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Trade, Tourism, and Trophies—The Elephant in the Room

Friday, August 30, 2019
John Cruden

John Cruden

Principal, Beveridge & Diamond, P.C.

Catherine Novelli

President, Listening for America

Dan Ashe

President, Association of Zoos and Aquariums

Elephants are amazing animals and perhaps our most enduring mental image of Africa—large, untamed, inexhaustible. That image can also distract us from the unpleasant historical and current realities of colonization and exploitation of Africa and Africans, including African elephants. Evidence of this is like air, it’s all around us. So, like air, it goes unseen, like the fresco above the south entrance to the Federal Trade Commission building, here in Washington, D.C., portraying an obviously western man, extending a money bag to an apparently African man, who is on bended knee and holding an ivory tusk.

We three co-chaired the Obama Administration’s federal Interagency Taskforce on Wildlife Trafficking, representing the Departments of the Interior, State, and Justice, and spearheading an all-of-government effort to address the global epidemic of illegal trade that is decimating wildlife populations, including elephants. As part of that effort, we used good old-fashioned tools—regulation, diplomacy, and criminal law enforcement—to take the fight to the traffickers. We destroyed our stockpiles of illegal and confiscated ivory, eight tons in all. We enacted world-leading regulations banning sale of ivory here in the United States, previously the world’s second largest market for ivory, behind China. We used diplomacy to leverage that leadership and urge China to close its domestic markets, which they have done. And we brought criminals to justice, including Philadelphia art and antique dealer, Victor Gordon, who was sentenced to 30 months in jail for his role in trafficking ivory. Yes, we still have problems, and can do better, but we sent out a strong message that illegal wildlife trafficking was unacceptable and would be dealt with severely. And we carried that message to the world when the United States spoke at the international conference on illegal wildlife trafficking, held in Botswana, in 2015.

Botswana has been an example to the world, with the world’s largest elephant population, and an expanding reputation for sustainable and inspiring wildlife tourism. That’s why Botswana’s decision to allow elephant trophy hunting, ostensibly to manage human-animal conflict, is a big and disappointing step backwards in cutting-edge, sustainable wildlife management. We cherish America’s tradition of professional and scientifically managed hunting, and we respect the need for the Botswanan people to manage their wild life—as we do here in the United States—recognizing that living with elephants, like living with grizzly bears, can be challenging. But this is 2019, not 1920, and images of rich Americans, Europeans, Arabs, or Asians traveling to Africa to kill elephants, as sport, and under pretense as wildlife management, is anachronistic. There are far more effective, and more ethically supportable ways to help Botswana and other nations manage their elephants. 

The United States should pledge to help Botswana create and manage even more great parks and refuges, with connectivity across national borders to allow elephants to move. We should work with them to design and deploy strategies for coexistence with rural communities, including resistant fencing, availability of water for drinking and bathing, and other non-lethal methods to deter human-elephant conflict. We can capture and relocate problem or surplus elephants to help restoration efforts in other nations. Where acceptable and appropriate, we can place elephants into accredited zoos and sanctuaries. And yes, where and when absolutely necessary, we can help identify ways to ethically and humanely apply lethal control.

In the next three decades, another billion people will be added to the African continent. Human conflict with wildlife will only worsen, and in that context, the oft-lampooned words of former Alaska Governor and Interior Secretary, Walter Hickel, are strangely prophetic: “You can’t let nature just run wild.” If we do nothing, then in our lifetime there will be no elephants running wild in Africa, and we all will be showing our grandchildren pictures of these wonderful animals, a tragedy everyone should be unified in avoiding. Botswana has the opportunity to be a showcase for living elephants, and an example of sustainable tourism, vibrant community development, social progress, and expanding quality of life.

Nature is under our control, and that will be increasingly true in Africa. We have an opportunity to work with Botswana and, by example, many other African nations to exercise that control in ways, and by means that are respectful, and that help people to thrive in nature’s presence, not because of its absence. President Trump got it right when he called elephant trophy hunting a “horror show.”

We can all do much better. In partnership with Botswana and other African nations, we must lead with hope and inspired innovation.