Save the Elephants

Moderated by Rick Badie

Today’s topic: Elephant conservation, a campaign with at least one local connection via Zoo Atlanta. Our city’s zoological institution has joined a herd that wants to stop both the sale and purchase of ivory as well as the potential extinction of African elephants. Officials from Zoo Atlanta and the Wildlife Conservation Society discuss the “96 Elephants” initiative.

Awareness and education helps elephants

By Raymond B. King

As I approach my four-year anniversary at Zoo Atlanta, there are some novelties that have never worn off. On any given day, I can walk outside my office and see one or both of our African elephants, Kelly and Tara. I’m always amazed by their sheer size – these are earth’s largest living land mammals.

Elephants have been part of the zoo’s collection since 1890. Over the years, these individuals became parts of generations of Atlanta children’s lives, and Kelly and Tara continue to inspire, but I fear that we take for granted the idea that while they are here with us, somewhere in Africa, their counterparts roam in safety and in numbers. Recent data has suggested the reality is shockingly the opposite. Elephants are in bigger trouble than they have been in decades.

Zoo Atlanta is a proud partner of the 96 Elephants Campaign, launched late last year by the Wildlife Conservation Society. The campaign – named for the average number of elephants slaughtered by poachers in Africa every day – has attracted the support of more than 100 zoos.

As one of Atlanta’s highest-attended cultural destinations, and certainly as a conservation organization housing two of these animals, Zoo Atlanta has a unique ability to help raise awareness about a problem that has reached a crisis point. Elephants may have size, but without timely and targeted efforts, they have little time.

Whenever I share these facts, the first thing out of their mouths is often sadness. We’re not here to make people sad; we’re here to do just the opposite. Sadness won’t help elephants. Hope, awareness, education and action will. Many people are surprised to hear the United States is a major importer of ivory through the black-market trade; in fact, ivory is confiscated at American airports regularly. Someone’s buying it; otherwise it wouldn’t be such a commodity.

We can work together to do something about this. We can join the conversation and make ourselves heard. This issue isn’t about pointing to a handful of places on the map. We must realize it’s not one continent’s problem; it’s our and the world’s problem.

In our own lives, we can personally refuse to buy ivory. We can refuse to support businesses that buy, sell or appraise ivory, regardless of how long ago it was obtained. We can help humans understand there is nothing beautiful or valuable about a material that was obtained by the senseless slaughter of a magnificent animal.

Seeing an elephant is part of my everyday work day. Because of that rare opportunity, I believe that part of my everyday work day should also be spent giving back to that species. As with all awareness campaigns, 96 Elephants needs word-of-mouth. I encourage everyone to learn more and to help spread the word. I’m proud to see Zoo Atlanta champion this cause, and we’re honored and proud to share a responsibility for these incredible animals.

Raymond B. King is president and CEO of Zoo Atlanta.

Save the elephants

By Cristian Samper and John Calvelli

Last fall, the Wildlife Conservation Society established a campaign called 96 Elephants to focus attention on the senseless slaughter of these magnificent, highly intelligent animals. The campaign, named for the average number of African elephants killed each day, brings together governments, ordinary citizens and non-governmental organizations to stop the illegal ivory trade and save this extraordinary and iconic species.

Since 2002, African forest elephant numbers have plummeted 65 percent. An estimated 35,000 elephants were slaughtered across Africa by poachers in 2012 alone. Though the trade in ivory is driven primarily to feed demand in China, where carved ivory is considered a status symbol to members of a rising middle class, you may be surprised to know the U.S. is a major destination for illegal ivory and has one of the largest markets outside of Asia.

Ivory poaching is a disturbingly lucrative business. Once the work of local villagers seeking to provide food and security for their families, it has in recent years evolved into a sophisticated and highly-coordinated criminal enterprise with armed gangs operating at night with helicopters and night vision goggles, slaughtering elephants with high-powered weapons.The 96 Elephants campaign rests on three pillars to address the crisis: stop the killing, stop the trafficking and stop the demand. To stop the killing, we are working to better enable park guards to safely do their jobs and employing high-tech tools to track poachers. We are also working to educate the public and representatives of government in the United States, Europe and elsewhere about the crisis and the need for a ban on ivory’s sale and purchase.

In November, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums became one of the first members in the 96 Elephants campaign. Of its 151 current partners, 116 are AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums. In May, we were thrilled to welcome Zoo Atlanta to this effort. Across the nation, zoos and aquariums have become indispensable, working with Congress and local and state governments to strengthen U.S. ivory trade laws.

The federal government is also doing its part. In November, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service publicly destroyed six tons of confiscated elephant ivory. China’s government undertook a similar ivory crush soon after, with Gabon, Philippines, France, Chad and Belgium following suit. Though largely symbolic, the crushes sent an important message, especially coming from the two of the world’s largest ivory markets.

In February, the Obama administration announced a federal ban on most ivory sales and several states, including New York, are taking up legislation to do the same. Clearly, a movement is growing. The 96 Elephants campaign helps to demonstrate the power of conservation to move people to take action in the protection of wild species. It also demonstrates the important role of zoos, aquariums – and their visitors – when working together to achieve public policy goals.

Cristián Samper is president and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society. John Calvelli, the society’s executive vice president for public affairs, is director the 96 Elephants campaign.

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