Changing Planet

The War on Tusks

By Tara D. Sonenshine

Tusks up–in some parts of the world that means good luck; a saying full of irony considering the unfortunate plight of elephants today. Depending on your culture, elephants also convey strength, power, wisdom and patience. Whether in India, Africa or other lands, they are important and meaningful—and today they are receiving the global attention they deserve.

This month President Obama issued an executive order targeting the illegal trafficking of elephant tusks (and those of rhino horns and other products) promising a $10 million effort and a national presidential task force to increase anti-poaching efforts.  Building on what former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began in 2012 as a global crackdown on illicit trade of wildlife, the President vowed to rein in the growing black market for illegal animal products, which experts estimate has reached an annual business of 7-10 billion dollars.

The threat posed by this lucrative trade is not only environmental. It is a security and counterterrorism issue for the United States and many other countries. There is mounting evidence of links between wildlife crime syndicates and terror groups, with traffickers bankrolling rebels and their militias, conducting military-style assaults on elephants and terrorists funding their violent agenda through the burgeoning market for luxury goods, religious articles, carvings and medicines.

The White House action came as new scientific research opens major possibilities for determining the age of elephant tusks—a key part of the poaching puzzle.  Reported by the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, the research on tracking the age of ivory uses atmospheric nuclear weapons testing residue from the 1950s and 1960s to connect the dots on the age of elephant tusks.  In what is akin to the DNA breakthrough on crime solving, this new research could help law enforcement and other agencies determine when the killing of an elephants occurred—a tool in citing violations of the 1989 ban on African elephant killing for tusks.  The mere fact that carbon footprints from radiation from nuclear testing can be linking to elephant footprints is an astonishing scientific leap that will also help in tracking the numbers of traffickers since estimates of poaching comes from examining elephant carcasses.

The world is waking up to the plain fact that we are losing elephants fast.  National Geographic’s  2012 cover story on “Blood Ivory” detailed a decade of poaching that hit a high in 2011, having the greatest impact in the central Africa region.  According to experts at Columbia University, we have only 400,000 elephants left in the wild.  30,000 elephants are killed each year. A public education awareness campaign must be waged worldwide to target the demand side of the elephant equation. Consumers have to understand that ivory comes from a dead elephant’s tusk and that without an end to the purchase of these products, we simply cannot win the war on trafficking.  Media campaigns like those spearheaded by National Geographic, WildAid, the World Wildlife Federation and hundreds of other conservation groups are critical.  The involvement of Hollywood figures like Jackie Chan have helped the wildlife trafficking issue to gain traction as has the work of athletes like Yao Ming.

In the end, this war will be won through changing hearts and minds—or in other words, public diplomacy.  We need education to reinforce the principle that killing animals is not cool and that the crime of poaching will lead to serious consequences.Whether it is good luck, wisdom or patience, elephants are vital to our planet and must stay front and center in the global mindset until their slaughter is stopped.

Tara D. Sonenshine is former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and helped lead the anti-poaching efforts at the State Department. 

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn
  • Dave Swallow

    Sadly yet another author arguing for ” a winning hearts and minds ” … He starts off saying it is terrorism and then concludes by saying we need to “win hearts and minds” … Have you ever seen a terrorist whose heart is won over ? The same with poachers … These are violent people who could just as easily rape someone’s daughter ..the answer lies in … Better security … Better enforcement … Better convictions … Better funding … How many drug pushers stopped pushing drugs because they were told it was wrong?… How many drug users stopped using drugs because they were told of the harm being caused to others ? The answer lies in better security and better funding

  • Diego J

    Hey Dave, did you actually read the article? the author is not an idiot, he is not asking we win the hearts of terrorists and poachers.. he is saying we must win the hearts and minds of people (thus, consumers) and create a conscience that buying these products will lead to the demise of elephants. If there is no money to be made then it will stop. I do agree we need better “security and funding” but before that, we first need people who give a sh*t.

  • HM

    Firstly, please note that the Author is female (Tara) not male. The person who posted this is male, but is not the writer.

    Dave: As Diego said, the article is saying that the consumers need to be educated about the reality of the origin of ivory before we can even hope to cut the trade down to an unprofitable state, and not the poachers or syndicates themselves. I agree that we need better security and funding but that will merely slow the rate of poaching. Whilst this is undeniably a good thing, and definitely something that needs to happen, it is not a permanent solution. Many (not all, but many) Chinese consumers are unaware that their ivory and rhino horn is harvested from dead animals. One of the ways that dehorning rhinos has backfired is that people now have images of dehorned rhinos to say ‘look! We don’t have to kill the animal to get your product!”. With regards to elephants, the word for ‘tusk’ in Chinese (apologies for the focus on one specific ethnicity, but they have the biggest market in illegal ivory and rhino horn) means ‘tooth’. A large proportion of oriental consumers believe that elephants either ‘shed’ their ivory, or they are simply extracted from a living, healthy animal. At the moment, educating them to the reality of the situation is the best bet for a long term solution. Whether this will happen fast enough, I’m skeptical about. But I will continue to hope that it will. At this rate, there will be no elephants left by the time I’m 35.

    Going back to the ‘you can’t win over the hearts of poachers’, whilst, again, it wasn’t the point of the article, it’s not necessarily true. There are numerous incidences where poachers have seen the horror of their actions and now move to protect the wildlife instead. Though I agree that for the majority, their ‘want’ or, more commonly, ‘need’ of money is enough of and incentive to continue poaching, regardless of whether they feel guilt or not. For the syndicates behind the distribution of ivory, also, there is no hope of converting. 🙁

    Still! That is why we must make such poaching unprofitable. Money, unfortunately, is the root of the problem. Take away the customers and the business will crumble. That is what this article is saying.

    P.S. Congrats if you read the whole thing! I tend to rant. 😀

  • BellsW

    It breaks my heart, all this poaching of animals just to satisfy humans. Elephants are a close knit family and suffer at the loss of one of their herd. Education on all animal welfare is a good idea. It should start in schools in year 4 or 5 as part of their curriculum. Its countries where this abuse is not even recognized and animal education is not thought of. Developed countries have their self centered ignorant people who should be fined if they buy, sell or even wear or use fur or animal tusks. I find its usually people with money and prestige who buy these products.

  • Natalie Nel

    It is the people at the top of the ‘poaching chain’ who are getting away with these crimes and not the poacher, who will easily be replaced.
    Education is most likely sufficient in Africa as there are many organizations working towards protecting our wildlife. I suppose the only way to win the war would be to devalue ivory (not sure how that would be achieved – perhaps burn it) and to find those that are making the profit from ivory.

  • Svehag

    …we need to protect our elephants and rhinos against the ruthless and well-armed poachers. The most effective tool to step up the fight against poachers is the deployment of advanced conservation uav´s (drones) like the Huginn X1. They can spot the poachers day or night, hiding or not, with a dual camera live streaming in HD&Thermal. ……but to do this we need better funding!

  • I don’t agree. Look at

    Friendly, Oda

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