By Elizabeth E. Thorp
With the ever-expanding worldwide market for illegal luxury goods, African elephants are being hunted to extinction for their valuable tusks. Here, Chelsea Clinton shares her passion for these exceptional animals, and the Clinton Foundation’s efforts to save them.
It’s an unimaginable horror. Satao, an iconic male African bush elephant who was born in the late 1960s, should have lived a natural life of 70 years. But he was found dead in Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park in June. Poachers took down Satao, who weighed an estimated seven tons, with a single poisoned arrow to his flank. His signature ivory tusks, which weighed more than 100 pounds each, had been hacked off. The Tsavo Trust, a conservation group that monitors the elephant populations of Tsavo in partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service, knew Satao well because of its focus on protecting large “tuskers” which are lucrative targets for poachers. But Satao was so horribly butchered that the conservation groups who tracked his every move for years could not immediately identify him.
Why would anyone want to kill the world’s largest land mammal—a highly intelligent species with a lifespan as long as a human’s? An animal with powerful family bonds and a memory that far surpasses ours and spans a lifetime? Scientists have found that elephants are capable of elaborate thought and deep feeling; they mourn deeply for lost loved ones, even shedding tears and suffering depression. They have a sense of empathy that projects beyond their species.
So why are these gorgeous creatures being slaughtered? It’s for that objet d’art on your mantelpiece, the necklace in your jewelry box, the hair ornament on your dresser, and the ivory keys of your custom piano.
While elephant poaching has been a grave challenge at different times during the last century, it has recently risen to alarming levels. In 2012, some 35,000 African elephants were killed, about a 10th of the remaining population, representing the worst mass slaughter of elephants since the international ivory trade was banned in 1990. Roughly the same number were killed last year as well. African forest elephants in particular have been devastated by poaching and have declined by about 76 percent since 2002. At this rate, African forest elephants could effectively become extinct over the next decade.
The wildlife trade is one of the world’s most profitable criminal activities, ranking fifth globally in terms of value—estimated at $7 billion to $10 billion a year, behind trafficking in drugs, people, and oil, and counterfeiting. Today’s ivory traffickers are well-organized syndicates that function as transnational criminal networks and often participate in trafficking drugs and weapons. Some have links with terrorist networks. According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), as much as 70 percent of elephant ivory is transported to China, where it is sold for up to $1,500 per pound and carved into jewelry, religious figurines, and trinkets.
In September 2013, at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) annual meeting, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton unveiled an $80 million endeavor to stop the ivory trade. The Partnership to Save Africa’s Elephants initiative partners include the Wildlife Conservation Society, World Wildlife Fund, African Wildlife Foundation, International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, and 11 other nongovernmental organizations, working together to halt the decline of African elephants.
Chelsea Clinton, due to have her first child in the fall, still keeps a packed schedule at the foundation, passionately promoting initiatives close to her heart: empowering women and girls, clean drinking water, combating childhood obesity, and the elephant poaching crisis. We sat down with Clinton, vice chair of the Clinton Foundation, to talk about its efforts to save African elephants.
When was the first time you learned about the horrors of elephant poaching?
CHELSEA CLINTON: I remember vividly: My mother’s parents moved to Arkansas right before Christmas in 1987, and I remember my grandparents asking what I wanted for Christmas. My grandmother said, “We’ll give you a membership and a subscription to anything that you want,” so I picked National Geographic and possibly Greenpeace or Conservation International. I just wanted to know everything I could about what was happening with the environment and conservation. I was so shocked that elephants were under such duress, and the only thing that I could do was to ask my grandparents to continue to support organizations that were trying to save the elephants as my Christmas present every year.
How does CGI coordinate this gigantic undertaking with so many different partners?
CC: There are three parts of the CGI commitment: You stop the killing, stop the trafficking, and stop the demand. One of the first things we did was assess what each organization was doing and where there were gaps—whether functionally or geographically—so that the additional monies could be invested in helping to fill those voids. Or continue to double down on strategies that were working: The Howard G. Buffett Foundation made an investment in Gabon, because Gabon had already started to increase its emphasis on conservation and increase its number of rangers and ranger training to try and protect its elephants. Now we have US Marines training Gabon rangers, because it’s not only about protecting the elephants, it’s about the security of the country. Gabon, like so many countries where poaching is happening, is being preyed upon by armed groups that are destabilizing forces throughout West Africa and East Africa.
Tell me more about security concerns and government cooperation.
CC: The FBI is working with Interpol, as are various national intelligence groups, because, increasingly, poaching is part of the most nefarious activities throughout Africa—whether it’s running guns or people or drugs—so there’s a real security interest not only for the countries that are affected but for all of us to stop poaching.
Having lived through 9/11, I think people will be very interested to know that poaching has direct links to terrorism and Al Qaeda in North Africa.
CC: There’s irrefutable evidence that Al Qaeda in North Africa, the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and the Janjaweed from Sudan who are coming into Uganda and the DRC are all engaged in poaching, because ivory is an easily accessible commodity to them. It’s become a lubricant that continually greases the wheels for the shipment of drugs, guns, and people.
I don’t think many people realize the brutality involved when elephants are killed for ivory. One misconception is that taking off the tusk is like extracting a tooth. Elephants cannot live without their tusks; they are absolutely crucial to their survival. More....