How New York can save the elephants



Date Published

Ninety-six African elephants are killed by poachers every single day, slaughtered for their ivory tusks and left to rot in the continent’s forests and savannahs.

That works out to four elephants per hour, every day, around the clock, all year, every year — a trend that has continued for decades, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society.

If we fail to stem the annual kill rate of about 35,000, these majestic, intelligent creatures will be extinct within a decade.

Why is this tragedy relevant here in New York, 6,000 miles and half a world away, where most of our contact with elephants is in storybooks, circuses and zoos?

For starters, citizens and nations everywhere bear a moral responsibility to protect endangered species, including the highly intelligent, nurturing and extremely social African elephant — the largest of the Earth’s land mammals.

More specifically, New York City is one of the world’s leading hubs for the trade of illegal ivory, which shows up in city shops as trinkets, chess pieces and jewelry. A 2008 Wildlife Conservation Society study of the U.S. ivory trade found 124 shops that sold more than 11,300 ivory products in Manhattan alone.

Meanwhile, poached ivory is regularly smuggled into our shipping ports and airports and sold to high-end auction houses and specialty shops throughout the city.

Making matters worse, the funds earned from illegal elephant ivory poaching and sales enable human atrocities as they support drug trades, warlords and terrorist groups worldwide.

Our state government can help turn the sickening tide.

State environmental conservation law already makes it illegal to “sell or possess with intent to sell any items made from endangered or threatened species” without a permit Department of Environmental Conservation permit.

The law covers ivory from Asian and African elephants because those animals have been listed as endangered species since 1976 and 1978, respectively. Those with licenses may only sell ivory only if they owned the items before the species was listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973. (International sales of new ivory were banned in 1989 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.)

But this does little to deter traders, who consider the penalties and fines a cost of doing business. Further, marketers routinely treat ivory with chemicals to make the pieces appear older and therefore legal for sale and trade. Testing to determine the ivory’s age is expensive and therefore not a realistic law-enforcement tool.

We need a better law now.

Assemblyman Robert Sweeney, from Long Island, has proposed legislation that would, for the first time, explicitly prohibit the purchase, sale or trade of all elephant ivory, with the exception of legal ivory that is handed down in a will to a beneficiary. His bill would also increase fines and criminal penalties up to a class C felony, depending on the amount of ivory involved.

The measures should be supported — and championed — by the governor’s office, both houses of the Legislature, the DEC and borough prosecutors.

And whether or not it passes, we must immediately do far more as a state to ramp up enforcement.

Though New York City is considered one of the largest ivory markets in the world, the state DEC Police only assign four investigators to covert and long-term environmental crime investigations in the five boroughs.

Those same investigators are tasked with enforcing all other state environmental laws — whether they pertain to the sale of polluted seafood at fish markets or the dumping of toxic substances into the Hudson River.

More robust policing of the trade of illegal animal products cannot wait.

In January, three Environmental Conservation police officers testified before the Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee which Sweeney chairs. Joining them were the United States’ leading advocates for endangered species, as well as ambassadors from Botswana and Tanzania.

Tuvako Manongi, Tanzania’s ambassador to the UN, left no doubt how important New York’s leadership means in attacking what has become a massive global problem.

“New York City can make a difference in saving elephants,” he said. “We believe international assistance is vital in enabling African countries to serve their endangered wildlife, which is a common human heritage.”

Passing Sweeney’s bill and increasing DEC’s police staffing to enforce existing and future laws are urgent, effective counter-punches to the senseless slaughter of these beautiful and rapidly disappearing animals.

Gillis is a member of the PBA of New York State board of directors, representing state Environmental Conservation Police Officers. The PBA also represents state university police, park police and forest rangers.