Elephants in the White House


Iain Douglas-Hamilton, STE founder and CEO

Date Published

To save elephants we need to stop killing, stop trading and ultimately stop demand for ivory. No single individual, organisation or even government can do this on its own. That’s why Save the Elephants has been advocating a global coalition on the ivory issue.

Yesterday the elephants received some serious support. White House officials announced that President Obama has launched an anti-wildlife trafficking initiative while on his visit to Tanzania. A cabinet-level Task Force is to be formed to help curb the $7-10 billion illegal wildlife trade around the world which will focus particularly on ivory and rhino horn.

While in the US in June I spent several days in Washington meeting briefing people about the ongoing elephant crisis. I had the honour of briefing an interagency session with the State Department and diplomats, law enforcement officials, and scientists. The group was originally set up by Robert Hormats (under Hillary Clinton) to look at elephant issues and this high-level government think-tank continues to meet about once a month.

I met with WWF personnel and we discussed our respective elephant programmes, and they then arranged for me to meet the Deputy Secretary of the Interior, David Hayes. A day later I was invited to the White House to meet Mark Childress, Obama’s Deputy Chief of Staff. We had detailed discussions on strategies for dealing with the elephant situation including law enforcement, legislation and demand reduction.

I was able to give a good report of our interactions with China and in particular our work with UNEP and their Goodwill Ambassador for the Environment, Li Bingbing and her Say No to Ivory campaign. I also underlined the progress made at CITES under its new leadership. It was a great pleasure to inform the White House that at least in Kenya there is light at the end of the tunnel in that a strong NGO movement has been able to influence the Kenya government, through the judiciary, parliament and by direct representations to President Kenyatta. They were unaware that Uhuru Kenyatta had mentioned the poaching problem as a national concern in his inaugural address, and were interested to hear of the political will now manifesting itself.

I sent a copy of the “10 Ways in 100 Days” manifesto that recommends a conservation strategy for the new Kenyan president and credited to the role of the Kenya Elephant Forum. In particular I mentioned Paula Kahumbu’s leadership, which has helped bring hard-hitting recommendations from top-level government think-tanks and to enhance a new spirit of cooperation from the judiciary, parliament and cabinet.

The interdiction by the Kenya Wildlife Service officers of more than thirty in accused of colluding with poachers is an indication of a new political will to clean up the corruption surrounding ivory and rhino horn illegal trade. In fact many of the items identified more formally in the Kenya CITES Action Plan are being tackled in reality.

For all of this to fall into place on the eve of the President Obama’s meetings with China’s President Xi Jinping and his departure on his African tour and subsequent was a big bonus. The arguments for ivory to be on the agenda were strong (as pointed out in a valuable contribution to NYT.com by STE supporter Margaret McCarthy), and they were heeded. In the words of the Washington Post:

Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said the President had raised the issue with China in an effort to address the demand side of the equation. “I know its come up at the president and the Secretary of State level with the Chinese,” Rhodes told reporters aboard Air Force One.

Elsewhere in the world the issue is also finding its way onto high-level agendas. The Communiqué from the UK-hosted G8 summit last week included the important text “we will also take action to tackle the illegal trafficking of protected or endangered wildlife species,” while the British Royal Family are also lending their weight to efforts.

I think this is all very promising. The great conservation organisations are coming together. The Wildlife Conservation Society, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the World Wildlife Fund, the Wildlife Conservation Network, the Liz Claiborne & Art Ortenberg Foundation, WildAid, Tusk Trust, the African Wildlife Foundation and many others are uniting at the centre of a global movement intent on ending this problem. May these ranks swell ever further, supported by legions of concerned citizens of the world. This is the only way that elephants will be saved.