Testimony of Elizabeth L. Bennett, Ph.D., Vice President, Species Conservation, Wildlife Conservation Society submitted to New York State Assembly Standing Committee on Environmental Conservation
January 16, 2014
Good afternoon. My name is Elizabeth Bennett. I am the Vice President for Species Conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society. Thank you for the opportunity to speak before you today regarding the plight of African elephants due to demand for ivory, and the actions that New York State can take to improve their conservation status in the wild. My background is that I have spent 30 years working in wildlife conservation, from long-term field research on wildlife and hunting issues in Southeast Asia, working across Africa and Asia, to multiple publications and policy influence on global hunting and wildlife trade.
My organization, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature. To achieve our mission, we harness the power of our Global Conservation Program in more than 60 countries and the world’s oceans, and in our five New York City-based wildlife parks, including our Bronx Zoo headquarters. WCS combines its expertise in the field, zoos, and aquarium to achieve its conservation mission.
The African elephant (Loxodonta africana) is the largest land animal extant in the world today, and a critical part of our natural heritage. African elephants also act as ecosystem engineers, opening pathways through the landscape, maintaining mineral-rich clearings on which gorillas and many other species depend, and maintaining the diversity of the plant community by their browsing and seed dispersal activities. In addition, they are a major part of the tourist draw to many countries in Africa, so are important for local economies and jobs.
Yet African elephants are being killed illegally at a great rate for their ivory. All international commercial trade in ivory has been illegal since 1989, when the African elephant was transferred from Appendix II to Appendix I under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Elephants are also protected in the U.S. under the Endangered Species Act and the African Elephant Conservation Act. Since then, apart from two “one-off” ivory sales from government stockpiles from three African countries to Japan in 1997, and from four African countries to Japan and China in 2008, all international sales have been illegal. Following the 1989 ban, illegal killing of elephants declined and populations started to recover. In recent years, however, illegal killing and ivory trade have increased dramatically. The rise in disposable income in East Asia, coupled with increasing economic and transportation links between Africa and Asia, have been implicated in the rapid recent increases in illegal elephant killing and smuggling of ivory, becoming especially pronounced from 2007 onwards. Illegal ivory trade and the weight of ivory being traded globally has more than doubled since 2007, and is more than three times greater than it was in 1998. In 2012, some 35,000 African ele¬phants were killed, representing the worst mass slaughter of elephants in any year since the international ivory trade was banned in 1989. African forest elephants (L. a. cyclotis) in particular have been devastated by poaching and have declined by about 76 percent since 2002. At this rate, African forest elephants could effectively be extinct over the next decade. Large populations of African savannah elephants (L. a. africana) formerly thought to be relatively secure are now also experiencing alarming declines. The elephant population in the Selous, Tanzania, numbered around 39,000 animals in 2009, and only 13,084 by 2013 – a loss of 66% in four years.
As one of the world’s most lucrative criminal activities, the illegal wildlife trade ranks fourth globally in terms of value, behind the trafficking in drugs, people, and arms. In¬creasing consumer demand for and markets in carved or worked ivory, particularly in Asia, but also in other parts of the world in¬cluding the U.S., are causing the price of ivory to skyrocket, thereby driving the illegal trade in elephant ivory and the mass killings of elephants in Africa. Today’s ivory traffickers are primarily well-organized syndicates that operate as transnational criminal networks and often participate in other illegal activities, including trafficking in narcotics and weapons, and some have links with terrorist networks.
A major challenge to halting the ivory trade and thereby the slaughter of elephants is the lack of effective law enforcement controls along the trade chain from Africa, through the transit countries, and to the end consumer markets. The challenge is compounded by the high levels of corruption at many points in the trade chain. Given the involvement of criminal enterprises along the whole commodity chain, from elephant range countries to the main ivory consumer countries, corruption enables the laundering of illegal ivory into legal or potentially legal markets. Opportunities for this exist and are exploited at all points in a trade chain: paying local officials to turn a blind eye to poaching or trafficking, and switching or altering CITES or other permits along the trade chain so that, through fraudulent paperwork, an illegal item becomes “legal”. Of the 11 countries in Africa estimated to have elephant populations of 15,000 animals or more, nine fall in the bottom half of the world’s countries based on their corruption levels as assessed by Transparency International, and two in the bottom 10%. With elephants occurring in 37 range countries across Sub-Saharan Africa, even if some countries control a domestic legal trade effectively, corrupt leakage into that trade chain from other countries is almost inevitable, especially given that rangers and other law enforcement officers in many countries are paid extremely poorly.
Within that context, legal domestic ivory markets are an enforcement challenge and often serve to provide cover for laundering of ivory from illegally killed elephants in Africa. CITES only regulates international trade—it is up to individual countries to control their domestic markets in protected species. Once ivory is within a country’s borders, it is extremely difficult to distinguish legal from illegal ivory, and the legal market provides an easy front for laundering illegally ivory into the trade. Amongst many others, Africa’s leaders recognize this, and several have appealed to the world’s ivory consuming nations to work together with them to help save their elephants. As part of a Clinton Global Initiative commitment to save Africa’s elephants, in September 2013, the leaders of 11 African elephant range countries—Botswana, Burkina Faso, Côte D’Ivoire, Gabon, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia—came together and called upon governments around the world to join them in halting the ivory trade by implement¬ing domestic moratoria on all imports, exports and domestic sales and purchases of all elephant ivory and ivory products, at least until poaching is controlled, and elephant populations no longer threatened by illegal hunting in all regions of the continent.
While the largest ivory consumer country is China, the U.S. has one of the largest ivory markets globally. Within the U.S., research has shown that New York City has, by far, the largest market for ivory of any major U.S. city. In a 2008 study of the U.S. ivory trade, researchers found 124 outlets that sold more than 11,300 ivory products. This was in Manhat¬tan alone as the study did not include the city’s other boroughs. The U.S. is one of many countries with a legal domestic market, potentially providing a loophole for laundering illegal ivory into that legal market. U.S. efforts to enforce CITES, the Endangered Species Act, and the African Elephant Conservation Act are undermined by the domestic trade remaining legal. Furthermore, the presence of potentially problematic domestic ivory markets in this country undermines the U.S.’s leadership role in encouraging other countries to take a strong stance to control their own ivory markets and protect elephants.
As the U.S. works with African countries, and reaches out to China and other range, consumer and transit countries to crack down on the illegal ivory trade, it is important for the U.S. to lead by example. New York State has an opportunity to lead the way during this critical time for Africa’s elephants. By establishing a morato¬rium on the sale of all ivory and ivory products, New York can eliminate the significant enforcement challenge posed by the legal ivory trade. Such a measure, when enacted and enforced, will immediately reduce the amount of illegal ivory being trafficked in the State, and help to reduce hunting pressures on elephants. In addition, we can raise consumer awareness in New York, across the U.S. and beyond, and set a critical example for other state and federal lawmakers as well as for other countries. Action needs to be taken now if we hope to save elephant populations across Africa for future generations.
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Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)
WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature. VISION:
WCS envisions a world where wildlife thrives in healthy lands and seas, valued by societies that embrace and benefit from the diversity and integrity of life on earth. To achieve our mission,
WCS, based at the Bronx Zoo, harnesses the power of its Global Conservation Program in more than 60 nations and in all the world’s oceans and its five wildlife parks in New York City, visited by 4 million people annually. WCS combines its expertise in the field, zoos, and aquarium to achieve its conservation mission. Visit: www.wcs.org
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