Inside the Global Industry That's Slaughtering Africa's Elephants
The scale of poaching is a criminal horror. Why Obama should make it a priority issue -- in his meeting with China's Xi Jinping this week and beyond
"Please, I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of goodwill: let us be protectors of creation, protectors of God's plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment. Let us not allow omens of destruction and death to accompany the advance of this world!"
- Pope Francis, March 19
Destruction and Death, as Pope Francis offered this homily in St. Peter's Square, had just left the scene in the central African nation of Chad, where in a single night in mid-March 89 elephants were slaughtered for their tusks. Reports described the ivory poachers as 50 or so men on camel and horseback, speaking Arabic, armed with AK-47s, and presumed to be the same band that came over from Sudan last year to execute more than 450 elephants in Cameroon -- on that foray, dispatching their victims with rocket-propelled grenades.
In Chad, near the Cameroon border to the south, they left their mark by sparing not even the 33 pregnant females and 15 elephant calves, and by hacking off the tusks while some of the creatures were still alive. There were four park rangers on duty that night, short a fifth guard who was murdered by poachers last year. But they were far away at the time, and, in any case, would have been helpless against overwhelming force. Among other problems, the elephant preserve is about 850 square miles, a big stretch of creation for just four guys to protect.
East, west, and central - everywhere there are elephants in Africa, there are "poachers," a word that now seems far too small for the enormity of their offense. And if we want to take seriously those words from Francis -- a new pontiff named for the saint who despised cruelty, whose very first sermon spoke of "respecting each of God's creatures" -- this would be a very good place to focus our attention. Unless Western and African nations can turn things around fast, to protect the 400,000 or so left, then the elephants of Africa, pretty much all of them, will be gone.
A United Nations Rapid Response Assessment (the UN may be slow to act, but the assessments come quick) puts last year's losses around 32,000 African elephants, as compared to 2011 casualties of 25,000, reporting "mass and gruesome killings of elephants." From the air, as correspondent Bryan Christy of National Geographic writes from Cameroon, it looks like this: "[T]he scattered bodies present a senseless crime scene - you can see which animals fled, which mothers tried to protect their young, how one terrified herd of 50 went down together."
From the air, too, is how they're often slaughtered -- in numbers, Christy thinks, perhaps double those UN estimates. It's guesswork, more speculative than ever as poachers pick up the pace in military-style operations that now include firing their AK-47s from helicopters. Like the more advanced weaponry of the killers, their night-vision goggles and other such assets, and the sheer number of them aswarm in Africa, the helicopters signal yet another bad turn in this old struggle. There's big money in ivory, a boundless market for it, and everyone knows where most of it is heading.
It's China, where status seekers simply must have ivory trinkets, jewelry, and statues to proclaim their new wealth. Apparently, nothing in Chinese says "I've arrived" like a carved tusk, and they go for about $1,300 a pound or more these days -- many times what it used to be -- or as much as $50,000 for a sizable pair of tusks on the street in China. Tusks on the market are getting smaller because the elephants are dying younger. All but a few with fully grown tusks have vanished. A ton of ivory now -- and smuggled shipments actually deal in such quantities -- involves a lot more grief in the taking.
The government of Kenya reports that 90 percent of ivory smugglers caught there are Chinese citizens. One fellow was picked up recently with 439 pieces of ivory on him, and in a Nairobi courtroom fined less than a dollar for each. Kenyan authorities vow to enact harsher penalties to "fight poachers at all levels to save our elephants," and other governments had better do the same, quickly. It is getting out by every route, at airports, in large containers at seaports on either coast of Africa, in small fishing vessels, or simply by mail, and most of the ivory is bound for China. The rest goes to Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, and other Asian friends of the United States, in routine disregard of the ivory ban that the United States led a generation ago. Africa's finite supply is meeting Asia's furious demand at a rate of nearly a hundred kills every 24 hours. The death count, that one night in Chad, is the continent's daily average.
As with other wild animals, managerial talk of simply "conserving the species" can miss the point, as if they are to be thought of and cared about only in the collective. But taking the basic numbers -- some 12 million elephants south of the Sahara in the early 1900's, versus 400,000 today and probably closer to 350,000 -- this is a species killed off to about 3 percent of its population in the space of a hundred years, less time than the combined normal life spans of a single elephant and her mother. You would never know from those numbers how universally appreciated they are, the esteem in which these "charismatic mega-fauna" are held in every part of the world, at least by people who can look at an elephant and see more than ivory to sell or a "trophy" to mount. The mania for ivory among carvers, collectors, and well-to-do buyers in Asia is especially hard to comprehend, since no work of man could begin to match the glorious beauty of an elephant. They cherish ivory for its "purity," once the blood is washed off.
Granting an inexorable historical decline under the pressure of Africa's human population, even apart from poaching and hunting, a sacrifice of 97 percent has been exacted already. Yet we still hear calls for more "culling," never more galling than when they come from Western intellectuals who take notice, now and then, of the plight of the elephant only to cite it as yet another example of how unenlightened humanity can benefit from their economic theories. Saving the elephants, as one of these arguments runs, is a misguided and sentimental cause: the real problem here is not is not butchery, but disorganized butchery. It all just needs to be a little more systematic. "In essence, elephants need to be treated like cattle," writes Doug Bandow, a longtime fellow at the CATO Institute in a recent Forbes op-ed. "Unfortunately, episodic [ivory] sales have only limited benefits, generating modest revenues while failing to satisfy ongoing demand." Therefore, "the West should reopen the ivory trade," creating "a genuine market in ivory," while also meeting demand for "other elephant parts."
There's a nice sendoff for the noble elephant: If only mankind had treated them all "like cattle," owning and exploiting them to maximum efficiency -- and all for a frivolous luxury item. Never mind that in all of Africa tourism of the non-lethal kind is the second-largest hard currency earner after oil, and that all of this slaughter amounts to a near-complete liquidation of the greatest natural asset sub-Saharan Africa had going for it. Never mind that tusks take decades to mature, growing all through the lifetime of an elephant, and ivory providers and consumers are not exactly known for their patient adherence to the rhythms of nature. And, above all, erase from your mind any thought of the complex social structures, bonds of family, intelligence, and emotions of elephants already dying en masse in conditions little different from some infernal abattoir. All creatures of the earth must pull their weight in obedience to the unsparing laws of the market. That's the verdict from the sunny offices of a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C.
The farming model works, we're told, in the case of elephant trophy hunting. For a lively afternoon in the forest, Western hunters, many from America, pay 15 or 20 grand -- as compared, if we have to put a price on it, with an estimated $800,000 as an ongoing tourism draw, living out an elephant's allotted 60 or 70 years in peace. When the time is right for each in turn, argues Bandow, why not shoot them for the ivory, too? Our man at CATO sees a day when "a population of 500,000 elephants could naturally generate $6.7 billion worth of ivory annually," meaning, "naturally," that every last one gets cut up in the end.
It's quite an ambitious plan: They get owned and disowned all at once. But it's a long way from protecting "God's plan inscribed in nature," and I think I'll go with Francis on this one. Culling, a suspect term in any context, should be withdrawn in shame from all further discussion of these creatures and their fate. No matter what claims are made for killing them, reason and fairness will be on their side. If any wild species can be said to have endured enough at the hands of cruel and arrogant men, it is the elephant.
