A Sound of Trumpets

The global lust for ivory threatens to silence the African elephant forever. Can a hidden remnant of the Cold War help stem the slaughter?

by Paul Hond Published Summer 2014
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Confiscated ivory in the United States. / © Alex Hofford / EPA / CorbisReiss’s photo of the faceless elephant has many authors. Though death comes at the hands of the shooters and poisoners, most observers don’t place the lion’s share of the blame on the physical perpetrators at the bottom of this economic food chain. Uno describes poachers as “people who are poor and will do anything to send their kids to school or put food on the table. They get almost nothing for the tusks, but it’s a lot to them.” Ginsberg, whose former workplace of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe was the scene, last year, of the poisoning deaths of more than three hundred elephants whose drinking water and salt licks had been laced with cyanide, saves his contempt for the international traffickers. “People who traffic in drugs and traffic in people, traffic in ivory,” he says. “These are nasty people.”

Uno and Ginsberg both believe that the key to the crisis lies in the shops and showrooms of Beijing and Hong Kong, where customers pay good money for hand-carved Buddhas and model ships.

“In the end,” says Ginsberg, “you’ve got to kill the market.”

On March 19, Uno received the data on the Toronto tusks from the facility in California. He analyzed the data and interpreted it. The result was clear: the tusks were illegal.

“This is a real case,” Uno says. “We’ve caught these auctioneers red-handed. If this goes to trial, I think our data will help push this case through.”

Uno hopes a successful prosecution will serve notice to auction houses, which, he says, “are very much involved in this illegal trading, knowingly or not.” But he has no illusions about the larger fight. The bomb-curve technique “is not a silver bullet to end illegal trade in animals,” he says, but “fills a critical gap in the forensic toolkit.” It gives the legal system more teeth.

“A great life lost so that someone far away can have a trinket,” read the grief-filled statement from Tsavo Trust, a Kenyan-based nongovernmental organization.

On May 30, in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park, poachers using poisoned arrows shot and killed Satao, one of the world’s largest and best-known elephants. Satao was around fifty years old, and among the last of Africa’s genetically endowed “tuskers,” with tusks weighing more than a hundred pounds. An estimated two dozen tuskers remain.

Kenya has a history of rampant poaching. When the paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey became head of the Kenyan Wildlife Conservation and Management Department in 1989, one of his first acts — aside from heavily arming anti-poaching units and authorizing them to shoot poachers on sight — was to persuade Kenya’s president, Daniel arap Moi, to publicly burn twelve tons of elephant tusks. The gesture, meant to bring international attention to the elephant crisis, was radical: few poor countries would dream of destroying their stockpiled ivory, which would be worth even more when the CITES ban was lifted.

Twenty-five years later, with elephants under relentless attack and the ban still in effect, more countries are crushing and burning their stockpiles. This past year, the Philippines, the US, China, France, Tanzania, and Hong Kong have destroyed, among them, dozens of tons of ivory. In February, the Obama administration announced a ban on all commercial imports of African elephant ivory, including antiques, and on all domestic resale of ivory except for pieces more than a hundred years old, with the onus of proof shifting to the seller. In June, New York State passed legislation banning the sale and purchase of elephant ivory.

Meanwhile, the legal gray areas that make Uno’s work so important — the ambiguities of provenance, and the newer ivory injected into the market by those mega-sales to Japan and China — have led many wildlife scientists of diverging views to meet at a sharp point of agreement: they would like to see a worldwide ban on all trade in ivory (with dispensations for hunters and musicians whose equipment may contain decorative or functional ivory), arguing that it’s the only way to have a clear legal standard — the only way, finally, to save the elephants.

“You can’t have a legal ivory market,” says Uno. “It just doesn’t work.”

Ginsberg agrees: short of a permanent ban on ivory, which he thinks is unlikely, he is calling for a worldwide moratorium, until elephant populations recover.

“We need to give elephants a break,” he says. “Let’s just give them a break.”

Joshua Ginsberg teaches in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology and at SIPA. A retired field biologist, Ginsberg is the senior vice president in charge of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s global conservation program. This fall he will become president of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York.

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