National Geographic News
Photo of a woman weighing an elaborately carved ivory sculpture of Taoist gods.

A sculpture like this, for sale at the White Peacock Arts World in 2011, can take a master carver years to produce. China is the world's largest consumer of ivory.

Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty/National Geographic

Bryan Christy

for National Geographic

Published June 13, 2014

Ask anyone in America to name an organized crime figure, and chances are they can do it: Al Capone in the 1920s. "Bugsy" Siegel in the 1930s and '40s. John Gotti in the 1970s and '80s.

Ask anyone in America to name an international organized crime figure, and chances are they can do that: Maybe they'll mention Pablo Escobar, who helped lead the Medellín drug cartel for nearly two decades until he was killed in 1993. They might mention "El Chapo" Guzmán, the Mexican drug kingpin who was arrested this year.

But ask anyone in America—anyone in the world, for that matter—to name an international wildlife trafficker, and chances are they won't be able to give a single name, even though wildlife crime is widely viewed as being among the world's most profitable forms of transnational crime.

If anyone can name an international wildlife trafficker, it's Anson Wong. I wrote about him for a National Geographic in 2010 called "The Kingpin," because we wanted to send a signal to the world that wildlife crime has a face too.

Connecting Dots: The News in Perspective

What happens when violent crime has a face? The public demands protection. It supports stronger laws, more prosecutions, and better sentences from judges. It is willing to pay for these things too. It is willing to fund police and crime-fighting agencies such as the FBI.

Beginning in 2011 the world saw the face of a primary victim of international wildlife trafficking, the African elephant. Vanity Fair ran "Agony and Ivory," a story that brought the elephant poaching crisis to a broad audience. The following year, Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times told the story of the links between ivory trafficking and terrorist groups in Africa. The Lord's Resistance Army, the Janjaweed, and Al Shabaab became a face of those groups killing elephants on a commercial scale.

In October 2012, National Geographic published "Blood Ivory," which examined the demand side of the illegal ivory trade and the difficulty in controlling it. We discovered that religion was a major driver of ivory consumption, along with the more predictable desires: status or investment.

Law Enforcement Steps Up

In the months following these stories, Philippine police raided religious ivory shops. Police in Italy raided shops in Vatican City and Abruzzo.

International efforts that combined national enforcement authorities in countries such as China, Thailand, and Kenya; local and international nongovernmental organizations; CITES (the U.N.'s wildlife trade organization); and Interpol were launched against ivory trafficking.

In 2013, the Philippines announced it would destroy its entire stock of seized ivory, the first time in history a non-African country had done so. The United States followed, and since then four other countries, including China and Hong Kong, have destroyed part or all of their national ivory stocks.

On Capitol Hill, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, now Secretary of State, held a hearing on the elephant-poaching crisis. More hearings followed, fostered by the International Conservation Caucus Foundation.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held the country's first wildlife trafficking roundtable at the White House, and in July 2013 President Barack Obama launched the nation's first Cabinet-level Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking.

This year in London, Prince Charles and Prince William helped lead an international gathering of nearly 50 countries focused on the African elephant.

The U.S. has announced a domestic ivory ban, and the Philippines and Chad have called upon all nations to increase restrictions on ivory trade, including over the Internet.

Online auctioning of ivory is a major problem, but some online merchandisers, such as eBay, and the television series Antiques Roadshow have removed ivory from their offerings.

Photo of the home of an ivory collector filled with religious icons.
The home of a Filipino collector is lavish with ivory religious icons. In 2013, the Philippines destroyed its national ivory stock.
Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty/National Geographic

Measures in China

Demand reduction efforts are under way in the leading ivory-consuming country, China. There, some of the country's wealthiest business leaders have announced opposition to ivory. But the Chinese government has yet to announce that the country is out of the ivory business.

In Hong Kong, a girl named Celia Ho launched her own Save the Elephants Campaign. More students took action there, and recently some of Hong Kong's biggest department stores agreed to stop selling ivory.

Many of these actions were facilitated by a long list of international conservation organizations. In Africa, there is hope to go with tragedy. The world learned about the crisis in Chad's Zakouma National Park in the pages of National Geographic, but recently rangers there discovered the birth of more than 25 elephant calves.

In Togo, a country with almost no elephants, enforcement officers are seizing ivory passing through its port and arresting and prosecuting traffickers.

The Slaughter Continues

Still, the elephant killing goes on—with bullets, poison, grenades, snares, and spears.

A key population of elephants in Tanzania has fallen by 80 percent in just six years, and forest elephants have dropped by 65 percent during the past decade.

Rangers in Garamba National Park, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, have discovered 68 elephant bodies over the past two months. And in Kenya's Tsavo East National Park, a massive old tusker named Satao has just been killed, causing an outpouring of grief and anger among the men and women dedicated to saving elephants in that country.

