We've heard about the war on terrorism and the war against drugs, but there is another war that has gone on for decades — the war on poaching — and it's about time we give it just as much attention.
On Sept. 26 in New York City, the Clinton Global Initiative hosted five conservation groups as they gathered to sign a three-year commitment to "Stop the Killing, Stop the Trafficking, Stop the Demand." It is a pact aimed at protecting wildlife, including elephants and rhinoceroses, from poaching and to crack down on the trafficking and demand for ivory.
This summer, I worked for Africa Media in South Africa, a journalism company focused on writing pieces geared toward conservation and environment issues. Wildlife has always been an interest of mine, but I lacked any exposure. The closest I'd ever come to an elephant was from behind the bars at the Bronx Zoo. I was naive about the threat these animals face.
My first assignment this summer was to cover a story about two rhinoceroses, Bonnie and Clyde. Poachers had cut off their horns to sell and they were living on life support. We visited the game lodge where they were staying and what we saw at the emergency veterinarian clinic can only be described with one word: sorrowful.
These majestic, misunderstood animals were hanging their heads low because they were wounded and disfigured, having lost the symbol of their strength and pride. A clean cut left a jarring stub on the snout of their long faces. Luckily, with the care of the veterinarians, Bonnie and Clyde will survive without their horns, but most rhinos and elephants killed for the value of their horns and tusks aren't so fortunate. As I left the lodge that day, there was an eerie quiet suffused with an aura of melancholy and heartbreak. During the next two months, I began to understand the dire need to expose this less-talked-about war.
In 2012, poachers killed an estimated 35,000 elephants and hundreds of rhinos, or an average of about 96 per day, according to the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species, known as CITES. Poachers are after the ivory tusks, which can be sold for $1,000 per pound in growing markets abroad. CITES notes estimates of the value wildlife trafficking are $7 billion to $10 billion a year.
Because punishments for poaching are far weaker than for trading drugs or people, it's become an attractive business for criminals and terrorist groups. "What's different about today's elephant crisis is that poaching has gone professional," says John Frederick Walker, author of "Ivory's Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants." "Now that militant groups are involved in trafficking, protecting these animals could become wildlife conservation's version of the war on drugs — a hugely expensive, dangerous exercise there'd be no hope of winning."
In South Africa alone, almost 1,000 rhinos will be lost to poaching this year, according to CITES. As I left South Africa to return to Boston, I couldn't stop thinking about how little any one of my friends knows about this issue. Sure, the World Wildlife Fund will send you a cute stuffed animal if you "adopt" to save an elephant, but I think the real contribution we can all make is increasing the world's awareness of poaching.
Change is achievable. Earlier this year, Thailand's prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, announced that her country would take legislative measures needed to end the ivory trade. In China, a large market for ivory traders, former basketball player Yao Ming is raising awareness to stop wildlife trafficking. The more attention we can give this "war," perhaps the more resources can be devoted to fight it.
Talk to your representatives, read up on the issues and the next time you see an elephant, whether it be at the zoo or as a cute screen saver, try to imagine a world without them. I can't.
Libby Leyden-Sussler, 21, of Glastonbury is a fourth-year student majoring in journalism at Northeastern University.
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