The Cooler: Can Hillary Clinton Help Stop Elephant Poaching?

July 19, 2013

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An African elephant on the move in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC
An African elephant on the move in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

As announced in many media outlets this week, Hillary Rodham Clinton has a new cause: stopping elephant poaching.

There have  been some predictable and aggravating (to me, at least) comments like those of blogger Jenna Karvunidis, who writes that “elephant poaching is something you get behind when all other human problems have been solved.”

But most conservationists see stopping elephant poaching as a worthy cause, and a problem in desperate need of a solution. The question remains: Can Clinton make a difference?

Elephant and rhino poaching have been in the news a lot this past year, for good reason. Elephant poaching is at its highest level in 20 years. Forest elephant populations have declined 62% in ten years, and the poaching of them appears to only be intensifying.

Fueling this poaching boom is a market for ornately carved ivory and rhino horn sold as a very expensive cure-all in prospering Asian countries.

Many conservationists feel anger, rage, despair. I understand: I recently spent a couple days in remote corners of Tarangire National Park with my elephant-loving guide, Salvatory Erasmus of Roy Safaris. We watched hundreds of elephants as they fed, bathed, played and socialized. I challenge anyone not to feel awe at the sight of them. To kill them for something so trivial as decorative craft is utterly beyond my comprehension.

What to do? Some argue for a total, global ivory ban, while others believe that a carefully regulated ivory trade shouldn’t be dismissed. Various models for ecotourism and sport hunting that benefit local communities are proposed. Some want to pressure Asian government officials and religious institutions that tacitly back the use of ivory for artwork or icons. And there are those who think that education campaigns aimed at consumers could help shift the tide.

All ideas likely have their merits, but they face one big, fat obstacle: the price of elephant tusks and rhino horns. Ivory can bring up to $1000 a pound. Rhino horn is currently worth more than gold. Or cocaine.

As with the illegal drug trade, these prices create an underground industry that’s difficult to stop. It has changed poaching from subsistence hunters trying to earn income for poor families to high-tech, organized crime syndicates.

Various “wars on drugs” – and their associated drug education campaigns — have been spectacularly unsuccessful in stopping the drug trade. Can the ivory trade be any different?

Enter Hillary Clinton.

I understand that some might be skeptical. After all, many high-profile people have made ending drug use their personal cause with little effect. Can one person – even a respected and effective global figure – really put a dent in a global problem?

Here, I turn to conservation history. At the turn of the 20th century, a person walking down the streets of Manhattan would see birds of every color and description – all adorning women’s hats.

A feathered hat was the height of fashion. Some ladies wore what amounted to museum dioramas on their heads – who mounted birds in lifelike poses.

This trade was devastating bird populations, particularly some species with beautiful feathers like various egrets and herons. The wild popularity of the hats made many pessimists feel that many bird species were doomed to extinction.

As with ivory, many solutions were proposed, but it really took the leadership of some high profile figures, notably President Theodore Roosevelt and popular author and explorer George Bird Grinnell.  They used their connections to pass strong anti-poaching laws. They established reserves (including what became the National Wildlife Refuge system) and made law enforcement a key part of those protected areas. And they mobilized and empowered citizens, including bird protection societies and sportsmen.

Today, egrets and herons have some of the healthiest bird populations on the continent. And have you seen anyone with dead songbirds on her hat lately?

I recognize that there are many differences between the feather trade and the ivory/rhino horn trade. But there is still a need for leaders to bring attention to the problem, to influence and to mobilize concerned citizens.

Clinton is a respected and even beloved figure in many parts of the world. She is a skilled spokesperson and has an inarguable command of global issues. Her pledge to focus on poaching also coincides with other efforts, including the Obama Administration’s announcement two weeks ago about a major initiative to curb wildlife trafficking.

In the early 1900s, many bird lovers were absolutely convinced that nothing, absolutely nothing, could stop people from wearing birds. They were wrong.

Clinton won’t singlehandedly stop elephant poaching, but her attention should be welcomed: it signals that this is a serious, important issue that should demand attention—now– from leaders and concerned citizens around the world.

Matt Miller

Matt Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and editor of the Cool Green Science blog. A lifelong naturalist and outdoor enthusiast, he has covered stories on science and nature around the globe. Matt has worked for the Conservancy for the past 14 years, previously serving as director of communications for the Idaho program. More from Matt

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