|MF: Mike Fry |
BN: Beth Nelson
AR: Adam Roberts
MF: We’re being joined by Adam Roberts, who is the Executive Vice President of Born Free USA. I’m always pleased to talk to him. We end up having some difficult conversations, because they’re on the front lines of helping some animals that are really suffering at the hands of humans all over the world, so it makes his work that much more important. Adam, your whole organization is about keeping wild animals in the wild, keeping them out of circuses, keeping them out of zoos …
BN: Out of people’s homes.
MF: … out of people’s homes, yes, but you are also boots on the ground working in places in the wild to make their wild experience safer, too. There’s probably very few animals that will hit all the confluence of all those activities, but elephants are in circuses, they’re in zoos, and they’re being horribly poached in the wild. Your elephant campaigns are really one of your more important pieces of work. I’m just a huge fan of elephants, so I really appreciate the work especially. We’re thrilled to have you back on Animal Wise Radio.
AR: I’m delighted to be with you. Thanks so much.
BN: Adam, just of the benefit of people who haven’t heard you speak before on Animal Wise Radio, would you give a short rundown of Born Free USA, and some of the breadth of work that you’re about?
AR: Sure. We’re a national animal advocacy organization and wildlife conservation organization with offices in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento. We have a primate sanctuary down in Texas where we care for more than 600 monkeys that have been abused, either in roadside zoos or in biomedical research, or in people’s homes where they were kept as pets, and we try to give them as free-ranging and natural a life as possible.
As you say, we have some core campaigns, whether it’s on exotic pets or trapping fur, zoos and circuses, or the subject of today’s conversation, the wildlife trade, trying to stop the trade in rhino horn, tiger bone, bear gallbladders, and in fact, elephant ivory. We’ve got some campaigns that are more local, national, and then of course some that span the rest of the world. We have partner organizations in Kenya, Ethiopia and the United Kingdom, so we’re able to really draw on some significant on the ground expertise as we undertake some of this work.
BN: Adam, one of the things about elephants I think that’s sort of hard for me to understand is what it might be like to be in a space where I would have to share my space with elephants. I think it’s easy to be an armchair critic in a way, and yet I am just kind of crushed by the idea of the poaching and how people are going about trying to separate themselves from these herds of elephants. How do you take those wide-ranging needs, the needs of the elephants and the needs of the people, and make any sense of it?
AR: Part of the problem is that I think the concept of human elephant conflict becomes for some people an excuse to do very dangerous and unpleasant things to the animals, rather than trying to find thoughtful ways forward. The places where humans and elephants interact to the point where it does become a problem, those places are very limited across the African continent. More often, you find in Central Africa, East Africa, West Africa – most of the regions outside of Southern Africa, that the problem is definitely too few elephants, and understaffed and underfunded government organizations that are responsible for protecting them. The poachers really have a leg up, if you will, in tracking the elephants and killing them for their ivory and for their meat, hides, and other parts as well.
MF: The part that bothers me so much is when people focus on the interactions with elephants – the negative impacts on humans. They forget the benefits that elephants bring to the ecosystem and the environment. They’re critically important beings in that space.
BN: Maybe you could describe what some of those things are for us, Adam.
AR: Sure. Elephants do play obviously a very important part in the ecosystem, whether it’s seed and fruit dispersal, or, quite frankly, the families and the way that they manipulate the ecosystem, ripping the bark off trees. Tearing down trees actually provides canopy for smaller animals to thrive and survive. They really do play a vital role in the ecosystem.
Also, with elephants, one of Born Free’s mottos as you mentioned in the opening is to keep wildlife in the wild, but another is that the individual matters. With elephants, that’s really true. Each individual animal has a very vital role in its own family structure. You have grandmothers and mothers and granddaughters all living together in these matriarchal herds for many, many years. They do play a functional part with their family unit and their ecosystem, but also for the humans. We talk about human/elephant conflict, but humans also benefit greatly by having wild elephants who are very long-lived animals, and people who like me and others will come and pay a lot of money to go see. That supports the livelihoods of people, rather than challenges them.
BN: We’re going to have to step into the other part of this story, which is the stockpiles of ivory, the poaching of elephants strictly for ivory, and all of the money that’s tied into that. Some people would have thought that we got over this elephant issue back in the late 70s or 80s – that we saved the elephant back then, but here we are once again in this crisis mode because the elephants are disappearing quickly. We’ll be getting to that when we come back from a break.
MF: We’re going to take a quick break, but we do want to put a quick plug out for the website that you’ve just launched, which is www.bloodyivory.org. If people want more information about all the things we’re talking about, they can just go there – www.bloodyivory.org. We’ll be back with Adam Roberts.
MF: I have to say, elephants are one of my absolute favorite species on the planet. I don’t know if it’s just because they’re so big … I’ve not had hardly any interaction with an actual elephant, but I am enthralled with them. When I think about the plight that is affecting them, it really touches me in a really special way, and I’m not exactly sure why. When I look at your website …
MF: … one of the things that is there is basically a count of poached elephant estimates for 2012. I look at the number, and I’m just …
BN: It just says right up there January 2012 to date, the past calendar year.
