With the ever-expanding worldwide market for luxury goods, African elephants are being hunted to extinction for their valuable tusks. Here, Chelsea Clinton shares her passion for these exceptional animals, and the Clinton Foundation’s efforts to save them.

Chelsea Clinton
Chelsea Clinton.

It’s an unimaginable horror. Satao, an iconic male African bush elephant, who was born in the late 1960s, should have lived a natural life of 70 years. But he was found dead in Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park in June. Poachers took down Satao, who weighed an estimated seven tons, with a single poisoned arrow to his flank. His signature ivory tusks, which weighed more than 100 pounds each, had been hacked off. The Tsavo Trust, a conservation group that monitors the elephant populations of Tsavo in partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Services, knew Satao well because of its focus on protecting large “tuskers” which are lucrative targets for poachers. But Satao was so horribly butchered that the conservation groups who tracked his every move could not immediately identify him.

Why would anyone want to kill the world’s largest land mammal—a highly intelligent species with a lifespan as long as a human’s? An animal with powerful family bonds and a memory that far surpasses ours and spans a lifetime? Scientists have found that elephants are capable of elaborate thought and deep feeling; they mourn deeply for lost loved ones, even shedding tears and suffering depression. They have a sense of empathy that projects beyond their species.

So why are these gorgeous creatures being slaughtered? It’s for that objet d’art on your mantelpiece, the necklace in your jewelry box, the hair ornament on your dresser, and the ivory keys of your custom piano.

Elephants
Elephants form deep emotional bonds with family members that may rival our own.

While elephant poaching has been a grave challenge at different times during the last century, it has recently risen to alarming levels. In 2012, some 35,000 African elephants were killed, about a 10th of the remaining population, representing the worst mass slaughter of elephants since the international ivory trade was banned in 1990. Roughly the same number were killed last year as well. African forest elephants in particular have been devastated by poaching and have declined by about 76 percent since 2002. At this rate, African forest elephants could effectively become extinct over the next decade.

The wildlife trade is one of the world’s most profitable criminal activities, ranking fifth globally in terms of value—estimated at $7 billion to $10 billion a year, behind trafficking in drugs, people, and oil; and counterfeiting. Today’s ivory traffickers are well-organized syndicates that function as transnational criminal networks and often participate in trafficking drugs and weapons. Some have links with terrorist networks.

According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), as much as 70 percent of elephant ivory is transported to China, where it is sold for up to $1,500 per pound and carved into jewelry, religious figurines, and trinkets.

In September 2013, at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) annual meeting, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton unveiled an $80 million endeavor to stop the ivory trade. The Partnership to Save Africa’s Elephants initiative partners include the Wildlife Conservation SocietyWorld Wildlife FundAfrican Wildlife Foundation, International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Nature ConservancyConservation International, and 11 other nongovernmental organizations, working together to halt the decline of African elephants.

Chelsea Clinton, due to have her first child in the fall, still keeps a packed schedule at the foundation, passionately promoting initiatives close to her heart: empowering women and girls, clean drinking water, combating childhood obesity, and the elephant poaching crisis. We sat down with Clinton, vice chair of the Clinton Foundation, to talk about its efforts to save African elephants.

When was the first time you learned about the horrors of elephant poaching?
CHELSEA CLINTON: I remember vividly: My mother’s parents moved to Arkansas right before Christmas in 1987, and I remember my grandparents asking what I wanted for Christmas. My grandmother said, “We’ll give you a membership and a subscription to anything that you want,” so I picked National Geographic and possibly Greenpeace or Conservation International. I just wanted to know everything I could about what was happening with the environment and conservation. I was so shocked that elephants were under such duress, and the only thing that I could do was to ask my grandparents to continue to support organizations that were trying to save the elephants as my Christmas present every year.

How does CGI coordinate this gigantic undertaking with so many different partners?
CC: There are three parts of the CGI commitment: You stop the killing, stop the trafficking, and stop the demand. One of the first things we did was assess what each organization was doing and where there were gaps—whether functionally or geographically—so that the additional monies could be invested in helping to fill those voids. Or continue to double down on strategies that were working: The Howard G. Buffett Foundation made an investment in Gabon, because Gabon had already started to increase its emphasis on conservation and increase its number of rangers and ranger training to try and protect its elephants. Now we have US Marines training Gabon rangers, because it’s not only about protecting the elephants, it’s about the security of the country. Gabon, like so many countries where poaching is happening, is being preyed upon by armed groups that are destabilizing forces throughout West Africa and East Africa.

elephant ivory
Government-issued weapons for fighting poachers and tusks seized in Chad’s Zakouma National Park. In the last decade, 90 percent of the park’s elephants have been poached.

