Opinion: Elephants never forget – let’s not forget about them

This piece first appeared in The Globe and Mail. -- Ed.

Today is World Elephant Day, a day meant to remind us that without vigilance, determination, and international cooperation, this amazing creature may soon be extinct.

Currently over 35,000 elephants are killed each year for their ivory.

That’s one elephant every 15 minutes. In 2011, 40 tons of smuggled ivory were seized, the largest amount ever recorded. So far this year not a single week has passed this year without a shipment of ivory being seized. Horrific reports of recent elephant massacres in Chad, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic highlight the urgency.

At this rate, experts say there won’t be any elephants left in the wild by 2025.

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Market demand drives this senseless killing, and Canada is not without blame. Just last month, Xiao Ju Guan, a Richmond, BC antiques dealer was indicted by a New York federal grand jury for conspiring to smuggle endangered wildlife, including elephant ivory and rhino horn.

Guan was arrested as part of a 3 year undercover operation, after being caught purchasing endangered black rhino horns worth $45,000 from undercover US Fish and Wildlife agents with the intent of driving them across the border into Canada. Guan and his associates allegedly smuggled more than $500,000 of rhino horn, ivory, and coral from the United States into Canada, falsely declaring both the origin and value on any paperwork.

The case gives but a tiny glimpse into the underworld of trafficking in endangered species. Illegal wildlife trade is serious business; it is estimated to be worth at least $19 billion USD per year, and is largely run by sophisticated, well-financed, and well-armed organized crime syndicates.

Wildlife crime presents high-profits with relatively low risk, since wildlife trafficking is often treated as low priority by law enforcement agencies.  Rare, high-value, and untraceable wildlife products are often used as collateral by those seeking fast-cash resources. Income from poaching helps to fund violent activities such as terrorism, and the links between illegal wildlife trade and national security, violence, organized crime and radicalism are increasingly being exposed.

Canada announced $2 million in emergency funding earlier this year to combat illegal wildlife trafficking in Eastern Africa. While this is commendable, work still appears to be required here at home. Earlier this year, the discovery that endangered fin whale meat was being shipped by rail across Canada was essentially met with an official shrug, with officials claiming that nothing could be done about it.

Of course a ban on the trade in ivory products will not be sufficient to stop the poaching crisis and save wild elephants from extinction. IFAW is currently working to reduce demand in China, the world’s number one market for ivory, as well as fund park rangers in East Africa, support orphaned elephant rehabilitation, and prevent elephant-farmer conflicts. But our efforts are limited without a more focused intervention by world governments.

Time is running out for elephants. Canada should be taking a leading role in stopping illegal wildlife trade both at home and abroad. If we don’t, creatures such as the majestic elephant will remain only in our memories.

--SF

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Experts

Dr. Cynthia Moss, IFAW Elephant Expert
IFAW Elephant Expert
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
James Isiche, Regional Director, East Africa
Regional Director, East Africa
Jason Bell, Program Director, Elephants Regional Director, South Africa
Program Director, Elephants, Regional Director, South Africa
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy