This weekend, wildlife officials from some 183 countries are meeting in Johannesburg to decide how best to keep the world’s endangered elephants and rhinoceroses from succumbing to the illegal wildlife trade.
On Saturday, activists in more than 140 cities are participating in the Global March for Elephants and Rhinos to draw attention to the plight of both animals and put pressure on world leaders to make sure the protections are the strongest possible.
Why elephants and rhinos? The iconic land mammals’ appendages are some of the most sought-after animal parts in the illegal wildlife trade, with elephant tusks fetching upwards of $1,500 a pound on the global black market and rhino horn selling on the streets of Vietnam for as much $30,000 per pound.
The demand has led to a poaching epidemic that’s rapidly increased in the past decade. It’s estimated that 35,000 elephants and 1,000 rhinos are slaughtered each year at the hands of poachers—a death rate neither species can keep up with.
The Paul Allen–funded Great Elephant Census revealed this month that 30 percent of Africa’s elephants were wiped out between 2007 and 2014, leaving around 352,000 alive today. At the current rate of decline, African elephants could be extinctwithin 11 years.
“You look at these reports and population figures, and these are just horrendous numbers,” said Rosemary Alles, cofounder of Global March for Elephants and Rhinos.
In 2008, Alles said, the severity of the poaching crisis was just being discovered in countries across Africa. Many believe the Convention on International Trade of Species’ decision to release stockpiles of seized ivory that sold at auction for legal trade—once in 1998 and once in 2007—fueled the epidemic.
“Those sales stimulated the market in China and Japan—where ivory carvings are cherished—and fueled a billion-dollar nightmare racket,” Alles said.
In 2013, the Sri Lanka–born Alles started the first Global March for Elephants in San Francisco, marching through the streets of the city’s Chinatown district—where she says ivory sales persisted.
“We wanted to shed light on the fact that elephant poaching wasn’t just this faraway problem, but it was being fueled domesticallytoo,” Alles said.
Since 2013, the top three U.S.-based markets for ivory—California, New York, and Hawaii—have all implemented near complete bans on ivory sales. Leaders in China, the world’s leading market for trafficked ivory, have also signaled their intent to end ivory sales in the country.
Now Alles is hoping the progress made internationally will spark African nations to push for a permanent ban on all ivory trade and shut down talks of reopening the trade of rhino horn trade—as proposed by the king of Swaziland at this week’s CITES conference in Johannesburg.
“It’s about more than just saving these iconic species,” said Alles, who quit her job as a NASA software engineer to spend a year in South Africa advocating for the cause. “Both the rhino and the elephants are keystone species. The case can be made with African forest elephants—thanks to their ability to create watering holes, disperse seeds, and alter river courses—that saving them can really mean saving some of the most intact and most efficient carbon-sequestering forests in the world. Protecting them can mean protecting some of the world’s most important habitats.”
More than 40 marches are planned in cities across the United States this year. For a list of locations where marches are planned, visit the Global March for Elephants and Rhinos website.