Among the surviving herds, even in places that once offered sanctuary, elephants live in such fear that they can now be observed avoiding roads and waterholes they once frequented and people they once trusted. Even these most sensitive of wild creatures could never begin to fathom all of the human appetites and designs that have joined to cause their suffering. They could use a little more guile now than nature gave them, but they know what they need to know. Their protectors in Africa describe a state of panic and high alert in every herd. They have memories as good as a map, aware of well guarded areas, and they "don't want to move outside unless they have to," explains Frank Pope of Save the Elephants, a group in Nairobi founded by the renowned zoologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton. "When the urge to reach a new area becomes too strong, they'll often wait for nightfall before making a rapid streak across the landscape until they reach another safe zone."
It's the rare juvenile who has not witnessed the slaughter of a mother, sibling, or other family member, if not everyone they knew. The great souls in Africa who have taken in the orphans tell us that the calves have nightmares, and sometimes, no matter how much care and comfort are offered, just never recover from what they have seen and lost. For all of the elephants, writes J. Michael Fay of National Geographic, their only defense is "to run for their lives at every crack of a gun. All this horror so a human being somewhere can satisfy the desire for ivory."
You could argue, I suppose, that a lot of low-lifes killing a lot of animals isn't news. Some pretty ruthless practices are tolerated, even licensed, here in America. And as for the aerial gunning from helicopters, if we're going to be objective about it, maybe the poachers have been studying the wolf-management techniques of Alaska Fish and Game.
Recall, too, that not every crack of a gun the elephants hear comes from poachers. The model that advocates of legalizing the ivory trade like to cite is Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, wherein usually captive elephants, giraffes, lions, hippos, and other animals -- baited and with slender chance of escape -- are shot in reserves that are essentially big-game trophy farms. For a few snapshots of the "harvest" -- a euphemism that sport hunters these days understandably prefer -- search the names Kenneth Behring, Bob Parsons, and Eric and Donald Trump, Jr. They are among thousands of Americans and Europeans who venture off each year to Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania, or South Africa to slay the ultimate prize of the sportsman's "Big Five" -- guided by professional trackers, guaranteed an easy kill, possessed by an obsession that even most hunters regard with disgust. They offer philanthropic-sounding pretexts -- it's all about "conservation" -- in the timeless way of Africa's exploiters: They big-heartedly "donate the meat" of an elephant carcass, as if devouring it all by themselves were an option. They rushed in, from across the Atlantic, to save a village from "rogue elephants." Uncannily, the rogues are always the ones with the biggest "trophy tusks," marked and even advertised for hunting well in advance of the hero's arrival.
Even if our sole concern were ivory hunting, these people aren't clean. Safari Club International, a 55,000-member outfit based in Tucson that promotes competitive trophy hunting worldwide, cites some "indirect benefits" and "downstream activities" of sportive elephant hunting to "ivory manufacturers, etc." The professional trackers who escort Safari Club members around forest and savannah require, we're told, training that involves killing a few elephants just for practice, and apparently that ivory is left there for the taking. The group's position is further explained in a paper issued under the guise of being an "educational" and indeed "humanitarian" organization, a tax-exempt, charitable status actually granted to the Safari Club Foundation by the Internal Revenue Service. Under the catchy title "Ivory Accumulation and Disposal in Zimbabwe," we learn that "ivory is a gift of nature"; it's a "resource," and "every country has the right to use their natural resources to their best advantage. ... Africa has few advantages. Ivory is one of them."
Note to the IRS: Forget the Tea Party groups and have a look at these people. Their point here seems to be that rich American trophy hunters and their guides will gladly add a few tusks to the pile, gratis. It sounds like a "gift," all right. They'll help on the "accumulation" end of things, and leave disposal to the best judgment of wildlife officials in Zimbabwe -- a notorious supplier of ivory to China. It's all no doubt legal, and it certainly squares with the ethical standards of the Mugabe regime.
What are the ivory "status symbols" everybody's so wild to grab in China, anyway, but "trophies" by another name? In your typical Chinese ivory boutique, Alex Shoumatoff tells us in Vanity Fair, "the main consumers are middle-aged men who have just made it into the middle class and are eager to flaunt their ability to make expensive discretionary purchases. Beautiful ivory carvings are traditional symbols of wealth and status." That's half the room at Safari Club banquets, with the difference that there is no confusion among these collectors about just how the status symbol was obtained. They saw the terrified animal, they heard the roars and cries themselves, and they're already booked to go back for more.
Recreational elephant hunters are, if anything, only more contemptible than the ivory poachers for lacking anything even resembling a rational motive. They frighten and kill for the malicious pleasure of it, even as all the "jumbos" and "big tuskers," in the inane vernacular of safari journals, vanish from the earth -- and, indeed, as all of the Big Five near the Big Zero. An Internet search will turn up pictures of them posing and grinning next to the elephants they shot, and in the case of Bob Parsons, then CEO of GoDaddy.com, a video record of his hunt in Zimbabwe, showing how this particular humanitarian lay in wait for the hungry bull to come for food. The man had just made a billion dollars from his company, and what better way to celebrate one's own good fortune in life than to go out and kill something? Something big, to suit the occasion. The pictures are all part of the thrill, the pornography of bloodlust, and trophy hunters actually post this evidence themselves, never getting quite the reaction they expected from normal, sane people. An impartial observer from Africa or China, hearing Americans condemn the ivory poachers and traders, would be entitled to state as a rule that if their creeps can't kill elephants for trinkets, our creeps can't kill them for trophies.
Mostly, though, for all of the ones "conserved" via the taxidermy shop, it is the "imbecile rapacity" of ivory hunters, as Joseph Conrad described the condition in The Heart of Darkness, that has led to this last stand of the African elephants. And their ordeal seems like a larger event in the life of the world, ecologically and morally, than media coverage and commentary here in America would suggest. In Africa, champions of the elephants convey a despairing sense that not enough Americans are paying attention. You have to spend a while on YouTube to learn that in African villages and cities there have been protests and marches, with large crowds and banners declaring, "Ivory Belongs to Elephants Only." All the while, a cable news viewer in America could be excused for thinking that the only development of note out of Africa lately is that a celebrity track star in Johannesburg has been charged with murdering his model girlfriend.
Parsons, come to think of it, did rate quite a bit of on-air discussion in March of 2011 when his video hit the Internet. But if one man's mayhem at the expense of one elephant is news, why isn't continental mayhem at the expense of all of them? American news producers, if they're following the crisis at all, perhaps wave it off as just too confusing and depressing -- and, well, so 1980s. We can expect elegiac, two-minute segments ten years from now on "The Last Elephant." Why not get on the story right now, while it might still do some good?
It's striking as well how little we hear of this epic crime against nature from environmentalist groups in America that used to be associated with such causes, and even began with such causes. There are a few, and lately they've enlisted some star power to try helping the elephants -- including, to their great credit, actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Kristen Davis, and a Chinese starlet named Li Bingbing. But mostly the causes of various animals, even the more "charismatic" ones, have fallen out of fashion, shifting over to smaller welfare groups specifically devoted to their protection. If the elephants' defenders in Africa have been trying to find influential allies here who might help draw attention to the emergency, it's not getting through.
