Wildlife enforcers mobilize to try to save elephants


Bruce Finley, The Denver Post

Date Published

See link for photo gallery.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN ARSENAL NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE — African elephants could go extinct within 12 years, the latest survey shows — an accelerating decline reflected in a grim trend here at the U.S. government’s warehouse for confiscated animal parts: the size of tusks is shrinking.

Key anti-trafficking officials from a dozen hard-hit African nations confirmed the bleak prospects for survival of elephants, rhinos and other imperiled wildlife this past week at an unprecedented workshop in Denver and Washington, D.C. The 54 law enforcers from Africa — and U.S. counterparts — are ramping up efforts to avert extinctions by collaborating more across borders. As part of the workshop, investigators focused on forensics, including work at the National Wildlife Property Repository, north of Denver. The repository is seen as model for storing and tracking evidence that prosecutors can use to put traffickers in prison.

“We’re not seeing bull elephant tusks anymore,” repository supervisor Coleen Schaefer said as law enforcers gathered at the warehouse Saturday. “Poachers are not waiting for elephants to mature.”

The push to save iconic species is gaining momentum in the face of exploding, increasingly organized poaching of remaining elephants and rhinos. President Barack Obama in 2014 ordered a systematic crackdown because wildlife trafficking “undermines security across nations” using networks of criminals and corrupt officials who often also are involved in drug-trafficking, weapons smuggling and terrorism.

But data in a survey — released this month and used by the International Union for Conservation of Nature — show that poachers and their masters are prevailing.

More than 144,000 elephants were killed between 2007 and 2014, according to the Great Elephant Census survey, funded by U.S. billionaire Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc. That’s about 30 percent of the African savanna elephants in the 18 countries where researchers collected wildlife population data.

The decline is accelerating, mostly driven by poaching, with current losses estimated at 8 percent a year — nearly 30,000 elephants a year, the survey found. There are about 352,271 elephants left in the 18 countries.

In response, the assembled law enforcers from Africa and the United States say they’re trying to deploy sophisticated forensics, using microchips and bar codes to track and trace seized evidence when they are able to round up poachers.

“We’re realizing that handling evidence, chain of custody and analyzing evidence is a point in all investigations that can cause them to not be successful,” said Dave Hubbard, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife special agent in charge of international operations.

The goal: better crime-scene procedures, securing data on seized cellphones and documentation of evidence.

“It takes a network to beat a network,” National Association of Conservation Law Enforcement Chiefs director Randy Stark said. “By enhancing the network of law enforcers across boundaries, we can be more effective.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials presented details of their recently completed case against mountain lion killers. Federal agents assisted in the investigation, over eight years, using an undercover agent, vehicle-tracking technology and patience to convict criminals who maimed lions so they could guarantee wealthy trophy-hunter clients’ success in Colorado and Utah.

Now the U.S. government has deployed wildlife attaches at six embassies worldwide to support tougher enforcement. The U.S. officials at Saturday’s workshop were encouraging creation of animal-parts repositories — such as the one north of Denver — in Africa, South America and Asia to help secure stiffer sentences for traffickers.

Kingpins caught feeding Asia’s robust markets for elephant ivory and ground rhino horn (coveted as an aphrodisiac and hangover cure) recently were sentenced to more than five years in prison, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement chief William Woody said, pointing to mug shots of Chinese traffickers.

“The sentencing trends are going in the right direction,” Woody said.

But wildlife population trends are not.

“Where poachers used to kill just large elephants with big tusks, now they wipe out entire herds,” including juveniles, he said. “But there’s hope because of what you are seeing here. … We’ve never had this many senior wildlife law enforcement officials coming from all over Africa to work on interdiction and forensics. This is a start.”

Animal parts seized at U.S. airports and used to prosecute traffickers later are sent to the federal repository, a 16,000-square-foot beige warehouse in the middle of a bison range 7 miles north of downtown Denver. It holds an estimated 1.5 million items, including belts made from pangolins, tiger skins, a zebra head, a stuffed tiger fetus, rhino horns fatally cut from rhinos and dozens of the elephant tusks.

“Poor elephants, it does not look good,” wildlife investigations officer Charles Bwanga of Zambia lamented as he walked along a shelf of those tusks, most about a foot long. Five years ago, before an organized ivory crush in 2013, the warehouse collection included tusks up to 7 feet long.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials said that, by next summer, they’ll deploy three more agents abroad to work with foreign counterparts busting traffickers.

And U.S. military forces are getting more involved, offering air support. That’s the sort of help that raises hopes among officials in nations such as Togo who say they need baseline data on populations of forest and savanna elephants.

“We cannot do this alone. We have vast areas,”  Tanzanian Wildlife Management Authority director Saidi Ismail said. “If you fight the battle together, you are more likely to succeed. … The way we store evidence is not a proper system where we can trace it back.

“What we are taught here is an advanced system. If we can do it — using the proper techniques — it will help.”

Yet, the fight against poaching is complicated, African officials said in their Denver and Washington discussions, because wildlife survival is tied to survival of people. The relatively low incomes in rural Africa complicate enforcement because outsiders interested in ivory and rhino horn easily buy off locals to poach animals.

Past efforts to create “alternative livelihoods” have failed because world market prices for illegal elephant ivory and ground rhino horn remain high, and $500 or less can sustain a Mozambiquan family for a year. Elephant ivory prices, though declining, still hover around $1,000 a pound, U.S. officials said, while rhino horns fetch $30,000 a pound.

That kind of money, driven by demand in China and other Asian countries, means men from Mozambique will continue to cross the border into South Africa seeking elephants, said Scott Naidoo, chief of Interpol, the international police agency, in South Africa.

“The truth is (that) you’re going to have to relocate some elephants to safe zones (to save the species),”  Naidoo said. “You cannot compete with the commercial market. We’re talking about an ordinary man, trying to survive, thinking of his own family.”