The Right Way to Protect Elephants


A few weeks ago, I read a fascinating study that elephants can determine a bunch of things including human gender, age, and even ethnicity from our voices. So I’m pretty sure they could have discerned my sadness as I read today’s New York Times op-ed criticizing the federal government’s steps to reduce elephant poaching.

Far from the “draconian” picture painted by the op-ed’s authors, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposal to restrict legal sales of ivory in the United States are simple, common sense measures that will pose mere inconveniences to a limited number of the American public when weighed against their purpose: to prevent the increasingly imminent extinction of African elephants.

                                                     (C) Fish and Wildlife Service

In the United States it's generally legal to import and export antique ivory and to buy and sell African elephant ivory domestically, as long as it came the United States at least 25 years ago and is at least 100 years old at time of import.  As a result, the U.S. is the second most common destination for ivory in the world, and the legal market here fuels the continued poaching of elephants. Because it’s difficult and expensive to determine the age of an ivory item, many wildlife traffickers disguise their ivory as old, and thus legal, when it’s actually from recently killed elephants. The U.S. needs to crack down on legal ivory sales if we have any hope of ending illegal sales, and that’s exactly what the Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed rules, which would ban the import of most ivory into the U.S., restrict exports to antiques, and limit interstate sales, will do.

Just as importantly, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposal recognizes that if we are going to ask other countries to restrict the sale of ivory in their domestic markets, we must be willing to do the same. While the op-ed’s authors are correct that in order to end the poaching crises we also need to reduce demand in Asia – how can we urge a country like China or Japan to stop consuming ivory when we’re doing nothing to reduce demand in our own country?

Will Americans need to be more vigilant about paper work and documentation regarding their ivory in the future under the new rules? Will they have to leave an ivory inlaid guitar at home in favor of one without ivory when setting off for their next concert tour? The answer to these questions is: yes.

But reversing the current trend towards elephant extinction isn’t going to be easy. Things have gotten bad. Really, really, bad.  Last year, more than 30,000 elephants were illegally shot in Africa. And if we are going to save these incredible, discerning creatures, every nation is going to have to do its part.