Somewhere along the way, our modern environmental movement took on an impersonal, abstract mindset, more about "habitat" than animals, and so fixated on broader economic agendas as to lose its basic moral vision as guardian of our fellow creatures in the here and now. Protecting animals from vicious people and reckless industries wasn't enough anymore. Economies had to be redirected, paradigms shifted, structural transformations of one kind or another set in motion. It's all carbon, all the time, and for all of the movement's alarmism on other fronts, somehow the end days of the earth's largest land animal has gone practically unremarked. Habitat without animals is just backdrop, quiet of life and morally meaningless. Environmentalism, without animal protection in the foreground, is just an argument about aesthetics and consumer rights. It's cheap nature worship, about us and not really about the world around us. I'm all for going green, but as a rallying cry it lacks something. "We lightened our carbon footprint," as a measure of virtue and moral endeavor, just doesn't have the solid, selfless ring of "We saved the elephants."
Then, too, whenever the travails of any African animal are offered as a serious public concern, there's always someone who thinks we all need reminding that great, too, is the human suffering there, and so why on earth are we so concerned about Africa's animals? The objection, for one thing, attempts to give a high-minded ring to an evasion of human responsibility. This is suffering of human agency, these are man-made miseries on a grievous scale, and that is always sufficient reason to stop the wrongdoers and protect the victims. Listen carefully to such criticisms, moreover -- lately offered under the prissy heading of Human Exceptionalism -- and you'll notice they are rarely arguments saying that we should do more for other humanitarian causes in Africa: more for the afflicted of Darfur, more for the victims of AIDS, more to reform our country's own food aid so that it serves African farmers instead of just American agribusiness, and so on. Mostly, they're just arguments for doing nothing about the elephants, or whatever, as if it is somehow offensive in principle to advocate all of these causes simultaneously. The complaint is a form of moral preening, more "exceptional" than human, and more irrelevant than ever at a time when Africans themselves are seeking our help, and when -- as we have learned in recent years -- their worst enemies and ours are profiting from the massacre of the elephants. You might say, again to borrow from Pope Francis, that helping afflicted humans and animals alike all has to do with "the advance of this world."
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All of this is, in any case, a very big deal, requiring our concentrated consideration, and involving no agenda but our duties to creatures who deserve far better than this fate. After millions of years sharing the earth with us, is this really how it must end for the elephants of Africa, to be frantically rushing in darkness for the few safe zones left, until even those are gone? For all of them to die in sinful slaughter, until the butchers have found the last one, and the last tusk is smuggled off to China?
Those recent reports about the poaching trade, revealing just who is doing the killing and who is being enriched, require our attention whether we are inclined to give it or not. In daring and exemplary coverage, New York Times correspondents Jeffrey Gettleman and Dan Levin have gone beyond the death counts and mournful commentaries to reveal exactly what the elephants and their defenders are up against. The Times series reads in stretches like some National Security Council document prepared for a select few, filled with all the foul characters and shadowy networks that an Asian craze for ivory has loosed upon the continent. A dispatch by Gettlemen from the Republic of Congo last September explains, among much else, the presence of those Arabic-speaking guys who turned Kalashnikovs on the herd in Chad (and then, in a detail I almost wish National Geographic had spared us, prostrated themselves in prayer to Allah):
Some of Africa's most notorious armed groups, including the Lord's Resistance Army, the Shabab and Darfur's Janjaweed, are hunting down elephants and using the tusks to buy weapons and sustain their mayhem. Organized crime syndicates are linking up with them to move the ivory around the world, exploiting turbulent states, porous borders and corrupt officials from sub-Saharan Africa to China ....
Al-Shabab is the Somali wing of al-Qaeda, so they figure in all of this too, right along with the army of Joseph Kony, whose enslavement of women and children across central Africa has made him a target of American special forces, and with the Janjaweed militiamen whose campaign of rape and genocide in Darfur earned them the name "devils on horseback."
Hillary Clinton, when she traveled to Africa as secretary of state last summer, was "quite alarmed" by what she heard. "Local leaders are telling their national leaders that they can lose control of large swaths of territory to these criminal gangs." Her successor, Secretary John Kerry, needs no briefing on the crisis. Poachers, he warned in a Senate hearing last year, "operate in remote territories and cross borders with impunity, wreaking havoc on villages and families. Increasingly, criminal gangs and militias are wiping out entire herds and killing anyone who gets in their way."
Then we have evidence of cooperation by officials of the Congolese, South Sudanese, and Ugandan armies -- in the latter case, to the point of actually providing aerial support to poachers. The Ugandan military, which receives many millions of dollars in financial and logistical support from the United States, has apparently supplied some of those helicopters from which the slayers search and destroy. We're helping them, and they're helping the poachers.
Our ambassador to Kenya noted last year, in a cable posted on WikiLeaks, "a marked increase in poaching wherever Chinese labor camps [are] located." There are more than a million Chinese nationals residing in Africa. Some 400 Chinese companies operate in Kenya. "Poaching has risen sharply in areas where the Chinese are building roads," as Kenya's director of Wildlife Services, Julius Kipng'etich, told the Telegraph in 2011. "Is that a coincidence? Ninety percent of the ivory confiscated at Nairobi airport is in Chinese luggage. Some Chinese say we are being racist, but our sniffer dogs are not racist."
Kenya has long banned hunting of any kind, with comparatively healthy herds and annual tourism revenue above $1 billion -- employing more people than all but one industry -- to show for it, until the Chinese companies arrived. As in other range states, these foreign firms are mostly extractive enterprises in the hinterlands, where the elephants are. They clear a path for poachers and provide cover for the smugglers. The way it works is that a Chinese broker shows up in the village, places the order with poachers, and then returns a few days later to pay the killers and collect the tusks.
Here, too, we are sometimes cautioned not to sentimentalize animals, and in the case of poaching to think of the desperation that must lead a man to do such a thing. The real temptation is to sentimentalize the poachers, in a waste of empathy that libels the many poor people in Africa who are trying to protect the elephants. And here's a cure for that, courtesy of National Public Radio reporter John Burnett, who spoke to some poachers this year, including one named Mkanga:
Scientists tell us that elephants have death rituals. They will, for instance, cluster around a dead individual and touch the carcass with their trunks, and then return much later to caress the bones. Mkanga, the first poacher, is asked if he knows that elephants mourn their dead. He shifts in his chair, adjusts his Safari Beer cap, and smirks. "Sometimes when they have a funeral, it's like a party for me," he says. "You shoot one, and before he dies the others come to mourn for the one who is injured. And so I kill another one, and kill another one."
They aim for the legs, to cripple the elephants first, or in large-scale attacks fire indiscriminately into the herd. Invariably, investigators find evidence that tusks, reaching deep into the skull, have been cut out before some of the creatures were even dead. The poachers often leave poison on the carcasses, to kill the vultures whose swirling above might alert rangers. Sometimes they poison the elephants, with laced pumpkins or watermelons set out before the attack, or with poisoned arrows, or nails on boards laid in the brush that prolong the agony but muffle the noise.
Dan Levin, reporting for the Times in March, picks up the trail in China, with details about trafficking, bribery at every turn, hollow laws and international sanctions, the insufferable self-regard of the carvers and collectors ("Love for ivory is in our blood"), shoppers browsing for just the right bracelet or chopsticks ("As long as the quality of the ivory is good, who cares what happened to the elephant?"), the smuggling rings, the Thai and Vietnamese underworlds, the Chinese mafia, the People's Liberation Army, and on and on.
