African Elephant

If you’ve ever dreamed of taking an African safari, you’d better hurry: Elephants may soon be gone. Illegal killing of the stately, intelligent animals is on a dramatic upswing as many recent news reports have documented. If the pace isn’t slowed, many leading conservationists fear that elephants could become extinct within the decade.

Despite international bans and restrictions on ivory trade, tens of thousands of African elephants are killed each year by poachers who want ivory, which is primarily sold to China, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and, surprisingly, the United States, among others. Though estimates vary, most wildlife experts believe approximately 500,000 elephants remain today in Africa. With poaching rates spiking up to 40,000 animals per year, it might not be long before elephants disappear.

Illegal Vs. Antique Ivory

The recent rise in elephant poaching incidents and ivory seizures has prompted the United States, many individual states such as New Jersey and New York, and other nations to revisit their complex laws and policies regarding ivory (e.g., what defines “antique” ivory — ivory on musical instruments, weapons, etc. that is acceptable to own and sell). And though many African countries prohibit trophy hunting of elephants, some still allow it. Even the new U.S. regulations regarding ivory that were enacted in February allow hunters to import two elephant “trophies” annually. So while Kenya struggles to protect its elephants, farther to the south, in Zimbabwe, elephant trophy hunters are welcomed. And on the other side of the world, China licenses ivory-carving factories and sellers, and even offers ivory-art-carving courses at a national university.

Even “Famous” Elephants Are at Risk

In June, the international conservation community mourned the loss of one of the more famous wild elephants in Africa — Satao, a large male elephant “tusker” who lived in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park (tuskers are bull elephants with huge tusks). Poachers tracked down the wily old elephant beloved by many — whom wildlife agents had for years tried to protect — and killed him for his tremendous tusks. His death attracted international media attention and galvanized the conservation community.

Ivory Trade Funds Terror, Drugs and Guns

It’s no surprise that elephants of all sizes — not just the few remaining tuskers like Satao — are targets. According to a report by Born Free USA and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, populations of elephants are under siege in several parts of Africa, and poaching is connected to terrorism, drug cartels, militias, the military and government officials. The tusks from just one normal-size elephant can total 22 pounds of ivory, worth roughly $30,000.

What Can You Do?

It’s sometimes difficult to imagine what good we can do to help animals thousands of miles away. We may not be able to assist in the arrest of alleged terror kingpins in far-off countries, but here are some things you can do. 

1. Before donating money, know the policies of any wildlife or elephant conservation organizations you are giving to. Some organizations oppose illegal ivory sales but still support limited trophy hunting or dedicate only a small portion of their donations to local programs. Your best option may be to donate to organizations working onsite in Africa to help elephants, such as Wildlife Direct, Save the Elephants and The Tsavo Trust.

2. Be vigilant for ivory when shopping. If you suspect that ivory is being sold at an art show, flea market or other such venue, contact your local U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service office; if you are traveling, contact local authorities. Don’t buy ivory of any kind, even antique ivory.

3. Encourage legislators to vote for laws that protect elephants and other animals. Two states, New York and New Jersey, recently passed legislation to prohibit ivory trade and hopefully more will follow. To receive action alerts through which you can become more informed and contact your elected officials and other policymakers, sign up with The Humane Society of the United States or Animal Welfare Institute.

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