Tell me more about security concerns and government cooperation.
CC: The FBI is working with Interpol, as are various national intelligence groups, because, increasingly, poaching is part of the most nefarious activities throughout Africa—whether it’s running guns or people or drugs—so there’s a real security interest not only for the countries that are affected but for all of us to stop poaching.

Having lived through 9/11, I think people will be very interested to know that poaching has direct links to terrorism.
CC: There’s irrefutable evidence that Al Qaeda in North Africa; the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); and the Janjaweed from Sudan, who are coming into Uganda and the DRC, are all engaged in poaching, because, sadly, ivory is an easily accessible commodity to them. It’s become a lubricant that greases the wheels for the shipment of drugs, guns, and people. 

I don’t think many people realize the brutality involved when elephants are killed for ivory. One misconception is that taking off the tusk is like extracting a tooth. Elephants cannot live without their tusks; they are absolutely crucial to their survival.

What happens with the ivory after the elephants are killed? Is there a black market?
CC: The tusks are removed and then trekked out to a port. In East Africa, a lot of ivory flows out of Dares Salaam in Tanzania, and Mombasa and [other ports in] Kenya, and it largely goes to Asia. China, by far, is the biggest market; Vietnam and Thailand are also significant markets. The vast majority [of ivory] is transported in tusk form. When it gets to China, the tusks are then cut down and made into commodities and luxury goods—whether it be ivory Buddhas, chopsticks, hair clips, or the handles of a luxury handbag.

Why the high demand for ivory in Asia?
CC: In China, historically, ivory has been synonymous with ascension into the middle class and prosperity. One of the challenges along the continuum with trying to stop the demand is to find replacement products—so that ivory is no longer synonymous with rising affluence, but that, say, a Louis Vuitton handbag could be.

When you went to Africa last summer, what did you learn from being on the ground?
CC:
We went where there are indigenous elephant populations—from Malawi up to Tanzania. In Tanzania we were in Tarangire National Park; it was amazing not only to see the elephants in all of their magnificence but to see the families, to understand on a deeper level why it’s so important that the matriarchs—which are increasingly the ones that are killed because they’re the oldest and have the biggest tusks—not be slaughtered. Without the guidance of those older figures, it’s hard for younger families to survive.

And the park rangers are in such peril protecting the older elephants.
CC: Yes. More than a thousand rangers have been killed over the last decade protecting elephants and other wildlife. They feel called to this work for the elephants’ sake, but also recognize this is important to their country’s future.

elephant
Satao, a male bush elephant born in the late 1960s, was killed for his tusks in Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park earlier this year.

Why do you think elephants mean so much to you and your mother?
CC: The first elephants that I saw were in the Little Rock Zoo when I was little. What I felt then was just magnified profoundly when I went with my mom to Africa as a teenager. It is this sense of a family, ultimately—the family unit of elephants and the affection and the commitment to their families and to the other elephant families in the area. Also, elephants are so crucial to the ecosystem. They’re sort of the honeybees of the African savannah or their forest environment.

Can you share any progress reports?
CC: Judith McHale—who worked for my mom in the State Department, liaising on conservation efforts there—is chairing the [President’s Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking]. We fully support everything the Obama administration has done and strongly support an ivory ban here at home. We think that’s a critical move for the United States to make—not only for our own moral standing, but also because there is no argument for ivory being indispensible. There are very good substitute materials—whether it’s for a piano or a musical pick, or any of the utilitarian uses of ivory—so we really have been deeply enthusiastic about the commission’s work.

I understand you’re planning on doing something during Fashion Week?
CC: Most of the major luxury goods houses don’t use ivory. The challenge is: How do we help their products become substitutions for ivory, in East Asia in particular? Something like a Louis Vuitton bag or an Hermès scarf or Donna Karan dress? How can those become the same types of status symbols that ivory historically has been? Also, how can we work with the fashion industry here in the US to raise awareness about this issue so that American consumers become aware of why you should never buy ivory?

How can someone who is reading this help?
CC: One, don’t buy ivory, which sounds self-evident but it isn’t. You’ll see stores that still sell ivory, because there is no carbon-dating equivalent for ivory. It’s impossible to assess its age, so a lot of new ivory gets laundered through antiques stores.

The second thing is to support organizations that are really making a difference in this fight—whether that’s big organizations like the Wildlife Conservation Society, which has the most extensive efforts throughout Africa, or more localized organizations like the African Wildlife Foundation, which is helping to provide economic opportunities to many of the vulnerable communities around parks, often through eco-tourism programs. There’s such a range of organizations doing tremendous work that are part of our CGI commitment—yet even more work could be done if there were even more resources to do it.

And also use your voice to help educate others about why this issue is so important, particularly given the number of misconceptions around ivory. I think that’s really where young people can help play a big role, using their voices offline and online, because a lot of people just don’t know what a tragedy elephant poaching really is, not just for the elephants but for the most affected communities. Ultimately, we all bear responsibility.

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