March for Elephants
On 4th October 2013 thousands marched in a series of 15 worldwide marches organised by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, showing their opposition to the current elephant poaching crises and the ivory trade causing it.
Reproduced below is the speech given by Will Travers (CEO Born Free Foundation and Born Free USA) to 300+ people who marched through the streets of Washington DC before converging at a rally in Lafayette Park across from the White House.
“Good afternoon. You are stars. Hundreds of voices, thousands of steps to stop the ivory trade. My name is William Travers. Thank you all for making the effort to be here to show your concern as part of the iWorry marches, organised by Alice and Jen and the wonderful guys from the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. I have known Daphne since the 1970s and have supported her wonderful work. I have been asked to speak to you briefly about a wildlife tragedy -- a massive crisis-- that is unfolding before our very eyes - why it is happening and what we can do about it.
I first went to Africa as a child when my mother and father, Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, starred in the film Born Free. That’s when I saw my first wild elephant. I was 5. Nearly 50 years ago, the wild plains and forests of Africa seemed endless and the number of elephants limitless.10 years later, in Kenya, I saw my first poached elephant, a massive, macabre, stinking pile of rotting flesh, staining the ground, the stench causing me to catch my breath, assaulting my senses. That was at the start of a poaching epidemic that would rage across Africa through the 1970’s and 1980’s causing the Continent’s elephant population to be cut in half in just ten years and which, belatedly, lead to questions being asked… where were all the elephants, who was doing the poaching, where were the markets …… what on earth was going on?
On the one hand it was very simple. Demand for ivory was relentlessly emptying Africa of its elephants.However, it was also complex. There were many actors at play – a perfect storm if you will. Weak wildlife enforcement agencies on the ground were unable to resist the poaching pressure. Widespread corruption at all levels made it difficult to ensure that resources reached the places where they were urgently needed. Some scientists, conservation organisations, trade monitoring organisations were in denial. Famous organisations, ones we trusted and that should have known better, continued to support a ‘sustainable ‘ ivory trade that, subject to monitoring, would permit limited amounts of ivory to be shipped to the carving centres of the Middle East, and the markets of Far East.
The international body responsible for controlling and, if necessary, ending the trade in wildlife products such as ivory, CITES, the Swiss-based UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, continued to prevaricate on the issue as to whether trade should be suspended or not, perhaps, in part, due to the fact that it received significant amounts of donor support from the ivory carving industry itself. And the scientists argued about the numbers. Were elephant populations really in a bad way? How many elephants were there? As one said at the time… ivory crisis – what crisis? Then a number of things happened.
A pivotal study by world-expert Dr Iain Douglas Hamilton put the facts on the table in a way not seen before. His meticulous research revealed the state of the decline – from 1.3 million in 1979 to just over 600,000 in 1989. He predicted that, if the slaughter continued, many African countries would lose their elephant populations entirely. He pin-pointed elephant poaching and the ivory trade as the two most significant factors in that devastating decline.
Other voices began to speak out. Daphne Sheldrick, wife of the late, great David Sheldrick told of her experiences trying to save the growing number of elephant orphans in her care – each a traumatised victim of the slaughter. The Environmental Investigation Agency released damning, never-before-seen, footage from inside the ivory carving factories, revealing the industrial scale of the whole wretched enterprise. The President of Kenya, encouraged by Dr Richard Leakey, the dynamic, newly-appointed head of the recently-created Kenya Wildlife Service, set fire to a massive pile of confiscated ivory in a blaze of publicity that caught the imagination of the world. In the UK, Elefriends, a campaign spearheaded by the Born Free Foundation, the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, Care For The Wild and others, began to collect signatures calling for the ivory trade to be banned at the upcoming CITES meeting to be held in Lausanne, Switzerland, in September 1989. The Tanzanian Government, represented by the dynamic, principled and now sadly missed Dr Costa Mlay, came forward with detailed proposals for such an international ban.
Momentum was building… the question was… would it be enough to turn the tide? I remember it all very well. I borrowed a car and drove to Switzerland to attend the meeting - my first CITES meeting. Why not fly you might ask ? Because I had a precious cargo. Those first few signatures had become a six hundred thousand name petition - one for each surviving African elephant - gathered in just a few short months in support of the ban. Remember this was in the days when electronic petitions simply didn’t exist, the web was in its infancy. Six hundred thousand individual hand-written names on thousands of sheets of paper, personally delivered. It made a difference. It mattered. It counted. As did the efforts of so many who attended that meeting, who shouted ‘ban, ban, ban’ from the other side of locked doors – in those days we were shamefully prevented from attending certain parts of the CITES meeting. Of course, those who still clung to the idea that the ivory trade could be regulated did their best to derail the ban, including organisations that claimed to be the protectors of the world’s wildlife, but it was meant to be. I can still hear the applause ringing around the massive conference room when the result of the final vote was announced. It seemed that the battle for the elephants had been won.
So why has it all gone so terribly wrong – how have we managed to turn victory into possible defeat? Greed. That pervasive, insidious, malignant and deadly sin. The people who coveted ivory, the people who never wanted the trade to be banned, bided their time, and as elephant poaching subsided, prices for illegal ivory collapsed and some populations stabilised and began to recover, they began to whisper in siren voices that ‘now that things are better, it seems a shame to have all that ivory sitting there in government stores.. that elephant conservation needs resources, that limited sales – very carefully regulated, of course – were the perfect answer.