Enough to say that if a species can be judged by its enemies, then the elephants deserve mercy on that account alone. Just about every bad actor in Africa and Asia seems to have a hand in it. There are more vital causes in this world, even among causes of mercy. But rarely will you find so much depravity converging on such innocence.
After ages in our midst, the most powerful of creatures and among the most gentle, so completely unoffending and yet so endlessly persecuted, here comes the final annihilation. Their extinction will be a joint venture, in essence, of the Beijing Ivory Carving Factory with the Janjaweed and Lord's Resistance Army. The common poacher has fallen in with the militant poacher, in service to unbridled human vanity. Avarice has allied with motives even more malevolent to finish them off, in a vast criminal enterprise that often uses their misery to fund still more atrocities against people, a great chain of greed from Sudan to Shanghai.
I have always thought the trumpeting of an elephant among the finest sounds in all Creation, their calls of fear and rage among the hardest to bear. Only in the last 25 or so years have we learned the full range of their acoustical repertoire, including roars and rumbles that are but the overtones of a pitch too low for human hearing, infrasonic calls carrying messages of welcome, warning, and who knows what else to other elephants even miles across the forest or savannah. A few experts, after years in their company, can interpret these sounds. I claim no such knowledge of elephants, but I am certain of this. If one of those messages could reach us now, all of their well-wishers across the world, and we could put words to the sounds, the meaning would be as simple and universal as that message from the new Pope: Please, be our protectors. Please, deliver us from this evil.
For the leadership of Western nations, surely the key is this: Because so many wicked causes are today served by killing elephants, exactly that many good causes are served by helping them. The only upside to being a magnet for every devil in Africa is that it gives the rest of the world, if we are all thinking straight, a powerful incentive to come to your defense, even at this late hour.
Elephants are a "keystone" species, as the ecologists say, a giant force in nature whose fortunes affect everything around them for good or ill, and it turns out something similar is true of their place in the security environment. When we help them, we help so many others who suffer at the same hands. When we and our allies help troubled states to protect elephants, we're making them more stable nations, better able to protect themselves from other threats as well. And when, in the case of the central states, armies of thugs, rapists, human traffickers, and terrorists including a cell of al-Qaeda, are getting their money from the extermination of the elephants and the sale of ivory, it is in our urgent interest to stop them, and bring an end to the whole filthy business.
"We can beat the poachers," a senior ranger in Gabon named Joseph Okouyi told the London Daily Mail, "but we have to end the demand in China and we need better logistics with more camps, more planes, more boats." Some Western policymakers, pressed by other concerns, may still view it all as hopeless, because the corruption runs so deep, the lines of force seem to favor the enemy, and, it is said, market demand will always find a way. But if Okouyi, a man facing fierce battle with the worst of the worst in Africa, believes the cause isn't lost, then who are politicians and diplomats to say otherwise?
The relevant diplomats work their various purposes through the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES. This Geneva-based organization consists of 178 nations, the "Parties," that are legally bound to its rules, or, at least, obliged to honor "requests" and "recommendations" to please observe those rules. It regulates wildlife-related commerce among nations, according to the "appendix" status assigned to each listed species. Whenever you read about elephants and ivory, CITES will be somewhere in the story.
In practice, CITES operates a lot like the UN itself at its most helpless, so that the principal offenders have equal voice and everybody else, to conduct any business at all, has to pretend that one and all are in sincere pursuit of the same lofty objectives. CITES proceeds, no matter what the crisis, at the pace of international officialdom: Appeals are made to the Parties to develop and implement action plans for the further study of agenda items that are in due course submitted to the Standing Committee for prompt referral to the Plenary and forwarding for review to the Secretariat, and then everyone calls it a day. The group convened not long ago in Bangkok. Shruti Suresh of the Environmental Investigative Agency, a British NGO, gives a nice summary of how things went: "Gripping speeches were delivered about the elephant poaching crisis ... 'organised crime' and the need for 'time-bound measurable action' to stop the killing and the illegal trade in ivory. ... Throughout the proceedings, there was one word that was avoided like the plague by the Parties -- 'China.'"
It can all get very involved, but the upshot is this. CITES in 1989 transferred the African elephant from Appendix II to Appendix I. Appendix I, if you're fauna and people are trying to kill you, is where you want to be -- protected. Asian elephants landed there in 1975, and though they've had their share of misfortune, on the commercial-trade front this status did them a lot of good.
To see the difference that Appendix I could make, one had only look at their "de-listed" kin in African from 1975 to 1989, doomed on more than one occasion by CITES itself. For a time, in the 1980's, this organization and the man who ran it were prime movers in the mass hunting and culling of elephants. In South Africa and elsewhere, hundreds of thousands of the creatures were wiped out, in scenes you could set beside last year's Cameroon slaughter of hundreds by the Janjaweed without knowing the difference.
The secretary general in that era was Eugene Lapointe, a puzzling figure in the realm of wildlife protection who made a quick exit in 1989 after Time revealed his close connections to the Japanese Ivory Association. Lapointe then devoted himself -- again in collaboration with Japanese interests -- to the cause of delisting both elephants and whales back to lowly Appendix II, so that still more could be hunted without onerous obstacles like "endangered" and "near-extinct" status getting in the way. He seems to have it in for the "charismatic mega-fauna" in particular, as if the special regard and empathy that people feel for these animals makes it only more urgent that they be destroyed. I interviewed Lapointe once, in 2000, and still remember the utter disdain with which he brushed off the "sentimentality" of protection efforts: all this "propaganda about elephants -- elephants being shot and the calf nearby making noises and so forth. ... It's for their own good, to be hunted and used" -- a rule " suffering no exceptions." He is the only man I have ever met who spoke with hatred for elephants. And this is the guy who ran CITES for nine years.
The Stalinesque stewardship of Lapointe prepared the way for the great reprieve of 1990. The mass slaughter was so god-awful as to rate, in June of 1989, the presidential intervention of George Bush, who unilaterally banned ivory imports into the United States -- because otherwise, he said, "the wild elephant will soon be lost from this earth." Within a week Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher did the same in the United Kingdom, setting in motion an international ban by CITES that took effect in January. It was still legal to sell existing, worked ivory domestically, but you had to be careful, and the ban was such a big deal that every prospective ivory buyer, high-end merchant, and pawn-shop owner in the civilized world understood that new ivory was forbidden, tainted, and its sale or purchase a punishable offense. Demand was almost gone, enough for elephant populations to stabilize. There was carnage but not mayhem, which in the elephant world is progress.
Then, in 2008, at the initiative chiefly of delegates from China and Japan, CITES approved a "one-off" sale of ivory from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Some 102 tons of tusks, taken from smugglers or from cullings, was just stacked there in guarded warehouses, and why let it all go to waste? President Mugabe, enforcing his credo that elephants must "pay their own way" with ivory and trophies, was a big player in all of this. In 1999, at the tyrant's insistence, there had been a one-off ivory sale of fifty tons to Japan as an "experiment." Since 2008, other nations including Zimbabwe have received the go-ahead for one-off sales. You have to be burrowed deep into the bureaucratic workings of CITES, as each new sale in turn is authorized, not to look up and wonder why everyone still calls them "one-off."
