With Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, President Barack Obama announced that the United States will take urgently needed steps to curtail wildlife trafficking and address the devastating elephant poaching crisis, issuing a proposed rule that will establish a near-complete ban on the commercial ivory trade in America. The president made his remarks just minutes ago in Kenya, one of the countries in Africa that has seen its elephant population decline from 175,000 in the 1970s to about 35,000 today because of a merciless onslaught by poachers, including Al-Shabab militants coming out of Somalia.
We’ve been calling for U.S. leadership to combat the illicit trade in ivory, and we are glad that the President is using the bully pulpit to draw attention to this crisis and to take a critical step toward strengthening U.S. policy. According to one estimate, the United States is the world’s second largest market for ivory product sales, behind China, and we cannot claim the mantle of leadership on this issue without taking bold action commensurate with the crisis that’s unfolded. China’s recent announcement that it, too, would take action on the subject is also enormously significant, and we hope that our president’s action spurs the biggest power in the Old World to adopt a timeline to phase out commercial sales of ivory in that vast market.
It is estimated that one elephant is killed in Africa every 15 minutes – with much of the killing conducted by militias and militants turning tusks into cash and intent on destabilizing nations and looting them of their resources. At the current rates of killing, this iconic species may go extinct in little more than a few decades.
Two years ago in Tanzania, the President announced an executive order to direct action and better organize the U.S. government’s efforts to combat wildlife trafficking. The proposed rule announced today is a derivative of that prior declaration. Another positive outcome from the executive order has been the U.S. Agency for International Development’s investment of millions of dollars in new programs across more than a dozen countries to help combat wildlife trafficking. Congress has called for a study on the link between poaching and terrorism, and the Department of Defense is now getting involved to track down terrorist poachers. Private philanthropists are contributing weapons and wardens to help fight the militants in the forests of Central Africa, the savannahs in the east, and also in the mixed habitats in southern Africa. Botswana has banned all sport hunting of elephants, and is building its economy around sustainable and humane tourism.
We’ll undoubtedly hear some carping from people who want to sell ivory in the United States – people who place their own private circumstances and wishes ahead of the global interest in saving elephants and protecting the economies of African nations. I am dumbfounded by the inability of these privileged few to see beyond their own circumstances. This is an issue not just about protecting elephants, but alleviating poverty, spurring economic growth, and fighting off people intent on destroying governments and terrorizing communities.
More than any other animate or inanimate resource, it is the wildlife, especially elephants, who draw millions of people to Africa. These wildlife enthusiasts spend billions of dollars and their commerce fuels efforts to educate children, pay for vaccinations, and provide jobs to people in both urban and rural areas.
Here’s a case where protecting wildlife is bound inextricably with core concerns about economic and national security. The range states in Africa would be devastated if they lost their elephants. We can help them best by closing down our markets for ivory in the United States and China and shutting down the economic incentives for terrorists to kill elephants for their coveted tusks.
The HSUS applauds President Obama and his administration for cracking down on the commercial ivory trade. We have been working hard to ensure the release of this long-awaited rule that will help save the last remaining African elephants. We need to flood the White House with comments in support of it, to forestall blocking maneuvers by some lawmakers in Congress and by special interests.