By Bryan Walsh
It’s open season on elephants in Africa. In 2012 poachers killed 35,000 elephants—that’s nearly 96 per day, part of an illegal killing spree that has seen the number of African elephants plummet by 76% since 1980. The targets are the elephants’ tusks, made of ivory that can be shipped abroad and sold for more than $1,000 per pound in rapidly growing Asian markets. Wildlife trafficking is valued at $7-$10 billion a year, making it the fifth most lucrative illegal activity after the drug trade, human trafficking, oil theft and counterfeiting. And because the penalties for poaching tend to be far more weaker than the punishment for trading drugs or people, it’s become an attractive business for criminal syndicates and terrorist groups alike. “Poaching has become an enormous problem and one of the most profitable criminal activities there is,” says Peter Seligmann, the CEO of Conservation International. “It’s destabilizing to nations, it’s a threat to security forces and it’s a serious loss for local economies that depend on wildlife.” The illegal wildlife trade is blood money at its bloodiest.
Part of the problem is that the good guys have long been outgunned by the bad guys. Rangers in African nations are often poorly equipped compared to syndicate-backed hunters with night-vision goggles and high-powered rifles. But a new commitment that will be announced later this morning at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) summit in New York may begin to balance the fight. An alliance of conservation groups—including CI, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare—will come together with a number of African nations to improve anti-poaching efforts on the ground, disrupt international trafficking networks—and perhaps most importantly, work to cool the feverish demand for ivory products in the rising consumer nations of Asia. “We have a proposed strategy to stop the killing, stop the trafficking and stop the demand,” says Cristian Samper, the president of WCS. “We need to step up the game.”
This isn’t the first time wide scale poaching threatened ivory-carrying species like the African elephant and the even-rarer rhino—the 1980s were marked by the bloody “Ivory Wars” that only came to an end in 1989 when the members of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) voted to ban the sale of ivory altogether. Ivory jewelry became taboo in much of the world, which reduced the demand and the killing. Elephant and rhino numbers were able to recover. More....