This week, Obama's Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking issued its recommendations, which can be summarized as: strengthening enforcement, reducing demand, and increasing international cooperation.

The council also recommended amending U.S. law to increase wildlife prosecutions and treating wildlife trafficking as organized crime—under the same federal statutes that were used to go after the Mafia.

We know the victim. We have the will. We know terrorists are behind much of the killing. We now need to put a face on international ivory trafficking.

26 comments
Dave Sharley
Dave Sharley

Disgusting, I cannot believe people think ornaments made of ivory is beautiful. It is disgusting. Not only is it boring but it is made at the cost of thousands of beautiful creatures. Ivory collectors should be jailed along with the poachers for life with hard labour rehabilitating elephants habitats.

Dipanjan Mitra
Dipanjan Mitra

Any kind of ground breaking effort is less to stop this, may be it is the biggest chain and form of criminal activity of the 21st century.

Chris Parker
Chris Parker

Anti poaching rangers need your support at the International Anti Poaching Foundation     www.iapf.org

Reza Taufik Ismet
Reza Taufik Ismet

Here in Indonesia, elephants are being killed by big palm oil companies. Not for their ivory mostly, they were all poisoned because they were just naturally looking for food in what used to be their habitat. It is very very depressing to see the bones of those beautiful animals found by conservationists deep in the jungle. That ivory-carved picture on top, that don't impress me at all, despite the stretch of time to produce one. It is sickening!

Adnan Zaidi
Adnan Zaidi

How can we help? Is there a fund that we all can trust that will actually make 100% use of our donations? Is there a petition we could sign? I know the main the thing is spreading the message, but is there another organized method? I'm all ears.

SOPHIE K.
SOPHIE K.

As I understand it,once more religion is behind one of the biggest crimes in human history....... 

Maisie Lightfoot-Ali
Maisie Lightfoot-Ali

Brutal and Barbaric, am ashamed of our race,..  we don't deserve the wonderful gifts of Earth and the privilege of being here amongst it all, on what I'm sure is one of the most beautiful places in the Universe.


The Chinese have no regard for life, human or wild, nor our natural environment either as their massive desire for material progress and gain shows. We understand that everyone hopes for better living standards, but that can't be at the expense of environment and life, human or wild. We are all connected, what happens in China, happens to the World, what happens to you, happens to me.. all life is connected, and all are affected by everything that happens in our World, what happens to the Elephants happens to all of us, and we are all shamed by the organized crime and low life that continues to fund its unwelcome and unwanted terrorist/mafia/religious presence on Earth. The worst of human nature exposed again, these horrible cowards must be stopped once and for all, as must this brutal and barbaric trade. There is no need for ivory, it is not a necessity in life, if there isn't a market for ivory, there isn't a trade and the Elephants will be safe. Maybe those responsible should have their teeth pulled out! There needs to be a very serious punishment for #WildlifeCrime and #ZeroTolerance of those who commit it. Marine Parks like SeaWorld are equally criminal, whales and dolphins are stolen from the oceans for display/performance/exhibit purposes for big money, Tilikum the bull orca at SeaWorld Florida is a prime example of this brutal trade. All must be stopped ASAP, it is not acceptable and never can be, and until it is stopped we are all part of it and we are all shamed.

Judy Brey
Judy Brey

It seems that most Americans don't know about the elephant poaching crisis (?) in spite of excellent news reporting over the last few years. They don't know about New York City being a hub for international poachers and traffickers or know that the U.S. is number 2 after China as an ivory customer. That the U.S. is number one in purchasing wildlife from these traffickers? My feeling is Americans think it's only happening somewhere else, not here. What about the six crime syndicates in China? Is the Chinese govt going after them? Or still opening up new carving factories? This certainly can be a thing of the past like foot binding I hope. For now, on the ground boots to protect elephants is critically needed. Just found out yesterday they killed one of Kenya's icons, Satao and a few weeks before that Mountain Bull. What about KWS corruption? It's almost as if they find these few remaining tuskers for the poachers. Your list Raymond is great and the educational process needs to start right here in the U.S. as well as on the ground in African countries with out of control poaching. This is shameful! Horrifying! there are no words. That it's gotton this bad and sill no real relief!

Raymond MacDonald
Raymond MacDonald

Deeply upsetting to see the utter collapse of Elephant populations.... 

It doesn't take advanced statistical analysis to predict extinction in the very near future, unless massive changes are made.

