By Peter Lehner
The majestic African elephant — the largest animal on land — once roamed the entire span of the continent and numbered in the millions. But, in the past 50 years, their numbers have plummeted. So much so, in fact, that some predict the magnificent creatures could disappear from the wild altogether in little more than a decade.
This is largely thanks to the global demand for ivory that's driving poachers to slaughter elephants en masse for their tusks. While the ivory trade was outlawed in the late 1980s, pre-existing products of a certain age were given an exception. The problem is, it's both difficult and expensive to determine the age of ivory. The few promising methods of detection are not yet widely available. As a result, new ivory goods, from freshly killed elephants, have been able to sneak into the U.S. market under the radar, disguised as antiques. And demand for more tusks continues.
It hardly seems worth it — to let one of the most awe-inspiring species on the planet vanish so we can keep trading jewelry, figurines and even trinkets like key chains. And though it may seem like a world away, New York actually has an opportunity to step in now, before it's too late. That's because the U.S. is the second largest ivory market in the world behind China, and New York is largest ivory market in the nation. By putting a real end to the trade here, once and for all, we can provide significant relief for these creatures.
Fortunately, legislation pending in the statehouse would do just do that. In January, Assemblyman Robert Sweeney introduced a bill that would make New York the first state in the country to shut down its ivory market and increase penalties for violators to ensure the punishment more adequately fits the crime.
The bill is likely to come up for a vote this spring, and we're hopeful that our leaders in Albany will make the right call and set an example for others to follow, in the U.S. and around the world. Already, a number of other states are stepping up. Hawaii — which has the third largest ivory market in the nation — is considering similar legislation. And there are rumblings in other states. Change is coming.
New York has paved the way for the nation in wildlife protection before, from banning the shark fin trade to placing restrictions on the sales of wild birds. We can do it again, and ensure zoos won't be the only place for our children and our grandchildren to find these incredible creatures in the years to come.
Peter Lehner is executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.