MF: It’s just horrifying.
MF: To me, when you look at this, 27,000 – 28,000 basically elephants poached for just their tusks – if there was any actual value … I’m just absolutely speechless. They’re turning these absolutely magnificent animals into stupid little trinkets and decorative things. It’s a pure vanity product, that’s all it is. There’s no useful function to any of it. Am I wrong about any of that?
AR: No, Mike. I feel like I could just sit back and let you do the rest. You’ve got all the sound bytes down and the explanations right. You’ve got it exactly right.
First of all, you mentioned elephants touching our hearts and capturing our imagination like few other animals can, even if we don’t get to see them in the wild. I think that’s true. Part of that is just their sheer magnitude. You have the biggest land mammal on the planet. You don’t necessarily need to see them just to appreciate how magnificent and amazing they are. As I said in the previous segment, when you have these family units that are so strong and these complex societies, it’s no wonder that we look at them the way we look at our families, and therefore have this personal connection with them.
But everything else you said is also perfectly accurate in terms of these are animals that are hunted for their ivory to be sold on the black market primarily or stockpiled for future sale. It really is what drives the trade, and the poaching, which I don’t want to get into in too great detail here, because it is so gruesome – it is horrible what they do to these animals. It’s horrible for the animals who survive as well, because they’re literally watching family members be gunned down in front of them. These are animals who mourn their dead and will stand over the bodies of their fallen comrades for days in mourning.
BN: You’re going to have to refresh for us a little bit the story of this ivory trade, because rewinding in my mind a little bit, there was a period when it seemed like there was a moratorium out there. It wasn’t okay, and yet something happened. Please refresh for us.
AR: Of course. It’s a long story. You’ll stop me if I go too long on it. Basically in the 1970s and 1980s when the full-on ivory onslaught had occurred, the population of African elephants had declined from something in the order of 1.3 million to roughly 600,000 or less. The continent-wide population had been cut in half for the ivory trade, leading to a 1989 decision by a UN Treaty, the Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species, or CITES for short, to put elephants on what’s called Appendix I, which is a list of species for which no trade that is primarily commercial in nature can occur.
What happened after that 1989 ivory ban was instituted was that population stabilized, because the price of ivory dropped out. The market dried up. People found it taboo to have ivory. Since that 1989 ban, certain Southern African countries such as Namibia, Batswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe have all pushed really hard to reopen the trade, even in limited ways, so that they could sell ivory. The first success in that weakening of the 1989 ban came in 1997 when three of those countries were permitted to sell their stockpiled ivory in a one-off sale to an approved trading partner, which of course was Japan. That sort of erosion of the ban, which, by the way, happened at a meeting in Zimbabwe – a little home field advantage there for the country – that erosion of the ban started this renewed interest in elephant poaching, because people started to prospect on the future trade in elephant ivory again.
MF: I suppose even if there’s a small amount of “legal” ivory in the market, it makes it more difficult to detect the illegal stuff.
AR: That’s right. It’s two parts. One is exactly what you point out – the laundering of illegally acquired ivory into legal shipments, and of course the overall interest in trying to flood the market with ivory because you know it’s once again profitable. The second part is, even if these illegal ivory shipments are uncovered, you’re still dealing with these tens of thousands of poached elephants by the time the perpetrators are caught. The damage, if you will, has already been done to the animals themselves.
BN: The network of people that have found themselves a part of this trade is really disgusting to me. You have priests, you have businesspeople, you have government officials. It’s a very deep, dark hole that when you start to trace some of this ivory back, it’s been uncovered that all of these types of people are involved. How do you start to undo something like that? What is the strategy that you’re going for?
AR: Everything you mentioned is right on the money, and the corruption issue – you can't get away from the fact that many of these African nations do have high levels of corruption, and that means that when they say the reason they want to trade in elephant ivory is to get money for community development and in fact elephant conservation, you find that there’s no proof that any of that money from the one-off sales has gone back into those purposes.
It really is a significant problem, and I think part of the first thing we need to do, which is what Born Free and others are trying to do, is just make it quite clear that the ivory trade is dead once and for all. I think when we start with that platform, we can then work on how do we support anti-poaching units, how do we support people on the ground doing wildlife law enforcement, and how do we support communities with positive and proactive ways to live with the elephant communities that are alive and well and benefit the people who live with them. All of those things follow from a complete ban on the trade in ivory.
BN: One of the ways that folks like us can at least have our voices a part of the chorus is that out at www.bloodivory.org, there is a petition. Maybe you can mention that.
AR: Sure. The next CITES meeting is happening March 3rd to 15th in Bangkok, Thailand. Of course, Born Free both in the UK and USA office will be out there in full force fighting for all the different wild species that are on the agenda. One of the issues that was going to be discussed was a proposal by Tanzania to reopen some ivory trade from that nation following the ones I’ve mentioned previously, and from what we understand, they’ve actually withdrawn that proposal, which is hugely exciting for us, because it means that the one real danger point for elephants at that meeting is now fundamentally off the table.