The theory in 2008 was that ivory from elephants already killed would satiate demand, drive down prices, and thereby afford a buffer to elephants still alive. It overlooked a few problems, and the most fatal blunder, as Bryan Christy notes in National Geographic, was a failure to see the difference between "experimenting" in Japan, foolish as that was, and inviting a great reawakening of demand in China -- a country with 14 international borders, thousands of miles of coastline, 10 times the population of Japan, and the world's fastest-growing economy.
With the CITES secretary general himself overseeing the auction of tusks, it was one of those news-in-brief items out of Africa that nobody even remembers when the full catastrophe unfolds, and the understandable reaction today is to wonder, "Wasn't ivory banned years ago?" Suddenly it was for sale again, and who was to say whether the goods were new or old?
On top of that, state enterprises in China promptly rigged the market. In the auctions, they acquired the raw ivory at artificially low prices (aided, as Dr. Meng Xianlin, China's lead delegate to CITES, confessed recently to Bryan Christy, by collusion between Japanese and Chinese bidders). Now they sell it at artificially high prices, parceling out five tons a year while restricting buyers to Chinese carving factories. So the "legal" stuff is twice the value of what the black-market stuff was in 2008. And the black-market stuff is cheaper than the licit stuff. The combined efforts of Chinese "businessmen" in the African hinterlands, village riff-raff, bought border guards, faithless politicians, warlords, wildlife traffickers, terrorists, and criminal gangs can offer buyers a better deal than Beijing's monopoly will offer, thus inviting the poaching frenzy. To add one further absurdity to this dynamic: even as the newly prosperous of China buy ivory products to strut their affluence, everybody involved is still trying to shave a few yuan off the price tag.
Chinese authorities do, on occasion, catch smugglers, and one needn't always assume the worst about them. An ad campaign by WildAid and Save the Elephants is underway in China, with the former Houston Rockets basketball star Yao Ming as spokesman. "An ivory carving is thousands of miles removed from the sad carcass of a poached elephant," writes Ming, "but we need to make that connection. . . . Would anyone buy ivory if they had witnessed this?" It's a tough sell to people who still haven't made a lot of other connections: a land of 1.3 billion that still has no anti-cruelty laws, tolerates the pitiless confinement Asiatic bears farmed for their bile, shows little sentiment for victims caught up in the dog-meat trade, regards the consumption of wildlife, caught or farmed, as normal, and besides all that is ruled by a government that's pretty rough with its own people when they step out of line. Yet there are also the stirrings of a humane movement in China, with younger citizens like Yao Ming showing the way, and what an excellent use for this man to make of his own new wealth and stature.
When Chinese authorities confiscate the raw ivory, in any event, even that gets dumped into the market in sales at a profit to domestic traders. It hasn't occurred to whatever People's Committee decided this policy that the arrangement only makes the smugglers, in effect, ivory couriers working for the government of China. Every last carver and collector, moreover, protests that he or she deals only in legal material predating the worldwide ban. New ivory, fresh off the range states, gets laundered with phony documents. Forging "pre-ban" certificates has become an esteemed craft all by itself. "Like the forest canopy that protects poachers from detection," writes Levin in the Times, "the regulated ivory trade has provided unscrupulous Chinese carvers and collectors with the ideal legal camouflage to buy and sell contraband tusks."
Leaving aside the question of whether, at this point, there is any such thing as a scrupulous ivory dealer, what matters is that there be no dealers at all. As long as any ivory can be legally bought or sold, resourceful people will keep the new stuff coming and palm it off as legitimate. A master carver named Zhou Bai, interviewed by Levin, states the matter plainly, although of course he thinks it's all just wonderful. "'When the ban was passed ... I was sad this art would die with me,' said Zhou, who was busy turning a three-foot-long tusk into a fanciful temple surrounded by clouds. 'But now we have the opportunity to keep it alive.'"
Only vanity at its most self-absorbed could sacrifice an elephant for an ivory temple, trading so perfect a creature for a little idol of one's own making -- in Zhou's case, a piece only more pathetic for its supposedly pious inspiration. But the man's got one thing right: Either the art dies, or the elephants die. And, though the master would have it otherwise, most of us would prefer a farewell to the art.
"The alarm bells are ringing," as Kenya's Julius Kipng'etich told the Telegraph. "We will tell CITES: 'Look what you have triggered with your one-off sales. You must ban the ivory trade." Of course he is right, only this time the ban must be unequivocal, all-encompassing, and permanent. There must be no such thing -- anywhere, and starting in America -- as the legal sale of ivory. A rule of thumb regarding all the world's ivory would be to leave it where it is, above all if it is still in the jaws of an elephant, and in the case of stockpiled tusks to follow the example of Kenya after the first ban and of Gabon just last year: Burn it all.
"In the middle of this field was this huge pile of ivory tusks all stacked up on a pyre," as one observer described the moment in Libreville, where Gabon President Ali Bongo put the match to it himself. "It's sending up a torch or beacon to the rest of the world." That is how serious people dispose of serious threats, at no more loss to Gabon or to mankind than a ton of cocaine heaped into the incinerator, and what a contrast to CITES with its ivory auctioneering, appeasement, and consistent refusal to make the one "recommendation" that would really matter: restrictions on the trading privileges of every offender.
If we can assume anything about Chinese authorities, national and local, it is that when the orders from Beijing are unequivocal, they know how to police a situation. And assured access to each others' markets is the very incentive built into CITES' original design - the instrument of its authority, if it has any at all. The prospect of sanctions came up the last time around, when, as the Bangkok Post recounts, the conference identified three African nations,
Along with transit countries Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, and top markets China and Thailand - as making insufficient efforts to curb the trade. But they avoided punishment after six of them submitted draft action plans in response and China and Tanzania committed to do so by a specific date. ... CITES general secretary John Scanlon said such measures were a "last resort" and should only be imposed "where there's a clear failure to comply and no intention to comply."
Give them some dashed-off paper or "draft action plan" at CITES and it buys you another year. Why would these chronic offenders themselves even be asked to do the drafting and planning? Isn't that what the whole organization and treaty are for? Aren't "intention" and performance usually related, so that after years of the same results the intention may be surmised from the non-compliance? And with another ninety or more elephants hitting the dust every day, isn't this exactly the time for a "last resort"?
What is happening now to entire herds is just the final onslaught, brought on as much by irresolute people of good intent as by corrupt people of evil intent, a story these poor creatures are hardly the first to play out. "A plaint of guiltless hurt doth pierce the sky," and the Standing Committee is still waiting on first drafts of a plan to do anything about it.
As an extension of the UN, CITES would have, one would think, some sway in New York. Yet in Bangkok, when somebody had the half-decent idea of taking the problem of poaching by terrorists before the UN Security Council, that didn't get far either. They won't even use what little influence they have. As for the organization's credibility, that moved fast when the bidding started.
To turns things around now will take bigger forces. It will take real power, decisions that count, laws with force, and an audience that listens. So ask yourself this, especially if you're a proud environmentalist and voted last November for the candidate who said he is too: If America, 24 years ago, could take the lead under a Republican president, why can't we do it again now under a Democratic president?
It's hard for anyone, much less for a president, to think fresh about a problem so perennial and unpleasant, to clear the mind of the tawdry particulars and find a straight path to what is ultimately a fairly simple objective. But to give it a try, start with Japan.
