Can Vermont Help the Vanishing Elephant?


Mark Johnson, VTDigger

Date Published

See link for photos

The videos are unwatchable, the brutality unspeakable: poachers hacking off the tusks of majestic elephants, some still alive, leaving behind mutilated carcasses, all to feed a hungry market for ivory, primarily in China but also here in the United States.

On a less emotional, purely numbers level, the story is equally heartbreaking: The poaching is so prolific and organized, the profits so enormous that terrorist groups are now involved, while the demand for ivory keeps on growing. At the current rate of destruction, all the elephants in Africa could be gone in a generation. In the last 40 years, their population has been cut in half.

The rhinoceros, killed for its single horn, stares at extinction too.

The effect of their decreasing numbers and possible total loss on the ecosystem is thought to be as enormous as their size. Both elephant and rhino are considered “keystone” animals that profoundly affect other animals. By some estimates, almost 100 elephants are poached every day, with the best hope that 500,000 are left in Africa, maybe as few at 350,000.

No one disputes the madness and sadness of the killings, including Vermont lawmakers considering legislation that advocates hope will further choke off the ivory market.

Critics, while sympathetic to the animals, say the bill would unfairly punish innocent Vermonters and have a drop-in-the-bucket impact on a market where demand is fueled largely by a growing Chinese middle class seeking figurines and other ivory items, once reserved for the elite — not to mention ivory ground up for medicinal purposes with dubious claims.

Two elephant tusks can weigh 250 pounds, and ivory can command huge prices, $1,500 a pound. For many Chinese, ivory is part of their culture. Many are uninformed, too: One survey found that two-thirds of those questioned thought tusks grew back like fingernails.

So what is the connection between the slaughter of elephants in the savannas of Africa and the stuffy committee rooms at the Statehouse in Montpelier?

Rep. Joan Lenes, D-Shelburne, acknowledged the challenge making that link at the start of her testimony last week before the Senate Economic Development Committee, which is considering H.297.

The bill would essentially prohibit ivory sales within Vermont, except for small amounts that would cover, say, the sale of a piano. Possession would be allowed.

Federal law now bans the import of elephant ivory, and transactions across state lines are, with few exceptions, also illegal. However, except in New Jersey, New York, California and Washington, people can sell or buy ivory inside state borders at places like antiques shops and flea markets.

Many of those sales require documentation the ivory was legally obtained, but some do not, and critics say any legal market not only keeps up the value of ivory but allows a way for black market items to slip in the back door.

(One ongoing philosophical argument worldwide is what to do with confiscated stockpiles of ivory. Some countries have been granted an exemption from an international ban on the ivory trade so they could sell their stockpiles, hoping to recoup funds for conservation efforts and tamp down demand by providing a supply of ivory. Critics say the one-time sales just confused consumers about whether ivory is illegal and set up a legal market where illegal items could be laundered.)

Supporters of the Vermont bill, which sailed through the House on a vote of 135 to 4 last month, say adding an in-state ban to the federal and interstate prohibitions would be a small step with potentially large impacts, especially if other states adopt it too. Among the high-profile supporters is drummer Jon Fishman, from Phish.

Lenes, a lead sponsor, admitted she initially chuckled at the idea of sponsoring a bill to prohibit Vermonters from selling ivory to one another. What difference could it make, she wondered, until she learned more from activists like Ashley Prout McAvey, a constituent who has worked nationally on the issue, and others with a passion for pachyderms at Ivory Free Vermont and grew determined to help.

“It’s not only the animals, it is the human death and the terrorist financing and the, at any cost, the killings of humans and animals,” Lenes told the committee. In addition to the animals, poachers are murdering rangers and soldiers trying to defend them.

Rep. Kurt Wright, a Burlington Republican and co-sponsor, spoke of the cruel methods of killing and then explained the economic theory behind the ban inside Vermont.

“If there was no value (to ivory), they wouldn’t be slaughtering elephants, so the only way to stop that is to dry up the market, the value of ivory,” Wright said.

Critics of the bill as it currently stands, including one of the state’s most experienced auctioneers, said Vermonters who had done nothing wrong — or couldn’t prove their ivory qualifies for one of the narrow exceptions borrowed from federal law — could pay a steep price, while the trade in China is the runaway engine that needs to be stopped.

“This thing is far-reaching. We know the Chinese are the problem with this. They control this market. They have the money and they’re out there buying substantial amounts of ivory,” said auctioneer and appraiser Duane Merrill. When he tried to find out how much illegal ivory has been confiscated in Vermont, Merrill said, no one knew.

“Many of us feel this bill is a sledgehammer taken to Vermont with a minimum problem,” he testified. “You’re talking about thousands of pounds of ivory in Vermont that will become worthless.”

A leader in a gun rights group, Ed Cutler, said some pistols, handguns and rifles that contain ivory can fetch as much as $200,000. A collector of chess sets said an ivory king or queen alone can bring in four figures.

Under the House version, a Vermonter could sell an item with 200 grams or less of ivory. According to testimony, that would cover most pianos and most chess sets, though a collector said in some cases a set might have to be split up to comply.

Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, the chair of the Economic Development Committee, was clearly sympathetic to the plight of the animals, but also to the arguments made by the bill’s critics.

“No one wants to see that inhumane slaughter,” Mullin said.

But after hearing the witnesses, Mullin asked four of them to see if they could come up with some compromise language. In addition to Merrill and Cutler, who is president of Gun Owners of Vermont, the others are chess collector John Mazzucco and Barry Londeree, the Vermont representative of the Humane Society of the United States.

“I hope you make some progress, because it would make our life a lot easier,” Mullin said.

For McAvey, who bottle-fed a baby rhino orphaned by poachers, compromise will be hard to swallow. She said exceptions open the way for illegal ivory to blend into legal markets. She is scheduled to testify before Mullin’s committee this week.

She said there is fearmongering that people’s ivory jewelry will be confiscated and that historic items will have to be broken up to get around the selling restrictions.

“If you have your ivory, keep it, cherish it, love it. All we’re saying is please don’t sell it and please don’t buy it. Give it to your kids,” she said.

The elephants and rhinos should be saved for tourism, she said, which is a key to the African economy. But she said her main motivation is humanitarian.

“They are unbelievable animals,” she said, “rich” and beautiful and loyal. She told a story about the bond between the elephants and a conservationist who lived among them in South Africa who suddenly died.

“The elephants marched to his home and stood in solemn prayer, seemingly, for at least a day or two, and then they left. They come back every year around the time of his death to pay homage to him,” she said.

The fate of the Vermont legislation is unknown. But for supporters of the elephants — and the legislation — there are signs of hope.

After the first worldwide ban on the sale of ivory from endangered or threatened species, some elephant and other animal populations rebounded. According to a PBS documentary, the elephant population went from 600,000 to 1 million after the first worldwide ban went into effect in 1989. However, later exceptions led to an increase in poaching.

And after Mullin’s hearing, the four witnesses he asked to work together sat in the Statehouse cafeteria, eating lunch at the same table, exchanging ideas, a long way from the savannas of southern and eastern Africa.