In the past three years Africa has experienced a dramatic escalation in elephant poaching, now reaching levels not seen since the "ivory wars" of the 1970s and 1980s. On May 24, 2012, Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Founder and Director of the prominent Kenya-based organization Save the Elephants, had the extraordinary opportunity to shine an international spotlight on this alarming situation by testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in a hearing on "Ivory and Insecurity: The global implications of poaching in Africa."
Iain was invited to testify by Senator John Kerry, with whom he recently met to discuss the poaching crisis. Senator Kerry opened the hearing with the message that it is our responsibility to the future to act now as stewards of the species before elephants are "criminally slaughtered into extinction." As Senator Kerry introduced Iain, he expressed his appreciation for "[Dr. Douglas-Hamiltonís] leadership over many, many years."
In his career spanning five decades, Iain has long served as an international advocate for elephants. He testified three times before Congress during the poaching crisis in the 1970s and 1980s and was instrumental in the 1989 enactment of the world ban on the ivory trade. Iain began his testimony at Thursday's hearing by acknowledging the leadership role that the U.S. has played in conserving Africa's elephants, in particular by providing a consistent source of funding through the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's African Elephant Conservation Fund and through USAID's biodiversity conservation programs, which are "helping to conserve the large landscapes that elephants call home."
Iain provided the Committee with an historical overview of elephant poaching in Africa. While the elephant massacre in the 1980's more than halved the species' continent-wide population, elephants recovered well in many parts of Africa in the two decades following the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species' (CITES) ban on the ivory trade in 1989. However, a tipping point was reached in 2008 and poaching resurged. Evidence now shows, Iain reported, that "excessive demand for ivory is once again driving the illegal killing of elephants to unsustainable levels, and that most elephant populations in Africa are already in decline or soon will be so, some of them dramatically."
Iain's testimony referred to his own work in the Samburu National Reserve in Northern Kenya as an important case study, which has helped to document and understand the recent surge. Because Save the Elephants has closely monitored a sample of approximately 500 elephants over the past fifteen years, Iain was able quickly to detect a significant regional spike in illegal killing in 2008 (which has risen steadily since, with a record rate of poaching in 2011). Iain reported to the Committee that these changes have correlated with a near tripling of the total number of seizures of illegal ivory in or coming from Kenya, as well as a 100% increase in local black market ivory prices around Samburu since 2007.
The primary topic of interest in the hearing was the relationship between the ivory trade and global security. Iain testified that the increase of large scale (>800kg) ivory seizures is evidence of the growing involvement of organized crime in the illicit trade in wildlife. He reported to the Foreign Relations Committee that: "Where poaching is particularly entrenched and pernicious, armed militias from one country temporarily occupy territory in another country, destroying its wildlife assets and posing serious national security threats on many levels." His testimony also addressed the ivory trade's corrupting influence on government, as well as its effect on economic development and the lives of local people.
Iain provided expert opinion on three solutions to the poaching situation and recommendations for U.S. government assistance. The first key solution is increased security on the ground, which requries resources to train and equip local people to be disciplined scouts and rangers, as well as collaboration among communities, governing structures and NGOs. The second solution is the development of high technology to combat traficking, including GPS and satellite tracking, algorithims to detect wounding and mortality, and organizing patrols according to alerts that are generated automatically. Iain suggested that "if the resources of the U.S. agency DARPA were made available it would greatly promote these high technology solutions."
As the third solution, Iain pointed to the importance of lowering demand for ivory. Iain testfied that current demand for ivory undoubtedly exceeds supply and that China has emerged as the leading driver of illegal trade in ivory (followed in second place by Thailand). He quoted Tom Milliken of the organization TRAFFIC, stating: "There is more disposable income in China today than in history. Ivory has the cachet of being a luxury status commodity, and more people than ever before are able to own a piece of ivory now. The demographics of China absolutely swamp anything." Iain recommended that the U.S. government could use its considerable influence to join with the Chinese government to take action to reduce demand, asserting: "If China could declare a unilateral ten-year moratorium on ivory imports, there would be a future for elephants in Africa."
Iain's testimony was followed by the remarks of two other expert witnesses: Tom Cardamone, Managing Director of Global Financial Integrity, whose testimony focused on the connection between illegal wildlife trafficking and national, as well as global, security; and John Scanlon, Secretary General of CITES, who addressed the scale and nature of wildlife crime, especially trade in elephants and rhinos, and the need for collaboration and join work at multiple levels.
In addition to Senator Kerry, members of the Foreign Relations Committee attending the hearing included Democratic Senators Tom Udall of New Mexico and Chris Coons of Delaware. Senator Udall, who recently returned from a trip to Africa, expressed concern about the effects of poaching on local people whose livelihoods depend on ecotourism. Senator Coons related that he will be addressing the issues raised in the hearing with leaders in East Africa during an upcoming visit to the area. Republican Senator Jim Risch of Idaho joined the hearing part way through.
The hearing concluded with Senator Udall expressing his appreciation for Iain's lifetime commitment to elephant conservation and Senator Kerry reasserting his gratitude for Iain's life work.