Often in the ivory debate, when it comes to solutions, it is said that we just have to "put pressure on China," as if this were an uncomplicated proposition. Yet how are American diplomats to prevail on China, a creditor of the United States and at times a rival, to cooperate in this effort when our closest ally in the region is, basically, one of the bad actors?
Like Thailand and other friends, Japan has become a gateway for the trafficking in wildlife of every variety, living and dead, "from turtles to tigers" as Scientific American puts it. Demand for "traditional East Asian remedies" is clearing Africa of animal life, all to feed nothing but the delusions of people who are certain that bear claws will ease their arthritis, expect lion viscera to solve their impotence, or -- in the delicate phrasing of our state department -- believe "unsubstantiated claims of the rhino horn as a cure for cancer." Secretary Clinton detailed trafficking issues in a speech last year, and in just about every case -- the whole pillaging of Africa, to say nothing of Japan's slaughter of dolphins and willful, deceitful hunting of whales even as we and other nations seek to protect those creatures -- Japanese authorities figure prominently in the problem.
America itself was once the world's largest market for ivory, and we still have a busy retail market for it that goes casually policed. Yet for nearly a quarter century, we have at least sought to make amends by pursuing the honorable and unselfish objective of curtailing ivory and sparing the African elephant from extinction. Ultimately, there's nothing in it for us. It's just one of things we do for its own sake, and happily most our friends in the world feel the same. We can't count on Japan to help us? Why, time after time in these matters, are they lining up with China instead of with America?
You could counter that Japan is a vital ally in a dangerous region -- North Korea over here, China over there, and a general situation we're all aware of -- and so we have much bigger things to worry about in our dealings with them than their complicity in the undoing of the world's wildlife. But why doesn't that same point work in reverse -- that the government of Japan has much bigger business with us, and therefore should not constantly work to cross purposes in matters that we, at least, think important enough to put a lot on the line for? All the more because China is a strategic concern, and America the nation that to this day underwrites the security of the Island of Japan, it would not seem to be asking too much that Japanese leaders help us in a benign and, by the standards of high diplomacy, fairly innocuous matter like keeping ivory off the market and holding the line at CITES.
It is surely a rule of diplomacy that before you approach a great power with which you have a difference, you've got to know your friends are with you. And at the next opportunity, Secretary Kerry would be within his rights to say that he and the president who sent him expect that of Japan going forward. They need to trust us on this one, as do Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines and every other friendly or dependent government in the Asia-Pacific region, and more "promising steps" such as Secretary Clinton noted last November aren't going to cut it. Her team, she said, had "met with African and Asian leaders to discuss the immediate actions needed to thwart poachers," and "next week, President Obama and I will personally bring this message to our partners in ASEAN and the East Asia Summit." Doubtless they did. But the message doesn't seem to have taken, because in Bangkok a few months later there was not the least sign of unity. In what passes for drama at CITES, Thailand's Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, declared that she would consider reforming Thai law to regulate the ivory trade, in terms to be defined on some unspecified future date.
In the most emphatic, precise language -- no more "urging" and "calling on" them -- all of these governments need to hear that this cause really matters to our country, and regardless of Asian traditions surrounding ivory, the American government will be counting on their support on every front to end the ivory trade. "How shockingly destructive and historically shameful it would be," Secretary Kerry said last year, "if we did nothing while a great species was criminally slaughtered into extinction." Tell them that and more, until they understand that the use of ivory, like foot-binding and other ignoble traditions mercifully abandoned, has to end. They are great and advanced nations; now, in the treatment of animals, they need to start acting like civilized nations, and so, in other respects, do we.
Let the elephants be a "keystone" here, too, the focal point of a larger effort. Cast a wide, strong net for ivory dealers throughout Asia, and all kinds of other miscreants will be dragged in as well, including traffickers in weapons and narcotics. Relentless policing of smugglers; grave penalties for offenses; fast-lane prosecution of any official abetting the trade; a shutdown of domestic retail markets found with ivory, down to the smallest curio shop; widely aired ad campaigns in their countries, like that of Yao Ming in China, to show the real cost of ivory; and votes at CITES and at the UN consistent with all of this: These verifiable, immediate steps by our friends across the Asia-Pacific region should be taken as the signs of cooperation, no vague assurances or "draft action plans" accepted in their place.
* * *
I once had the experience of being in Adelaide, Australia, watching our American delegation to the International Whaling Commission -- basically, the CITES for whales -- contending for days with Japanese delegates, unsuccessfully, to get any slight concession on the hunting of whales. In theory our delegation represents the views and wishes of the president of the United States, who appoints its chief delegate, but at far-off conferences, against the harangues of tireless, troublesome adversaries, those views and wishes lose a good deal of their force. A few years later, as it turned out, I found myself in the West Wing of the White House when the subject of whaling by Japan and Norway happened to come up, and a figure of some influence around there remarked, "There is no reason why anyone in the year 2003 needs to be killing whales," going on to explain why that was so. Such clarity, the best instincts of those at the top, could save our diplomats a lot of trouble on the whaling issue, and it's the same with the fate of the elephants.
As a speechwriter, I also traveled with President George W. Bush to Japan, South Korea, and China, as well as to Senegal, South Africa, Uganda, and Nigeria. And I noticed something that's probably similar in the Obama years as well. The policy aides all cared about wildlife issues, and ivory in particular, but they acted, even during these travels, on the assumption that none it was really vital enough to rate direct presidential attention. It all got sorted out at lower levels, leaving foreign counterparts to draw logical conclusions about its importance to us, and, by neglect, perhaps hastening the unraveling of conditions in Africa.
It's just possible that these things keep unraveling exactly because they are not handled at the top. And who is better suited to take on the crisis? It's hard to believe that an American president with a solid environmentalist constituency, a foreign-policy emphasis on Asia and Africa, some boyhood years spent in Southeast Asia (at Jakarta's St. Francis of Assisi School), and doubtless an abhorrence for cruelty of any kind, would not have convictions and practical ideas of his own about how to avoid such vast suffering among the people and creatures in the land of his father's birth.
In Dreams from My Father, the president recalled how his Kenyan sister, when he first went to that country in the late 1980s, "grimaced and shook her head" when he expressed a desire to see the wildlife parks. She viewed them as a vestige of colonial days, an indulgence for white tourists who came to the continent to photograph the animals without noticing much else: "These wazunga care more about one dead elephant than they do for a hundred black children." Obama told her "she was letting other people's attitudes prevent her from seeing her own country," and the book has some lovely passages recalling his first glimpses of wild Africa -- "what Creation looked like." All of this, to complete the picture, in the company of a tour guide named Francis.
An answer to the anti-colonial point is that, whatever else is to be said of elephants and their claims of space, the very last influence they should be associated with are the imperial cultures of past times. Africa's people and elephants have shared nothing if not common tormentors -- the gangs and traffickers of today, the slave traders who once provided most of the ivory in Europe and America, and so on just about all the way back to the Roman era. A quarter-century after the president's journey, moreover, their population stands at a third or less of what it was then. It's a difference of about a million dead elephants, and even the poorest Africans seem to take a lenient view. As Julie Owona of Cameroon writes at Al Jazeera: "with the disappearance of elephants, the continent is losing a part of its soul."
