Tusk force: Carving out a better future for elephants in the fight against wildlife trafficking
Judith Garber says the global focus on World Wildlife Day this year on elephant protection is timely, as the US and China – including Hong Kong, a major transit point for the sale of ivory – press ahead to end the bloody trade
March 3 is World Wildlife Day, and this year’s theme, “The Future of Elephants is in Our Hands”, celebrates African and Asian elephants while also raising awareness about their precarious plight.
Across the globe, elephants have inspired the imagination of young and old but, in recent years, these animals have been decimated by an unprecedented onslaught of poaching. A recent study indicates that, in central Africa, the forest elephant population is down over 62 per cent from the 2002 level and is shrinking by 9 per cent each year. The very survival of the species is now at stake.
The overriding cause of this slaughter is the demand for ivory. Unfortunately, even legal ivory trade related to antiques has contributed to the problem, as old and new tusks are not easily distinguished. The potential for profit is more than enough incentive for unscrupulous people to kill endangered animals, traffic their body parts across the world, and subvert laws in order to sell to unwitting consumers.
Wildlife trafficking has evolved into a transnational criminal enterprise, with annual revenues conservatively estimated at between US$8 billion and US$10 billion. It is both a critical conservation issue and an acute security threat. Species are nearing the tipping point of extinction, and illegal wildlife trade is becoming increasingly intertwined with gunrunning, the drug trade and human trafficking.
As criminals cross borders with impunity to slaughter animals and bribe officials, local communities are robbed of their natural resources and development potential.
As one of the biggest markets for illegal wildlife goods, the US bears a major responsibility in ending this crisis. Recognising this, in 2013, President Barack Obama created a task force to combat wildlife trafficking. It seeks to strengthen law enforcement against traffickers; enhance international cooperation so we have a stronger net to catch these criminals and broader support for community-based conservation; and, eliminate fundamental demand for the goods.
The fight to save wildlife is a long and difficult one, but we are making progress. For example, “Operation Crash”, headed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Justice, has led to charges in US courts against 31 individuals or businesses, 22 convictions, prison terms as long as 70 months, and forfeitures and restitutions as high as US$4.5 million.
The global community is also mobilising to counter the threats to our natural heritage. Wildlife trafficking is included in the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, and last year, the UN General Assembly approved its first resolution aimed at tackling the issue.
Conservation efforts took a major step forward last September when Obama and President Xi Jinping (習近平) made a groundbreaking commitment to enact a near total ban on ivory imports and exports, and to take significant, timely steps to halt the domestic commercial ivory trade in our respective countries.
Hong Kong, as a global financial leader and gateway for the ivory trade in Asia, now has an opportunity to lead in ensuring a future for the world’s elephants. In December, the Legislative Council unanimously passed a non-binding motion on further restrictions on domestic trade in ivory and other measures to combat wildlife trafficking.
The Hong Kong government is making important efforts to bring forth legislation to end the ivory trade in Hong Kong and rigorously enforce the goals of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Trade restrictions should be implemented as soon as is feasible. A total ban on sales, import and export of ivory would be a welcome and significant step in the fight against wildlife crime.
Ultimately, the trafficking networks will collapse and species will recover only when people refuse to buy the products. We look forward to working hand in hand with Hong Kong to ensure elephants will continue to thrive and inspire us for generations to come.
Judith G. Garber is the acting assistant secretary of the US Department of State’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs