The plight of African elephants is receiving global attention this week as four key events came together in USA; the Clinton Global Initiative on 26 September, the March for Elephants on 4 October (http://www.iworry.org/join-the-march-2/#.Ukl899KsjLQ), the sentencing of Victor Gordon a notorious American ivory trafficker on 7 October, and the crush of 6 tons of American ivory in Denver on 8 October.
At the Clinton Global initiative on 26 September, 7 African Nations joined Hillary and Chelsea Clinton in a commitment to end the slaughter of elephants by banning domestic trade in ivory, stopping the killing of elephants, stopping the trafficking of ivory, and stopping the demand for ivory. The countries included Botswana, Cote D’Ivoire, Gabon, Kenya, South Sudan, Malawi, and Uganda.
Richard Leakey, founder of WildlifeDirect and the man who is credited with saving elephants from extinction in 1989 by engineering the first ever and most iconic bonfire of ivory in 1989 said “I congratulate Senator Clinton for her actions and commitment and am all for each nation taking responsibility for saving one of the world’s most magnificent animals. I hope that the USA will follow these African nations and ban domestic trade in ivory in the USA and provide support for strategic African initiatives to save elephants and stop the poaching”.
Included in the commitment were several international conservation organizations including the Kenyan organization WildlifeDirect represented by the CEO Paula Kahumbu. WildlifeDirect has launched its own high profile campaign Hands Off Our Elephants spearheaded by Kenya’s First Lady, Margaret Kenyatta. She has called for a global ban on domestic trade. WildlifeDirect has been instrumental in changing and enforcing laws in Kenya and East Africa, by demanding more severe penalties. A study by WildlifeDirect reveals that fewer than 5 percent of convictions for wildlife crimes lead to jail sentences. Not surprisingly, suspected elephant killers and ivory traffickers plead guilty in order to hasten the case and gain a light sentence. Most cases last only 24 hours and most convictions result in a fine of 100-300 dollars. The laxity of the courts had been driving impunity and encouraging poaching, but now the magistrates are delivering jail sentences of 3 to 5 years. Any time in jail is bad in Kenya, but WildlifeDirect says this is still not enough and is pushing for seizure of assets, prosecution under the Organized crime Act and Economic Crimes Act, and minimum jail sentences of 15 years in a proposed new legislation that is expected to pass in coming weeks.
On the heels of the much publicized Clinton Global Initiative commitments for elephants comes the Elephant March a campaign by the Kenyan based David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Millions of people are expected to participate on 4 October in cities around the world. This is one of the things that citizens around the world can do to demonstrate their concern about the elephant slaughter.
On 8 October the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will make an international statement by crushing six tons of elephant ivory seized by its special agents and wildlife inspectors for violations of U.S. wildlife laws (http://ens-newswire.com/2013/09/09/u-s-to-crush-six-tons-of-contraband-elephant-ivory/).
All this attention to elephants is well deserved. Ivory is leaving Africa at an unprecedented rate, part of a surge in poaching that could lead to the extinction of the elephant within 10 years if it is not halted. But it is not just about elephants, the illegal trade in ivory is fueling conflicts and terrorism including the deadly attacks on a shopping mall in Kenya, and the United States is not exempt from the problem.
Ivory seized in 2011
Ironically ivory trade is permitted in the USA and while it involves mostly old pre-ban ivory, like the situation in China, the legal trade is being used as a cover for a significant amount of illegal trade. Indeed, although China is ranked as the top consumer of illegal ivory, the USA is considered the second largest market in the world.
Indeed the ivory crush will include ivory items seized last year when the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service working with New York state authorities seized more than $2 million worth of ivory from two New York City shops. Dan Stiles writes in Swara Magazine report that New York and San Francisco “appear to be gateway cities for illegal ivory import in the USA….China is not the only culprit promoting elephant poaching through its illegal ivory markets. The USA is right there with them.”
Attention then must be drawn to the case of a Philadelphia-based ivory smuggler, Victor Gordon, who was arrested in connection with one of the largest U.S. seizures of illegally imported ivory in July of 2011 (http://www.fws.gov/le/pdf/press-release-doj-gordon-pleads-guilty-smuggling-african-elephant.pdf). More than one ton of elephant ivory was seized. He pleaded guilty on 27 September 2012 and faces up to 20 years in prison. His lawyer, Daniel-Paul Alva, told the Wall St. Journal his client has been cooperating with the investigation, and was “an innocent dupe.” He has already managed to postpone his sentencing for over a year. This would be unthinkable in Africa. The new date is Monday, 7 October at 11am. The US prosecuting attorney is Darren A. LaVerne, and the venue, the US Eastern District Court in Brooklyn, New York, 271 Cadman Plaza East.