Facing Down the Ivory Sellers, Pangolin Poachers, and Giraffe Traders

Elly Pepper, deputy director of NRDC’s Wildlife Trade Initiative, says there’s much that U.S. advocates can do to end the illegal marketplaces endangering animals across the globe.

Credit: Scott Hurd/Alamy

On Maine’s Mount Desert Island, porpoises and whales swim off the coast, peregrine falcons nest in the rocky headlands, and frogs sing in the dense woodlands of Acadia National Park. Those lucky enough to grow up in a place like this are bound to have high standards for what the world’s great wild places deserve.

Elly Pepper certainly does. As a child, aware of the comparative luxuries that Acadia’s creatures enjoyed, she looked beyond her island home at the plight of so many wildlife species and set her mind to helping them. She wrote letters asking the president to protect sea turtles. She donated lemonade stand profits to save-the-rainforest efforts. And these days, as deputy director of NRDC’s Wildlife Trade Initiative, she devotes herself to saving elephants, rhinos, and some of the planet’s other great land animals from extinction.

Giraffes are one of Pepper’s more recent topics of focus. Their populations have declined by 40 percent over the past 30 years in what experts call a “silent extinction” because so few people realize it’s happening. Habitat destruction, poaching, and trophy hunting have all contributed to their quiet disappearance. In April 2017, as part of an effort to help protect the animals, NRDC and other conservation groups asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list giraffes under the Endangered Species Act. The Trump administration failed to respond (as required by law) with a timeline for providing an ESA determination—unsurprising given its intent on appeasing trophy hunters. So this month, the groups sued.

“The administration must follow the law and determine whether giraffes deserve protection,” says Pepper. “We certainly think they do.”

Although an Endangered Species Act listing for giraffes wouldn’t provide the same protections as it would for an animal native to the United States, Pepper notes that it would nonetheless restrict the growing trade in giraffe parts. The United States has imported more than 21,400 bone carvings and 3,000 skin pieces over the past decade, and in less than a month of combing through online marketplace sites, NRDC and its partners found more than 1,200 giraffe parts for sale. On average, trophy hunters bring more than one giraffe into the United States every single day. Protection by the Endangered Species Act would help bring much-needed attention to the threats giraffes face and would help foster international cooperation on their conservation.

Elly Pepper tagging birds
Credit: Courtesy Elly Pepper

“We’re trying to find ways to effect change for these species in the places where we work, like the United States and China,” Pepper says, noting that such conservation efforts often look much different for organizations that have field offices in Africa. “A big part of my work is identifying species that are imperiled by the wildlife trade and figuring out the U.S. hook for curbing that trade.”

Pepper has also worked for years to save endangered elephants by encouraging the shutdown of the U.S. ivory market both at the federal level and in the three states with the largest ivory trade. At the federal level, NRDC worked with a broad coalition of groups to lobby lawmakers and the administration and submit detailed technical comments, among other actions. The work paid off when the United States issued a near-total ban on African elephant ivory in 2016—leading the globe in closing its domestic ivory market.

However, the federal ban left some loopholes, particularly with regard to intrastate trade of elephant ivory. This led Pepper and colleagues at the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Humane Society of the United States, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare to work toward state bans in the country’s top ivory markets: New York, California, and Hawaii. Through legislative action—research, bill drafting, providing testimony, lobbying, and showing public support from NRDC members, among other actions—Pepper helped lead the passage of ivory bans in all three states between 2014 and 2016.

Pepper, working with NRDC’s litigation team, has been defending the bans from legal challenges by ivory collectors and antiques dealers. The California Court of Appeals upheld the state’s ban just last month, and a similar legal battle recently heated up in New York. (NRDC intervened in both cases.) Already, New York and California have arrested and/or prosecuted several wildlife traffickers—including a San Diego gallery owner and a sales clerk in possession of more than 300 pieces of ivory worth more than $1.3 million.

Pepper has also worked intimately on an ivory ban in China (the world’s largest ivory market), which took effect in late 2017, and another in the United Kingdom, which should be finalized any day now. In both instances, Pepper and her team (which includes a Beijing-based advocate, Lisa Hua) shared with the Chinese and U.K. governments the expertise they had gained working on U.S. ivory bans, helping them discern what would work and what wouldn’t. “I think many of us in the elephant conservation community never, ever believed China would ban its ivory market,” says Pepper. The fact that NRDC—especially my China colleagues—played a part in that will always fill me with pride.”

While the global community made progress toward ending elephant poaching and wildlife trafficking in general during the Obama administration, those efforts are now under threat in the United States, unfortunately. “The Obama administration was so committed to this issue it was sort of unreal,” Pepper says. “To transition from that to the current landscape, in which wildlife conservation is essentially defined as trophy hunting, has been difficult.”

The Trump administration quickly broke up the wildlife trafficking task force the Obama administration had created. In its place, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke formed the International Wildlife Conservation Council (IWCC), a deceitful name for a group composed of NRA members and celebrity trophy hunters who claim that killing endangered species for sport is a strategy for conserving them. Pepper has been leading opposition to the IWCC since its inception. After drafting comments and even nominating an NRDC expert to serve on the council, in August NRDC and its partners sued the administration to dismantle the group, arguing that the IWCC violates federal law. “Because advisory councils like the IWCC are funded by taxpayers, they must satisfy a bunch of requirements under law, including serving a necessary public purpose, selecting an unbiased membership, and giving fair notice of their meetings and access to documents relied upon at such meetings. The IWCC has flouted each and every one of these conditions,” says Pepper.

A long-tailed pangolin in Mangamba, Cameroon; a pile of confiscated pangolin scales at a scale burn in Cameroon
Credit: Fabian von Poser/imageBroker; Kenneth Cameron/USFWS

In addition to her stateside work, Pepper does a fair share of global advocacy on wildlife trade issues. One major forum where she and her colleagues represent NRDC is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, which meets every two to three years in various locations around the world. (The next meeting is scheduled for May 2019 in Sri Lanka.) “Imagine trying to convince people of something when you don’t speak the same language, you have completely different customs, and you’ve never met before,” Pepper says. “It takes lobbying to a whole different level.”

But Pepper has a knack for those icebreaker conversations, “even if in many broken languages,” as she notes, and as her colleagues will attest. This combination of approachability and passion makes her an effective advocate.

“She exhibits an authenticity on the issues that people find refreshing and really respond to,” says Zak Smith, a senior attorney and director of the Wildlife Trade Initiative at NRDC. “But she is also not going to accept no for an answer—she’s going to find solutions.”

It was at CITES that Pepper experienced both the biggest loss of her career, a crushing vote against banning the international trade in polar bear parts in 2011, and one of her biggest wins three years later, a unanimous vote to ban the international commercial trade in pangolins. (Some countries are now arguing that because the pangolin parts in their stockpiles were collected before the species was listed on CITES Appendix I, they should be allowed to sell them. NRDC is urging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to submit a document to the CITES Secretariat opposing this dangerous proposal.) “This work gets so personal, which is both good and bad,” she says. The pangolin success was particularly rewarding, she adds, after years spent laying the groundwork, which included passing a resolution at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, another global forum.

Next on Pepper’s wish list for international CITES protections: giraffes. She’s hopeful, but she admits that these gentle giants don’t always inspire the same devotion as do other iconic African mammals, like lions or elephants. “The elephant poaching epidemic really captured the world’s attention and inspired action, whereas giraffes don’t enjoy the same luxury yet,” she says. But they do have Pepper.

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