And so the rot set in. The first ‘one-off’ sale took place in 1999 – about 60 tonnes of ivory to Japan under the watchful eye of the CITES Secretariat who reassuringly claimed that they would count every tusk into the shipping container and every tusk out to make sure no ivory was being smuggled and, in doing so, utterly and entirely missed the point. No one in their right mind was going to try and slip extra ivory into that container but it was the message the sale sent out – that ivory was once more ‘on the market’ – that started to dismantle the credibility and integrity of the ban. However, truthfully, the visible impact of that sale in 1999 was very modest. Poaching rates did not seem to rise, ivory prices stayed low. Had our fears been misplaced? It would be ten further years before our predictions would be proved right. Emboldened perhaps by the apparent success of the 1999 one off sale, CITES approved a second one off sale in 2002 which, after lengthy debate and much wrangling, physically took place in 2008 when over 100 tonnes of ivory was exported by 4 Southern African countries to Japan and, for the first time, China, a recently-approved Ivory Trading Partner. China proved to be the game changer.
Up until 1999, China had not featured much as an end market for ivory. Japan was pretty much the only game in town and it was clear that, over time, the Japanese desire for ivory had become increasingly muted. However, double digit economic growth in China for more than 10 years had created a new force to be reckoned with - a massive and rapidly-growing Chinese middle class - hundreds of millions of people with disposable income that they could spend on automobiles, air-conditioning and, if they chose, prestige products that had formerly been the preserve of the elite - including ivory.
At the time of that second sale I argued most strongly with the UK Government Minister of the time that approving China as an Ivory Trading Partner would have fearful consequences, but those siren pro-trade voices had had their malignant effect. The Minister argued (and I quote) that ”the tonnage involved in this one-off sale of legal ivory is significant, and if it can go some way to satisfy the demand for ivory within the domestic markets of China and Japan over the next few years, the demand for illegal ivory will be reduced. We hope this will have a knock-on effect on the levels of poaching of elephants.”
Her predictions were disastrously wrong. Far from satisfying demand, demand was stimulated and elephant poaching has gone through the roof, the volume of illegal ivory in trade has hit 25 year highs and the price being paid for 1 kilo of illegal ivory is 1000% higher now than the legal sale prices of just a few years ago. From that moment on, the floodgates opened and we are back to fighting the ivory wars – except there are only 400,000 elephants left to protect. Some people say we can't win! I say we can! For although the situation is as bad as it’s ever been, some things have changed. No one now denies that Africa’s elephants are facing a crisis - even those who were apologists for the trade 20 years ago are welcome latecomers to the notion that the only solution is to ban.
And ivory is no longer an issue that only excites conservationists and animal lovers. Look who is speaking out on this subject – Hillary and Chelsea Clinton; Secretary of State Kerry; the British Foreign Secretary William Hague; the President of Kenya and the First Lady; the Presidents of Uganda, Botswana, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso; the President of the United States of America; the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and more. Globally respected conservation leaders – including Jim Justus Nyamu, the Elephant Man, here today, a hero of mine, Dame Daphne Sheldrick, Iain Douglas Hamilton – the man who sounded the alarm all those years ago – Born Free Foundation and USA, the Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, the Animal Welfare Institute; Greenpeace; WildAid; The Species Survival Network; Prince William and Prince Charles; David Beckham; Virginia McKenna (my mother); Katie Cleary; Leonardo diCaprio; Jackie Chan, Dr Ron Orenstein; Yao Ming the Chinese NBA star; Lee Bing Bing, the iconic Chinese actress; the list goes on.
And there is another factor that is making a massive difference. Poaching elephant and smuggling ivory is an organised illegal wildlife crime that is now recognised as one of a list of organised crimes that the world is confronted with and that the world is determined to defeat, along with gun-running, drug-trafficking, money-laundering and people-smuggling. These activities not only sustain the criminal networks that suck the life out of decent societies that respect the rule of law but they provide money to the insurgents, bandits and terrorists who are determined to destabilise vulnerable parts of the world and threaten us all in order to achieve their terrible, brutal and self-serving goals. At last, the international community realises that the impact of elephant poaching affects us all – and it is up to us all to do something about it! The dreadful killings by al-Shabab militants in the Westgate mall in Nairobi Kenya were almost certainly made possible with money acquired through selling poached ivory.
Already we have seen a number of highly significant measures: President Obama’s Executive Order has put illegal Wildlife Crime centre stage here in the US. The efforts of the Clinton Global Initiative has helped put $80 million on the table to start tackling the problem. Countries such as Kenya and Gabon are changing their laws to make the punishments for ivory poaching fit the crime, with long prison terms and massive fines. The Government of India will be hosting an international meeting about elephants in just over a month’s time and the British Government will host a High Level Meeting on Illegal Wildlife Trade in February next year - from which, I expect, major initiatives to flow.
The United States Government has pledged to crush nearly 6 tons of ivory in Denver Colorado as a signal that ivory trade will no longer be tolerated. Of course there is much more to be done – not least by the Chinese Government which could take a leadership role and, with the stroke of a pen, declare ivory sales, imports and exports illegal. But we cannot stand back and wait for that to happen. People are stepping up to be counted - each and every one of you here today and at all the other iWorry events around the world organised by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust - all the people who visit the Bloody Ivory website and have donated to anti-poaching efforts in Burkina Faso and Ethiopia.
We are all part of this issue and we can all choose to be part of the solution. No more buying ivory, no more selling ivory, no more wearing ivory, no more elephant poaching or hunting (yes I saw that despicable NBC elephant trophy hunting show). We all have an obligation to care for elephants, to care for the natural world, to protect other species from the one species that can destroy them all – humans. They say that an elephant never forgets. I believe that to be true. So let’s make sure that from this day forward, we don’t forget the elephant. One young marcher has today said elephants are his favourite animal. Don't allow his dream to be destroyed. Open any kid’s reading book and E is for Elephant – not for Extinction.