We’re using that www.bloodyivory.org website; initially it was to push people to support a no vote on this Tanzania proposal, but now it’s to support the real global ban on ivory in perpetuity, just to say that concerned citizens, no matter where you live on the planet are saying no more bloody ivory trade. By signing that petition, they can lend their voice to that effort.
BN: One of the things that I think has been a problem for a long time is consumers, just regular folks, don’t think about where their thing originates. They see a pretty pendant or they see something that catches their eye, and they don’t tie it back to say a coral reef that’s being destroyed, or they don’t tie it back to an animal that lost its life to a poacher for this little dangly thing, like Mike was describing before. I hope that as this message gets louder and louder that the ivory trade is dead and not important to people. People don’t want to support it, but sometimes you have to push it at people to remind them where things come from.
Please, listeners to the show, take the time to go out to www.bloodyivory.org and just put your name down.
AR: Yes, it would be hugely helpful. It’s one thing that Americans can do, because even if Americans don’t really have so much of an appetite for ivory the way we once did, or the way others do in China and Japan, I think just letting global leaders know that this is the way we feel, including our own government, it will embolden the people who speak on our behalf at these meetings to fight forcefully for the elephants and against any proposals to allow ivory trade.
I think if the American government doesn’t feel that this is a high priority to the American people, they have less incentive to push hard on it as opposed to other issues. It’s always worth people speaking out, even if it’s just a couple of clicks on a www.bloodyivory.org petition.
MF: I want to ask a question about CITES that’s a more broad kind of question. I’ve had limited experience with them specifically, but there was a period when I was advocating for the uplisting of chameleon species in Madagascar to Appendix I status. I was really surprised at some of the inner workings, like the extremely limited number of animals they will even put on the agenda for any specific meeting. Do you have any inside information about how that process works, and is it working?
AR: It’s a huge question. I’ll try to do it justice. There are roughly 33,000 species listed under the convention, and therefore having some sort of regulation, whether they can be traded commercially, whether they can be traded as trophies or their parts or live animals or whatever, and most of those, however, are plant species, not animal species.
The bottom line is, you need to be able to accomplish a few things. You need to identify a species that is in some sort of peril, that is threatened. It may not necessarily be threatened with extinction immediately, but there is a conservation risk for that species, but also that the species is in trade – that’s the second part of it. CITES really is a trade treaty. It’s regulating the trade of these animals and their parts between two nations. You have to show that there’s some trade.
Third, and probably most importantly, is you have to use those two bits of information to convince a nation to put forward a proposal on your behalf, because a nongovernmental organization like Born Free USA can't do it. We have to get a government to do it. Once you accomplish all of those things, then you can start working with the range dates for that species, to put the nations where that species is found to garner more support and push the proposal forward by a lot of intense lobbying. It does require quite a lot of legwork in identifying which species warrant protection under CITES.
MF: I’m trying to remember, because this goes back a couple of decades, but if I remember, they were meeting every other year, and US Fish and Wildlife Service told me, I believe the number was that they would only present 12 species per meeting, which works out to six per year.
AR: The full conference of the party takes places every 2-1/2 years now, so the last one was in 2010, but there is a scientific committee that meets every year in Geneva. I actually go to those meetings where some of these issues are discussed.
It’s interesting you bring them up, because the US used to really be a conservation leader back in the 80s and 90s, and I think a lot of nations followed their lead on some of these discussions, but more lately the European Union, because it’s such a strong voting block with so many votes at stake has really become the powerhouse in terms of the politicization of the whole process, and then of course Africa as a region, because that’s where so many of these species live that are up for consideration – the voice of the African delegates has taken as a sort of newfound impact in all of the deliberations.
The US, while being huge and really powerful, is really just one vote out of 176, and so what the US does is not as important as it once was, even though it’s still obviously valuable.
BN: We’re needing to wrap – I’d just like to thank you so much for doing some of this very challenging work. Mike and I have done some lobbying on a state level, and Mike was just talking about some international stuff too, but when I see the types of battles that Born Free USA steps into, I really, genuinely thank you for the work you do, because it’s not easy.
On the break, though, we talked briefly about a recent victory in Ohio. Listeners may remember we were talking about the wild animals that were held in captivity in Ohio about a year ago, wasn’t it Mike?
MF: Where they were all let loose and shot.
BN: Right. The question came out, why are people keeping tigers, bears, and lions in their backyards? The keeping wild animals wild theme is what you’re all about, and you were celebrating that in Ohio, a law was upheld. Could you briefly mention that, because this is an example of some of what you work at and support.
AR: Yes. As you said, so much of our work is hugely challenging, and victories are few and far between, but when you look at the portfolio of things that we have going on at Born Free, the Ohio victory was definitely one of them, after all those 50+ animals were let out in Zanesville, Ohio, and had to be killed in the streets.
Now there are stricter regulations in Ohio prohibiting people from acquiring new wild animals and putting some pretty strict restrictions on the people who are grandfathered in and currently have them. I think it will make communities in Ohio safer where people are not as freely able to acquire these dangerous wild animals. That’s a huge victory at the state level for us and for the others who worked on it.
BN: Better for people, and better for animals.
MF: In addition to www.bloodyivory.org, they can find out more information about Born Free USA at www.bornfreeusa.org.
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