were made to address poaching and illegal ivory trade in source, transit and consumer countries.
And we coordinate with law enforcement agencies across the globe to aggressively investigate, arrest and prosecute those who poach elephants and illegally traffic in their tusks.
We are committed to stop poaching whether it is of elephants or any form of wild life. And the women and men of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will rise to this newest challenge. Unfortunately, we will rise as Congress has "sequestered" key portions of our budget, and we have had to cancel the hiring of a new class of 24 law enforcement special agents. But we will follow Theodore Roosevelt's admonition and we will do what we can, where we are, with what we have.