Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Save the Elephants

African elephants are in trouble.  Habitat fragmentation, in part due to urbanization, desertification and climate change, has constricted their range, leaving some isolated elephant groups vulnerable to local extinction events. But it’s the illegal slaughter of elephants for their ivory tusks that’s been the primary factor leading this iconic species toward its final demise.
Save the Elephants - Veronica May - Age 5

Poachers are now killing elephants at a rate faster than they can reproduce. The Wildlife Conservation Society recently released a scientific study which suggested that it may take a century for African forest elephants to recover from poaching experienced just since 2002.  That’s despite the global community having come together in 1989 to ban the international ivory trade after elephant populations plummeted from 1.3 million to just 600,000 (see:“’A Good Day for Elephants’: Ban on Domestic Ivory Trade Passes,” CommonDreams.org, September 11, 2016).   But demand for ivory fashion trinkets is insatiable, and so the extermination of elephants for their “white gold” continues.  There are probably less than 400,000 African elephants now surviving in the wild.

Many Canadians were likely aware that it has been illegal to buy and sell African elephant “blood ivory” for some time.  Most, however, probably didn’t know that in many parts of the world, active domestic markets for ivory have been allowed to persist.  These domestic markets offer poachers a legal veneer to ultimately supply a stubbornly robust black market with illegal ivory.  The U.K. Guardian reports that illegal ivory tusks can sell for as much as $1,100 a kilogram in China – a nation that recently vowed to shut down its domestic ivory market (see: “Who Buys Ivory? You’d Be Surprised,” National Geographic, August 12, 2015).

But not all nations are in agreement that domestic markets should be closed.  Earlier this month, at a meeting of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a motion to close domestic markets was adopted through a near unanimous vote.  Only 4 nations refused to be a part of the international consensus. South Africa and Namibia, two African countries with large elephant populations, were joined by Japan in their call for continued, regulated domestic markets. 

The fourth nation to defy the will of the international community – to stand with those favouring the continued condemnation of African elephants as a species by providing cover for black market ivory trade? Canada (see:“Vancouver – Global March for Elephants and Rhinos Press Release,” September 15, 2016). 

Yes, that’s right. Canada.

As someone concerned with the loss of global biodiversity, and especially of megafauna, I’ve often been asked why should Canadians care about what happens to rhinos, lions and tigers – animals that live far away, in lands not under the control of the Canadian government.  Since Canada can’t decide what happens in far-off places like Kenya or Gabon, why get upset over the extinction of elephants?
Clearly, what Canada does, matters.  Canada can choose to be a leader and use its influence on the international stage to work toward positive, sustainable outcomes.  Or, as has so often been the case lately on a wide range of international environmental issues, from abandoning our climate change commitments in the Kyoto Accord, to removing ourselves from the international treaty on desertification – Canada can continue to be an impediment to progress.

The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) COP17 conference gets underway in Johannesburg, South Africa today. It’s hoped that the IUCN’s motion to close domestic ivory markets will spur CITES towards legally binding action.  Canada hasn’t yet stated what position it will take at CITES. 


Canadians will be putting pressure on the Trudeau government to be a leader in the fight to save elephants.  In solidarity with over 130 communities around the world, citizens in Sudbury will be taking to the street today, as part of the Global March for Elephants, Rhinos and Lions (see: “March Against Extinction,” (see “2016 March Locations”), Global March For Elephants And Rhinos). The march starts at noon at the Elgin Street entrance of the Sudbury Community Arena.

(opinions expressed in this blogpost are my own and should not be considered consistent with the policies and/or positions of the Green Parties of Canada and Ontario)

Originally published in the Sudbury Star as, "Saving world's elephants important to Sudburians," in print and online as "Sudbury column: March today for world's elephants" September 24, 2016.

Update: for more information about outcomes at CITES, here's an excellent article from The Guardian.  Spoiler Alert - Elephants were *not* saved.  See: "The seven big decisions made at the Cites global wildlife summit," the Guardian, October 5, 2016.

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