1. Shaming of buyers and changing of laws on purchase making it illegal

2. Boycott businesses associtated

3. High profile publishing of names of buyers and sellers

4. Education about critical state of Elephants, and other species

5. Economic strategies for developing alternative means of earning a living where poaching is lucrative.

6. High profile punishment of traffickers, buyers, sellers, poachers.

7. International coordination

C. Dufour
C. Dufour

If we do remove a "kingpin" what stops another one from just moving in? I think the best method would be to change public opinion on ivory in the country. this is having good success in hong kong.

Supersolo Jembe
Supersolo Jembe

myself i like elephant so i do not support the killing of elephant  and making products and  i will not shop where ivory is sold and i hope other will follow my steps


Ditte Hellemose
Ditte Hellemose

Don't shop where ivory is sold.. Be disgusted by people possessing any Ivory.

Jeri Flynn
Jeri Flynn

I am a peaceful person, but I wish a typhoon would destroy the shop/home of the Filipino man pictured above.  It really makes me sick to look at all that destruction for what?  Human vanity?

Lynne Empey
Lynne Empey

13/06/14 I checked Ebay and they are still showing ivory products for sale!! Please don't support the sale of ivory

Sean Nolan
Sean Nolan

Nothing less than a Total International Ban, backed up by stiff penalties will work !  Current seized stocks should be destroyed, Much nicer to see it on the animal than on a shelf !

Deborah Troester
Deborah Troester

Thanks for publicizing this terrible crime and working to end poaching of elephants and other endangered animals. 

Otto Lapham Peterson
Otto Lapham Peterson

@Adnan Zaidi The sad truth is that there is nothing you can do. Our population is so grossly massive that each individuals vote is so meaningless and irrelevant that in the grand scope of things you probably account for nothing. However, many people would counter this argument to say that "well if everyone thought like that then no would one care or try to make a difference" but if everyone did think like that then what could you personally do about it?

Kathryn Weaver Rolke
Kathryn Weaver Rolke

@Maisie Lightfoot-Ali 

While I appreciate your concern for elephants and I wholeheartedly agree with everything you said about elephant poaching and ivory, I feel that you are wrong to lump SeaWorld into a discussion about horrendous crimes against animals like the barbaric slaughter of beautiful creatures like elephants--SeaWorld animals are well-cared for and not in immediate danger of being brutally killed for their tusks and wiped off the face of the earth.  Most of the people who are against SeaWorld are also against zoos, and if it weren't for zoos, there would be no hope at all for animals like elephants.

Judy Brey
Judy Brey

@Maisie Lightfoot-Ali Thank you for expressing your compassion for wildlife and our earth. It's good that aware people like you can help turn this around. Jane Goodall says whatever we do everyday affects everyone around the world. It's really true. I'm counting on a huge cultural change in China, Asia, once education and awareness of this slaughter reaches the masses. We're counting on compassion for elephants for the survival of this species over ivory trinkets. Hopefully the kingpins in China who fund this crime will be shut down as well.

Judy Brey
Judy Brey

@C. Dufour You are right - Chinese govt needs to go after the six crime syndicates in China! attack this at every point in the chain.

Sisi van Dijk
Sisi van Dijk

@Ditte Hellemose When I was in Thailand a few years ago my mom wanted to buy a ring from this shop. I saw some sharks kept in an overcrowded aquarium and after walking around the large shop further, I saw the ivory in the shop. My mom almost put her credit card into the machine and I stopped her. The manager came out and I told him that I will not let my mom buy something from a store who mistreats animals, and sells ivory. They tried to sell me the "our elephants all die of natural causes", but I told them I do not care as it is disgusting that ivory is even being sold!


The other customers heard me, but I know wish I even made a bigger deal out of it. 


These people disgust me, because they are helping an industry that allows money to continue to circulate within this business.


It is such a sad world :(

Phil D.
Phil D.

@Sean Nolan and yet governments still flout International rulings or laws- example Japan intends to resume whaling.

Adnan Zaidi
Adnan Zaidi

@Otto Lapham Peterson @Adnan Zaidi I mean.. I agree with half of what you said. Everyone does make a difference. And even though its hard for that point to ring true with the way things are going right now, optimism has to trump realism. That's the only way to combat anything we see to be wrong or unfit.

I'll actually answer my own question: SOCIAL MEDIA

In this day and age, it is easier to spread awareness than brushing your teeth. Even a simple hashtag can go a long way. Listen, if Lebron's hairline can trend on twitter, anything can. It starts with us at the grassroots level of awareness promotion, and making a concerted, coordinated, and united stand. If anyone has any ideas or suggestions for social media outreach, or already knows of such a plan, please post below.

We shouldn't be stumped by rifle-toting poachers with less education, resource accessibility, and privilege than ourselves. Instead of waiting for governments to expedite the process, lets potentiate their efforts with our own. 

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