The 1989 global ivory trade ban did not save the elephants, Africa’s gentle giants. Lack of reinforcing the law didn’t have teeth to protect the elephants. Today, a new breed of poachers well organized and highly financed by mafia and terrorist organizations are violent, ruthless than ever because of the multi-billion illegal market business that is the ivory. The poachers are now using AK-47s and grenades to slaughter these animals for their tusks. At the time of the ivory ban, Americans, Europeans and Japan, China’s neighbor to the east were the biggest consumers of carved ivory. Not anymore, the demand has grown in Asian especially in China, driven by the nouveau riches. China is now the world greatest villain in ivory smuggling.
The Religious Connection
The most amazing thing to me in all these is the religion connection in places where the ivory is been sold. That religion underground is apparent in the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia and even in Peter’s Square in Rome. In the Philippines ivory is worshiped and used to carve many churches’ statues made of solid ivory such as Our Lady of the Rosary, an ivory of Jesus, a crucifix and other religious icons. In Peter’s Square there is a gallery where one can buy an ivory crucifix. Many believe that there are blessings in the figurines if it is made of elephant’s ivory and others believe ivory removes bad spirits. Many people in Thailand wear ivory amulets which they say bring them luck and protect them from harm, and this is to the detriment of the elephant population which is rapidly vanishing. The irony is that many African, American, Asia and Middle East leaders have for many years turned the blind eyes on the global ivory ban. Case in point, at one time Lebanon’s President Michel Suleiman gave Pop Benedict an ivory and gold thurible, Philippine President Arroyo gave an ivory religious figure to Pope Benedict. According to news stories, the late President Reagan and his wife bought an ivory Madonna which was originally presented to them as a state gift by Pop John Paul II. The biggest irony of all is that Kenya’s former President Daniel Arap Moi, father of the global ivory ban once gave Pope John Paul an elephant tusk, and went on to order the burning of more than 10 tons of ceased ivory. In the Middle East there are ivory Coptic crosses, ivory Islamic prayer beads.
The Fight against Poaching
Mr. Mike Korchinsky founder of Wildlife Works, an organization which he founded more than 18 years ago to help save the elephants from the poaching industry said “we have our hands full just trying to keep up with the protection efforts.” Wildlife Works has hired its own rangers to track down and arrest the poachers. Wildlife Works sanctuary is established in the area of Rukinga which is located between Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Parks North West of Mombassa in Kenya. Mr. Korchinsky introduced a NO GUNS policy which means his rangers are regularly putting their lives on the line to defend these elephants, fighting day and night, going into the wild bare hands while the poachers and smugglers are heavily armed. Kenya is not the only place where poaching is happening, it is happening in Cameroon, Chad, other countries don’t need mentioning because many don’t even have a count of the elephants remaining in their regions.
Poaching and smuggling have both soared with elephants and rhinos facing extinction and many African governments don’t have a wildlife policy to protect these animals. Some who do for their tourism economy, allow tourists to shoot and kill animals in certain reserved areas. It is appalling that in some areas of the continent, lions are raised and released when they are grown in an area for the sole purpose of being killed by tourists who pay a fee to do so. It is a battle which will be won only if the government of the concern countries provides incentives to the local poachers or alternatives to earn a living without killing the elephants for money. A single large tusk sold on the local illegal market can bring up enough money to support an unskilled worker in these poaching areas for the rest of his life. That is a very lucrative proposition for these poachers to reject. How to organize and convince the people who live in these areas and are themselves on the services of the middlemen not to participate in this method of earning a living? That is the question.
I wish the governments of these African countries take the lead conducting a public campaign in educating the people on the benefits of the elephants’ survival. One of the organizations fighting ivory poaching has enlisted the services of basketball star Yao Ming who is from China to travel to Kenya where he meet the Samburu people who have been living peacefully with elephants for centuries in the Rift Valley province of Northern Kenya. The Samburu people discussed with Yao Ming the ripple effects killing elephants has on their everyday lives and their tradition of co-habiting with these beautiful animals. Will that matter to the Chinese ivory dealers? Can Yao Ming inspire them? Time will tell.