What America can do to help is, in any event, for Barack Obama to decide, and determined executive action would go a long way here. A hundred outstanding issues between the United States and China exist at any given moment, from territorial disputes to currency problems to regional dangers. Five or six issues, I suppose, are worked out by the principals when they speak, as they will this week when President Obama and China's new president, Xi Jinping, meet right here in Southern California. Whether the African elephants will survive, whether gangs and terrorists will rule the savannah, belongs among those five or six central issues.
Exactly how such matters are handled at the commanding heights, I could only guess. But it needs saying at such a meeting, in so many words, that surely Yao Ming is the future of China and not Zhao Bai; the prospering young man who takes responsibility, and not the prideful old carver who just doesn't give a damn. We in America know a little something about vain luxuries and conspicuous consumption ourselves, and don't present ourselves as spotless. But the checkered history of Western nations, the harm left behind by our own wretched excess, including the very crimes that first drove the elephant into this nightmare world, is no license for others to repeat them, least of all when this crime can never be undone. For ages to come, one way or the other, people will come to Africa to see the beauty of its forests and plains. Without that sight like no other, without the silhouette of the herds in the distance, it will never be the same, it will feel empty and stilled by absence, like the familiar places of a friend we have lost -- "Here is where they used to be" -- and always visitors to Africa will think: "China." This cannot be how a great people, living out whatever destiny the Chinese see for themselves, wish to be known by the rest of humanity.
The owner of a pricey ivory shop in Shanghai told the Times that a gift of his wares "says this relationship is as precious as ivory." An American president, in solidarity with African, European Union, and G-8 nations, could say to his Chinese counterpart, "This relationship is more precious than ivory," so let's deal with it quickly, accepting equal responsibility to a continent where both our nations can do a lot of good instead of a lot of harm. No nation, whatever its past offenses, current troubles, or aspirations, will want the vanishing of the elephant on its record. Here's a last chance, for all of us, to set things right, without need of problems and penalties that would cost far more than any country's stake in ivory.
It would put some life into CITES, meanwhile, if our delegation were instructed to initiate, right now, an honest, "time-bound" debate about who's doing what to cause this mayhem and what forceful penalties are in order. And those penalties cannot issue from CITES alone. China some years ago finally got serious about banning the domestic trade in rhino horns -- a Chinese law enforced with quite severe punishments -- for one simple reason: the United States finally got serious about trade sanctions. A legal recourse known as the Pelly Amendment authorizes presidential action against nations that fail to comply with international conservation regimes. Were the Obama administration to invoke this authority in the case of ivory, instantly life would become much harder for ivory dealers, and the prospects much better for elephants.
Why not also a presidential speech about Africa's ordeal, on the theme of an all-encompassing ban on ivory, a complete ban on sales in America to set the standard, the destruction of all stockpiles, the confident expectation of support among friends in Asia, and material aid for on-the-ground deterrence, with Yao Ming, leaders of the range states, and a hundred African champions of the elephant to share the stage? All those anti-poaching protests in Nairobi and elsewhere are meant to get our attention and China's, too. A White House event will gain them both in a hurry. For Westerners, President Obama observed in his book, Africa can be "an idea more than an actual place." So, live from the East Room, let the world hear from people who know the actual place and love it.
Across Asia, as these signals began to register, a wave of interdictions, roundups, shutdowns, and newly inspired reforms would soon be underway, exactly as Steve Itela, director of Kenya's Youth for Conservation, envisions: "China could end the killing by immediately closing its domestic ivory markets and severely punishing citizens engaged in illegal ivory trade. But it chooses ivory trinkets for a luxury market over live elephants." A different set of options, all around, will yield a different set of choices. "White gold," the moment that fundamental political and economic interests are felt even slightly on the other side of the scale, will seem a lot less precious to all concerned.
* * *
Mrs. Clinton noted that "the United States is the second-largest destination market for illegally trafficked wildlife in the world. And that is something we are going to address." We are also a prime destination for the "trophies" of slaughtered elephants, and why not address that, too? With so many of them dying as it is in Africa, do we really need Bob Parsons, the Trump boys, and that whole crowd going over there to kill even more?
Authority for the 1989 presidential order banning ivory imports derives from the African Elephant and Conservation Act of the previous year. Imports from blood sport were exempted at the behest of the big-game hunting industry, a subculture of sadism that would appall the average citizen. Amend that law and also the Endangered Species Act, to bar any elephant product, and thousands of elephants will be saved, just like that. The heart of America will be with President Obama all the way. As for House and Senate Republicans, eager to "rebrand" themselves, it doesn't get much easier than a chance to show compassion for their own party symbol.
The European Union likewise treats elephant trophies as "personal effects" carted in from abroad, even as customs authorities are suddenly finding smugglers sneaking the other way, with tusks taken at zoos and, not long ago, hacked off the skeleton of a beast from the menagerie of Louis XIV in France's Museum of Natural History. You know you've got an ivory crisis when you're catching poachers in the streets of Paris, and the EU should act accordingly. All of our countries would be doing rhinos, lions, polar bears, and many other threatened or endangered animals a big favor with a ban on every last "trophy" import, while also calling public attention to the final martyrdom of the elephant.
Instead of sending more killers over there, let's send more protectors. And let's direct aid to the scattered platoons of rangers, militia, and private charities already giving their all.
They are people like Daphne Sheldrick, who was interviewed at her shelter in Kenya not long ago by Chelsea Clinton for NBC News. With her daughter Angela and a team of men, Daphne is among those who rescue the calves who got away. What a strange sight the cameras caught: a little herd of five or six, led down a trail by an African man, all just baby elephants. And the woman has been doing this for 50 years, her only thanks the sight of severely traumatized fellow creatures growing to maturity, living in peace, and learning to trust. At first, she says, "they think we're the enemy." It takes a little while, after that first impression that mankind has made on them, but they figure it out. The orphans see all of the other things that we can do, all of the other powers that we have. Each time, it's just one baby elephant saved, a little thing done with great love. But there is more beauty to the picture than in all the carving factories of Asia. I hope Chelsea shared some of this with her father. Maybe the Clinton Global Initiative can get involved, so that all the victims of poaching will have an advocate in the most persuasive man in America.
Then there's an item out of Gabon, reported in the UK's Daily Mail, that someone in Hollywood needs to take a look at. It's about a fellow in that country, "a mild-mannered British zoology professor" named Lee White, who left his post at Stirling University in Manchester to save the elephants and now leads an army of 250 rangers -- placed at his disposal by President Ali Bongo -- to secure the nation's 13 parks. The military has offered an additional force of 3,000 soldiers, and one day every herd in the rainforests of Gabon can relax at least a little under the protection of the legion of Professor White. "I know I am in a strange position," he told the paper. "But this is no longer a biological issue -- it is a security issue. Either people like me can keep studying these animals until they disappear or we have to join the fight to protect them." Jungles, ruthless gangs, brave African fighters, this gallant man -- get it all in the script, and find the next Peter O'Toole to play the part.
