It’s easy to feel disconnected from the plight of the African elephant. These beautiful creatures live halfway around the world, and most Americans have only ever seen them on TV or at the zoo. Sure, we have all heard that poaching is a problem, but did you know that the U.S. is the second largest market for poached and smuggled ivory in the world? Ivory from elephant tusks is valued for use in carvings, jewelry, and as a traditional (though fallacious) Chinese medicine used to purge toxins from the body and to improve one’s complexion – and a growing demand for it is decimating the species’ populations.
One African elephant dies every 15 minutes at the hands of ivory poachers. With rates of elephant poaching increasing, the wild population of African elephants outside of certain fiercely protected reserves could vanish completely within 10 years.
African elephants were listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1978, and most populations are currently listed under Appendix I, the category of most concern, under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). A ban on the importation of raw ivory into the U.S. took effect in 1989, except for in specific cases.
After protections were put in place, African elephant populations had begun to recover, but with a surge in demand for ivory, rates of illegal poaching have jumped again. From 2011-2014, African elephant poaching reached the highest levels since international monitors began keeping records in 2002. And the price of ivory in China has tripled, making elephant poaching an extremely lucrative business.
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What is the U.S. doing about the illegal ivory trade?
In 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) crushed six TONS of confiscated ivory. This past June, they crushed another ton in Times Square. Millions of dollars worth of ivory sacrificed to send a message: The U.S. will not allow this prolific trade to continue at the cost of elephant lives.
It’s easy for illegal ivory to blend in with the legal ivory for sale in U.S. markets. Because it is legal to sell African ivory that was imported before 1989, and because legal ivory is often sold without certification, illegal ivory is often sold under the guise of a legal sale. And since many wildlife products made from hippo teeth, walrus teeth, warthog tusks, etc. look very similar to elephant ivory, it can be difficult for law enforcement officials to determine what is legal and what isn’t without the use of expensive and destructive testing. Right now, products are considered legal until proven otherwise. Law enforcement officers must prove that the seller knew that their ivory was illegally obtained in order to obtain a conviction. Current U.S. law is outdated, confusing, and full of loopholes.
As a result, the easiest way to stop the illegal sale of ivory is to prevent it from coming into the country in the first place. FWS inspectors are stationed at ports across the country in an attempt to catch illegal ivory as it enters. The FWS also provides enforcement training around the world, and has assisted in international efforts to trace seized ivory shipments back to the country of origin so that smuggling routes may be shut down. But the volume of products coming into the U.S. far outstrips the resources that FWS has to address the issue.
What can you do to help?
Be a Conscientious Consumer. Remember, the sale of legal ivory often serves as a cover for the sale of illegal ivory. Choose to boycott all ivory products to help reduce the demand. Tell your friends and family about your decisions and explain why they should consider making the same commitment.
Be an Advocate. On July 29, President Obama proposed new regulations designed to close existing loopholes and shut down the importation and sale of illegal ivory within the U.S. Write your representatives to let them know that you support this and other tough anti-trafficking measures. Tell them that you also support increases in funding for FWS law enforcement so that more wildlife inspectors can be trained and stationed full time at our ports of entry.
Support Defenders’ work. Make a donation or adopt an elephant today . Your support helps us to keep pressure on the White House to follow through with their plans, to mobilize against Congressional attempts to weaken ivory restrictions, to encourage grassroots efforts to implement state-specific ivory bans, and to ensure that current laws are sufficiently enforced.
Know Your Stuff. Did you know that elephants are considered a keystone species? When elephants dig for water in dry riverbeds, their neighbors benefit from the new water source. Elephant dung is an important vector for seed dispersal, and also serves as a fertilizer and a nursery for dung beetles. Even the trails made by elephants walking across their landscape result in important trails for other species and serve as fire breaks and water run offs. Share this information with your friends – the more someone knows about a species, the more likely they are to want to protect it.
Get Your Travel On. Have you ever wanted to see an elephant in the wild? If you choose to travel, be sure to choose an eco-tourism company that supports elephant conservation efforts. Shopping for souvenirs? Never buy ivory , but buy other items that are made in the communities you visit. Supporting locally-owned and operated businesses helps provide sustainable livelihoods for people on the ground in elephant environments, a great alternative to the temptation of making money through poaching.
Spread the Word. Share this post on social media. Tell your friends and family about the ivory trade and its impact on elephants in the wild.