A Talk on the Wild Side.
Demand for their showy plumes drove some egrets to the brink of extinction. Photo by Mike Carlo/USFWS
For Asia’s fashionable rising middle class, few things project wealth and status like “white gold”—elephant ivory. Those who buy ivory, considered a symbol of status and good luck, are often unaware that ivory comes from elephants. If they do know, many don’t realize an elephant must be killed before its tusks can be extracted and carved into chess pieces, bracelets and sculptures. They may have been told that elephants shed ivory naturally and it’s scavenged from the ground, causing no harm to the elephants themselves.
This lie sounds all too familiar. In the late 1800s, unscrupulous members of the millinery (hat making) industry told fashionable women that the feathers decorating their elaborate hats were shed plumes found on the ground. In reality, few feathers were gathered from molts. Birds were mostly shot to supply the fashion.
A hat with egret feathers. Courtesy Joan Boudreau
The lucrative feather trade drove many North American birds to the brink of extinction as they were killed by the millions for their showy breeding plumage to meet international demand from New York to London to Paris. Feather hunters targeted heron and egret rookeries during the breeding season, leaving behind the skinned carcasses of adults, while chicks were left to die of starvation. And it wasn’t just feathers—whole carcasses of songbirds and seabirds decorated the hats of women from all walks of life who were eager to join in the fashion of the day. The volume of the harvest was astonishing— one 1902 record from a London auction house showed sales of 48,240 ounces of heron plumes, which would have required the feathers of nearly 200,000 herons, not counting the chicks and eggs destroyed. Countless millions of birds were killed.
The pictures and stories of modern day wildlife trafficking are similarly grim: Tens of thousands of dead pangolins, seized en route to China. Tons of elephant tusks, mingled with illegal drugs and guns. Rhino carcasses scattered across the African savannas. A wild tiger—one of the few remaining in the world—found dead in the trunk of a smuggler’s car. The images are powerful, and with the stakes so high, the crisis seems hopeless. The truth is, if you scratch the surface of American history, you’ll see similar events across our own landscape not long ago.
Turn the clock back just 100 years and you’ll find shocking stories of wildlife decimated for commercial profit here in the United States, in an era known as the “Age of Extermination” that was littered with the carcasses of migratory birds. And if you look closely at the steps conservationists took to turn that crisis around, you’ll see that the path forged to the modern-day system of conservation laws and ethics tells us that a hopeful future is possible for wildlife imperiled by trafficking. Today, whenever you see an egret in North America, it’s a reminder that there is hope for elephants.
The President’s National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking is founded on three priorities: reducing demand, strengthening enforcement and expanding international cooperation. The Service and partners have embraced these principles as solutions to reverse the steep downward trend of elephants and other species threatened by wildlife trafficking. But, is there hope these priorities will work? The lessons of the feather trade provide evidence of success, especially when it comes to demand reduction.
When women learned the truth behind the plume trade, they organized among themselves to stop the killing of wild birds for fashion in what was perhaps the world’s first wildlife demand reduction campaign. In the United States, influential Bostonians Harriet Hemenway and her cousin Minna Hall hosted tea parties for society women, encouraging their peers to boycott the fashion of feathered hats in favor of ribbons. Their efforts ultimately led to the formation of one of the first Audubon societies. Groups like theirs organized fundraisers, orchestrated lecture tours on conservation and even audited the millinery industry.
The determination of early Audubon societies and others influenced the passage of the Lacey Act in 1900, which prohibited interstate movement of protected species taken in violation of state laws. The trend of elaborate feathered hats subsided by World War I, thanks in no small part to their efforts. This year the nation celebrates the one hundredth anniversary of the 1916 Migratory Bird Treaty with Great Britain (on behalf of Canada). With the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act two years later in 1918, the United States affirmed that the true value of plumes is in the thriving wild populations of egrets and other migratory birds that grace national wildlife refuges today.
Elephants are being killed for their tusks. Photo by Dirck Byler/USFWS
The Service and its partners are following in the footsteps of Hemenway and Hall by working to drive down desire for ivory. Through outreach efforts that include two nationally profiled Ivory Crushes, the Service is raising awareness that when you buy ivory, you have no way of telling whether it came from a legal or illegal source and as a result, could be the product of violent and destructive poaching. As awareness grows, so does the understanding that ivory is not white gold—it is an elephant’s tusk that society should not value unless it’s attached to an elephant.
During the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty, the nation can remember that conservation success grew from the ashes of the Age of Extermination. Expanding international cooperation, reducing demand for illegally traded wildlife and strengthening enforcement transformed the story of migratory birds from one of extinction and loss into a proud conservation legacy—a network of protected areas and a system of laws, scientific monitoring and international cooperation that is the gold standard for wildlife conservation across the globe. The global effort to conserve elephants, rhinos, tigers, pangolins and all wildlife imperiled by trafficking can end the same way.
KERI PARKER, International Affairs