It can be as hard to track the protectors, engaged in on-the-ground operations, as it is to get a fix on the enemy. At this very moment, plans are in motion to get the fiends from Sudan who butchered the 89 elephants in Chad. Ministers from eight central nations met in Cameroon after the massacre and declared that they would gather a thousand-man expeditionary force and send it east. The mission is part of a new Extreme Emergency Anti-Poaching Plan, PEXULAB, which sounds promising -- more "air support, field vehicles, satellite phones, the establishment of a joint military command" -- until you see the funds available for the effort, all of $2.5 million to cover Central Africa. From the Central African Republic, meanwhile, an America academic named Louisa Lombard noted some gunfire there in a Times op-ed: "In remote parklands, far from public scrutiny, park rangers and militias led by foreign mercenaries, safari guides and French soldiers on a cooperation mission for the government have been fighting a dirty war on behalf of the elephants." We can only hope that's going well, and it's not hard to guess one of their objectives. Somewhere in the same vicinity is the Lord's Resistance Army of Joseph Kony, who, as of April, carries a bounty of up to $5 million under America's War Crimes Rewards Program. Which suggests a general approach for the arrest of all poachers: Put a price on their heads and see how they like it.
Some places, however, remain almost entirely undefended, such as the vast Niassa reserve where northern Mozambique meets Tanzania at the Rovuma River. There, reports the Voice of America, "all the poachers have to do is cross over in canoes to get to the elephants, which they attack with high-caliber weapons." Mozambique has enlisted help from the Wildlife Conservation Society, but poachers still kill four or five elephants a day, with special attention lately to the matriarchs so that the others are left leaderless. "Rangers try to stop the poachers, though it is a lopsided battle. There are only 40 rangers to patrol the park ... and the rangers are armed with rifles that date back to World War II." Some are caught, but even then, explains VOA, the fines are light and to this day "Mozambique's penal code dates back to Portuguese colonial times, and does not recognize poaching as a crime."
The whole effort across the continent, as you try piece it together, can seem a blur of rag-tag ranger patrols, improvised fighting units, multinational efforts, NGO initiatives, and UN appendages. And however admirable each might be, one has the feeling that even in combination they look more formidable on paper than they do on the ground. Somewhere in the effort too is our own U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages a fund set aside for elephants that, in 2011, was given $1.7 million to spread around for law-enforcement and aerial surveillance efforts. It feels awkward to call any federal program "underfunded," with a national debt in excess of $16 trillion, but that would be a candidate. And the extra $100,000 pledged last year by the state department, for "a global system of regional wildlife enforcement networks," doesn't have the ring of a game-changer either.
Spend nothing at all or spend all that is needed, drawing on guidance from our U.S. Africa Command to equip national and local anti-poaching forces and turn events toward victory. So many of the military and intelligence capabilities our country has developed or refined in recent years to deal with terrorists are the same that would track and stop poachers, who in trans-Saharan Africa are terrorists, bringing misery and death to people as well as to wildlife. American forces have the technological architecture and operational knowledge to put these killers to rout. Sharing that technology and manpower, within a coordinated strategy that only America can lead, would give African states a decisive upper hand.
Second only to presidential action, and any military assistance that the United States can offer, if anything can help here it is fast action by American philanthropies, providing the means of protection while keeping bureaucracy at a minimum. An example is the Google Foundation, which last year awarded $5 million to the World Wildlife Fund for drones to track both the herds and the killers. An outstanding idea: And if that or some other foundation will donate more, drones -- and with them the capacity to pass information rapidly to law enforcement on the ground -- could in short order cover the most vulnerable regions.
Conservative foundations, too, instead of just keeping "fellows" flush at CATO and elsewhere, could get outside their think-tank comfort zone to accomplish something real, enduring, and altruistic in Africa. As Jonah Goldberg put it last January, "the poachers need to be crushed." Though he is "not sure it makes a lot of sense for the U.S. government to get officially involved militarily, I would love to see some foundation hire some ex-special forces to lend a hand." Why not? A voluntary effort, perhaps in concert with well-targeted U.S. military support, to show that here, too, the good can be more resourceful than the wicked.
"Policy to Come," as speech drafts put it when enthusiasm runs ahead of practical details. Enough to point out that the details and obstacles here, whatever they are, haven't prevented foreign mercenaries from getting involved already, apparently, along with French soldiers and our own special forces assigned to get terrorists poaching in Central Africa. And somehow a British zoology professor is leading soldiers of the Gabonese Republic up and down the Ogooué River in defense of the elephants. How might a unified effort by highly trained American ex-servicemen and women, along with British and European counterparts, affect the security environment? The mere presence, in proximity to every herd, of expert warfighters with equipment and technology equal to the task, would have an enormous deterrent effect. If the aim is a sudden and sober recalculation of risk by ivory poachers, then let word get around the range states that reinforcements have arrived, and from now on it's not just a few valiant men with old rifles that they'll have to contend with.
Of all people, it was a Chinese delegate to CITES who, on the way out the door in Bangkok, advised that everyone "focus less on the demand side of the equation and instead consider the anti-poaching capacity of countries which were losing their elephants." He had a point, at least for the short term, in a year when another thirty or forty thousand elephants will die for their ivory. The great flaw in the libertarian's demand-must-prevail argument is that, unlike illicit narcotics, ivory is finite in supply and limited in location. And if those ranges, broad and scattered as they are, can be forcefully defended, then demand will be killed off instead of the elephants. Demand for ivory might be a craze but it is not an implacable addiction. And commerce in the material depends on unique skills that pass away with the carvers, so that even a decade of earnest protection buys vital time. In that crucial period, for a fairly small price, private foundations, and all the more those with an environmental agenda, could accomplish more than CITES has in its four decades, saving people and elephants alike from a threat that brings ruin to all.
The non-military aid could go to WildAid, Humane Society International, and other such advocacy groups, or straight to those like Save the Elephant, a faithful and long-suffering organization that posts on its website such humble but essential objectives as: "Goal 1. Get a supercub aircraft in the air over Tsavo National Park in Kenya, scene of a recent poaching surge, to assist the Kenya Wildlife Service in protecting the areas. ... The aircraft and pilot are ready to go. We need to build them a hangar and put fuel in the aircraft to keep it airborne every day this year."
Someone get these people the hangar and fuel. Get the anti-poaching forces all of the equipment, weapons, aircraft, and communications and surveillance capacity they need, in every place they need them. Provide chief ranger Joseph Okouyi in Gabon and his men the planes and boats and camps that they need, and Professor White whatever he asks, and the Sheldricks and others like them funds to nourish the orphans and keep them safe. And in every way, on every front, let them know that the United States of America is on their side.
We should give to these kindhearted people all that we can, and our prayers, too, because this forlorn, sentimental cause of theirs is the cause of humanity, in the story of life that is bigger than humanity, and right now the fight is not going our way. This is ground we cannot afford to surrender, the final refuge of animals who mourn their own, and deserve more than to be let go and mourned by us. We would miss the elephants, forever, with only regrets and recollections to fill the space, these grand, peaceable fellow creatures whose final, bloody departure from the earth would warrant a rebuke of Old Testament proportions: "What is this that thou hast done?"
Let the spirit of it all be Francis -- the pope and, better still, the saint, who "walked the earth like the pardon of God." But let tactics, strategy, and diplomacy, across Asia and Africa, be inspired by men a little more familiar with what it takes sometimes to protect the beauty of the created world. Poachers, explained chief ranger Paul Onyango to Jeffrey Gettleman, as they surveyed the bodies of twenty slain elephants at a park in Congo, should not expect negotiations, or warnings, or even much in the way of due process: "Out here, it's not michezo." As the Times translates, it's a Swahili way of conveying to enemies that this is serious and we don't play games.