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The War on the Illegal Ivory Trade: A Conversation with IFAW’s US Bureau

A few weeks ago a friend of mine discovered that someone he knew was trading or in possession of contraband in the way of ivory and asked me who to contact. I told him to contact the USFWS.  Specifically, I suggested emailing or calling the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Division of Management Authority, the Division of Scientific Authority, and/or the Office of Law Enforcement. These are the Dept. of Interior’s primary offices responsible for implementing and enforcing CITES (Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species) in the United States.

Coincidentally, this in the past few weeks, Hillary Clinton and daughter Chelsea met with presidents from the seven African nations and members of the worldwide conservation community to discuss a plan to end the killing of elephants and stop the illegal trafficking of ivory. The meeting is being called a game changer for elephant conservation and is part of the Clinton Global Initiative.

I reached out to the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s US staff based in Washington DC to learn more about the newly announced 3-year, $80 million dollar plan designed to address the illegal trade in ivory.


Jordan:  Can you speak generally about the ivory trade and how it has decimated the African elephant population? What is at stake?

indexIFAW: To begin with, it’s important to understand just how huge wildlife trafficking has become, from a global standpoint – it’s now one of the biggest illegal enterprises on the planet, more lucrative than everything except drugs, counterfeiting, and human trafficking. Elephants are a big part of that market, and demand for ivory (legal and black market tusks alike) has skyrocketed since 2007 and now poses the single greatest threat to African elephants. Decimated may even be too light a word – it means, literally, killing one in ten. What’s happened recently is even worse than that: there are only between 420,000-650,000 African elephants left in the wild, but poachers killed about 35,000 of them in 2012 alone. If that happens every two years, that’s more than a ten percent kill rate right there. Needless to say, no animal population can sustain that kind of attack for very long, and experts warn that we need to start dramatically improving the odds for elephants, or start writing an obituary for the species.

Jordan: As I understand, IFAW is a founding partner of the Clinton Global Initiative’s project to protect African elephants. Can you provide some specifics on this program that your organization and staff around the world are so deeply committed to?

IFAW:  IFAW is proud to be a commitment partner in the Clinton Global Initiative “Save the Elephants” partnership .  With this partnership, IFAW, African Wildlife Foundation, World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, as well as many other NGO partners, have pledged to dedicate at least 80 million dollars to work in three areas to protect African elephants:  “Stop the Killing” “Stop the Trafficking” and “Stop the Demand.” IFAW will participate and highlight our efforts to save the elephants though our work to reduce ivory demand in China, interrupt illegal trade routes (in partnership with Interpol and though our support of regional Wildlife Enforcement Networks), and protect elephants on the ground in critical African elephant habitat.  At the same time that the “Save the Elephant” partnership was announced, several African range states committed to implementing moratoria on ivory sales in their countries.  Their hope is that other countries around the world will join them and stop the demand for ivory and end the poaching of these incredible animals.

Jordan: Was I correct in pointing my friend in the direction of the USFWS regarding his report of contraband? If so, can you elaborate a bit about the process and/or talk about how the agency implements and enforces CITES regulations?

African-elephants-in-Samburu-National-Reserve-590x393IFAW: That was the right move. The Fish & Wildlife Service is responsible for enforcing ivory laws and regulations in the United States, and they collaborate with Customs and other agencies to stop smugglers and the illegal trade. Much of their work takes place where you would expect: at airports, ports, and other places where people try to bring ivory products into the country, but they also conduct special operations that involve complex intelligence gathering and sting actions. These guys do good work, but FWS Office of Law Enforcement is completely strapped for cash – their workload for inspections alone has increased sixty percent in the last decade, but their budget actually decreased when you adjust for inflation. You should definitely pass along reports of contraband (just Google “FWS OLE” for their website) because that helps them pinpoint offenders who might otherwise avoid detection, but we really need to give them adequate resources to do their jobs.

Jordan: Is the general public at all aware of wildlife crime of this nature? I mean is there much consumer savvy regarding the trade in ivory. I’m sure people understand that trading in ivory is illegal and impacts elephants to some extent, but in their travels are people conscious of these kinds of things from a consumer standpoint?

IFAW: That’s one of the biggest problems we face. There’s still, to some extent, a fascination with things like elephant tusks or tiger skins or rhino horns – people have this strange ability to separate out the object from the animal. What we’ve found through our research in China, where most of the illegal ivory from Africa winds up, is that consumers don’t even know that it comes from a dead elephant. And when people see ivory carvings openly for sale in shops, what are they supposed to think? Our ivory laws in the U.S. are incredibly complicated – let alone what happens overseas – so many folks assume it’s legal, but oftentimes it’s not. We’re not in the business of blaming people who don’t know better. We have to make it easy to understand, and we need to tackle it from both directions – simplify the law, and show the public why buying ivory is a bad idea.

08-illegal-kenyan-ivory-poaching-670Jordan: Can you tell me more about how IFAW is involved in addressing wildlife crime around the world or briefly share some examples?

IFAW: We have projects in more than 40 countries all over the globe, tackling the whole spectrum of issues from on-the-ground wildlife and habitat protection, to training enforcement agencies, to helping communities find opportunities to use their natural resources sustainably instead of turning to extractive industries and poaching. We just announced some great success stories – in Malawi, we worked with locals to open the Chikolongo Community Fish Farm, which will help the people and animals who share the area around Liwonde National Park. In July, IFAW and Maasai landowners finalized an accord to protect the Kitenden Corridor, a hugely important migratory pathway for elephants and other wildlife near Mount Kilimanjaro. And here in Washington, my team is deeply involved in the push for better laws and regulations to protect elephants, rhinos, big cats, and the other innocent victims of wildlife trafficking. Your readers can find out more by visiting IFAW.org.

(All photos belong to the National Geographic Society)


  1. joan colette
    Valencia, California, usa
    June 4, 11:19 pm


  2. Jen Samuel
    Landenberg, Pennsylvania
    October 16, 2013, 1:05 pm

    Nice article Jordan.

    To learn about the International March for Elephants to end the ivory trade, which took place around the world earlier this month, visit http://www.iWorry.org.