Efforts to Curb Ivory Trafficking Spreading, but Killing Continues

Stories that put a face on wildlife crime enable solutions, says National Geographic's crime investigator.

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.

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.

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.

The home of a Filipino collector is lavish with ivory religious icons. In 2013, the Philippines destroyed its national ivory stock.

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.