Saving Africa's Elephants—in the United States

With the animal heading toward extinction, conservationists want it declared an endangered species to shut down ivory imports into the U.S.

(Photo: Peter Unger/Getty Images)

Feb 11, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

We need to do more to save the African elephant from extinction. Much more. That was the message from conservation organizations, which on Wednesday filed a petition with the United States government to fully protect African elephants under the Endangered Species Act.

African elephants have been listed as a threatened species—one step below endangered—since 1978. Today’s petition from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Humane Society International, and the Fund for Animals argues that this hasn’t been enough. According to the petition, African elephant populations have declined by 60 percent during that time, mostly due to habitat loss and rampant slaughter for their valuable ivory.

At least 96 elephants die a day at the hands of poachers. Their ivory tusks are then shipped all over the world. The U.S. is reportedly the second largest market for ivory carvings, the vast majority of which are illegal under federal and international law.

“American consumers are confused about where ivory comes from, what’s legal and what’s not,” Jeff Flocken, IFAW North American regional director, said during a press conference on Wednesday.

Listing the elephant as endangered would effectively ban all ivory imports as well as the import of trophies from legal elephant hunts and products made from elephant skins. The U.S. is a major market for all of those products. According to Teresa Telecky, director of wildlife for Humane Society International, the U.S. imported 15,000 African elephant skins and hunting trophies from 7,500 elephants between 2003 and 2012.

At least 11 metric tons of ivory carvings were also imported to the U.S. during this same period.

“The U.S. must bring greater scrutiny to the import of African elephant parts and the negative impact it has on wild populations,” Telecky said. “The U.S. should further assure that Americans are not contributing to the disappearance of one of the world’s most beloved animals,” she said.

The petition, filed today with the Department of the Interior, is the first step in a long process. The government has 90 days to respond to the petition and determine that the scientific evidence presented by the three organizations is sufficient. If that is the case, the government will then begin a one-year review process to gather additional information and make its own recommendation.

The government, however, isn’t waiting that long to take action.

“The good news is that the U.S. government is already moving on a number of fronts to address the crisis,” Flocken said in an interview. “Right now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing new regulations to tighten up loopholes related to ivory sales.”

The agency also last year banned trophy imports from Tanzania and Zimbabwe, two countries that have been deemed to have management issues with their wild elephants.

States are also taking action. New Jersey and New York recently passed legislation to ban all ivory sales. Hawaii, Washington state, California, Iowa, and Connecticut are considering similar legislation. “There’s a real wave of support coming at the state level,” Flocken said.

More action federal action took place on Wednesday, the one-year anniversary of the Obama administration’s National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking. The departments of the interior, justice, and state today announced the implementation plan for strategy. One of the steps in the plan is described as “continuing efforts to implement and enforce administrative actions to strengthen controls over trade in elephant ivory in the United States.”

Conservation groups praised the plan. Cristián Samper, president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, called it “groundbreaking.”

Flocken said people are working on a lot of fronts to save the African elephant, but a lot more needs to be done.

“This is the time when everybody needs to band together to save elephants,” he said.