TED Conversations

Paula Kahumbu

CEO, WildlifeDirect

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How do we save African elephants from extinction?

African elephants are being slaughtered for their ivory as a surprising consequences of the rise of Asian economies. Symbolic of wealth and prestige, ivory was once only affordable for a few. Now with hundreds of millions of newly rich people in Asia, demand has outstripped supply and elephants are being killed at a rate that will drive them to extinction in less than 15 years.

African governments are unable to stop the poaching - the price of ivory is driving impunity, corruption and is now under control of criminal cartels.

How do we stop this? What will it take to reverse this trend? Do we need to change cultures? Appealing for compassion in China, Thailand, Philippines? Is it about law enforcement?

We need some bright ideas from TEDsters who love African animals and who know how to cause change in Asia

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    Mar 4 2013: Almost all of the recommended solutions fall into one or two categories. Economic and scientific remedies.

    Paula, I am not a TED tree hugger .. I have had three jobs I retired from all three ... military, areonatical engineer, and state civil servant (law enforcement).

    You want to save the elephant ..... there is a demand for the tusk (ivory) .... poachers are killing off elephants to supply the ivory to buyers.

    Review the laws.

    1) Poaching is illegal ... what is the punishment ... The consequences must out weight the rewards.

    2) Getting caught with poached tusks .. what is the punishment ... same as above

    3) Transporting poached ivory ... what is the punishment ... same as above

    4) The immediate loss of all bank accounts ... property ... impounding of planes, ships, motor vehicles, etc ... used in the act of poaching or the transporting of poached goods. This would require cooperation from banks.

    5) The diplomatic treaty with countries that poachers and recievers or traders in poached property will be subject to harsh laws and penalties to be agreed upon by the countries involved.

    6) If your country is really serious about this then public execution of poachers would go a long way. Recommended.

    When dealing with organized crime there can be no half way. Power is all they respect. Justice must be harsh and quick.

    Economic and scientific solutions will not mean anything to organized crime .... they can and will overcome all of these efforts and laugh all the way to the bank.

    This is not a kinder and gentler business. Get tough.

    I wish you well. Bob.
  • Mar 3 2013: I think if we could find a way to discolor the tusks, that was not harmful to the elephant, poaching would cease.
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    Mar 2 2013: The same issue facing the elephants is the same issue facing the Rhinos in South Africa, the same as the issue of oil spillage and global warming. Some people are hell-bent of making so much money at any cost; and there are voices of resistance.
    This should be a joint effort of governments, the media, NGOs and local communities. It is an uphill task because one or all of these could still be contaminated by dirty money. But no one goes to a battle with a head filled with thoughts of defeat. If we are to win, we have to fight, and probably fight for long.
  • Mar 1 2013: Educate children how important we should live harmorious with animals in our lives.
  • Feb 28 2013: http://www.avaaz.org/en/save_the_elephants/?cSkBUcb

    this is a petition Avaaz is running at the moment...Perhaps it may help a tiny bit ?
    it is about the ivory trade inThailand,... but perhaps everything to raise awareness of the elephants' suffering will help.
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    Feb 27 2013: using Ted talks how about this approach. In this talk


    Suzanne talks about growing your own clothes. I believe there are other talks about genetically growing leather and animal pelts and such. Imagine a pair of Nikes with real leather that was grown so that no animals had to be killed. This would save animals and allow us to have leather. IF we could find a way to genetically grow ivory then we have a supply to sell and can produce enough for the economics of "supply and demand"

    Then we couple this with another Ted talk. ( I cannot remember the name) The idea was about changing the cultural mindset of a country. As I recall the general idea is that a county in central or south america has a social custom of older men ( 50 years or older) getting young girls (10, 12, 15 years old) and keeping them as trophy girlfriends, or worse. So the speaker of the Ted talk attacked it with commercials and social media etc with funny advertisements in which some old guy was always trying to get the young girl and never could. It became a hit and was so funny that in a matter of months the name of this character was entrenched so that the social acceptance of the older men and younger girl began to change.

    If we combine these two ideas. Artificially grown, but real ivory, along with a brilliant campaign about the elephants then this may accomplish what is needed.

    If someone knows of the Ted talk regarding the older men please post it. It was very interesting.
    • Mar 3 2013: Agreed. It's the cultural view that needs to change. Buying ivory items needs to become a shameful activity, an embarrassment, a deed that reveals ignorance and thoughtlessness. Status should come from behaving in ways that are beneficial to others and the environment. (This is an issue that goes way beyond ivory, and a problem that exists in many cultures. Why is having enough money to waste and destroy resources something to be admired?)

      Maybe advertisements with anti-ivory statements from prominent Asian film or music stars would help.
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    Feb 27 2013: No doubt this needs a multi-pronged approach. But broad awareness must be in the mix. If the world, and most especially the asian cultures involved, could be made more aware of the brutality involved in taking ivory, much as the documentary The Cove did for dolphins I would think it could help quite a bit. But this is not a simple thing to do. In The Cove it seemed that many people in Japan were not aware of how a small number of their countrymen were profiting from the bloody way in which dolphins were harvested. I image that there is also a lack of awareness among many in asia in regards to elephants and ivory.
  • Mar 6 2013: Another conservation advocacy group, the Environmental Investigation Agency, said Tuesday that Google Japan's shopping site now has 10,000 ads promoting ivory sales.
    About 80 percent of the ads are for "hanko," small wooden stamps inlaid with ivory lettering that are widely used in Japan to affix signature seals to official documents; the rest are carvings and other small objects.
    The trade is legal within Japan, but banned by Google's own policies. The EIA said hanko sales are a "major demand driver for elephant ivory."
    "While elephants are being mass slaughtered across Africa to produce ivory trinkets, it is shocking to discover that Google, with the massive resources it has at its disposal, is failing to enforce its own policies designed to help protect endangered elephants," said Allan Thorton, EIA's U.S.-based president.
    Google said in an emailed response to The Associated Press that "ads for products obtained from endangered or threatened species are not allowed on Google. As soon as we detect ads that violate our advertising policies, we remove them."
    The EIA said it had written a letter to Google CEO Larry Page on Feb. 22 urging the company to remove the ads because they violate Google's own policies. It said Google had not responded to the letter or taken down the advertisements.
    About 70 years ago, up to 5 million elephants were believed to have roamed the African continent. Today, just several hundred thousand are left.
    As Asian economies have grown, so has their demand for ivory. Over the last 12 months, an estimated 32,000 elephants were killed in Africa, according to the Born Free Foundation, which says black-market ivory sells for as much as $1,300 per pound, a huge multibillion-dollar business.
    CITES banned the international ivory trade in 1989, but the move did not address domestic markets. Since then, Japan has imported ivory stocks from Africa in at least two legal, controlled sales.
    (continued in following post)
  • Mar 5 2013: You won't find compassion among the rich or the government. The ones that seek the ivory do so in full knowledge of the consequences of their actions. They're rich and they care little for anything else. Law enforcement won't save all the elephants, but it would be a start. Such operations would likely be expensive and require a lot of manpower, but there's little else you can do when the men doing the harvesting are ready to kill people to get their ivory.

    The other solution would be considerably funding for reserves and protected land, allowing the elephants to strive and to keep the poachers out.
  • Mar 5 2013: Contrary to what another member posted, poaching of elephants has been there in India. Notably a forest-based bandit, Veerappan by name, had poaching elephants and smuggling sandalwood as his business but was killed by police 7-8 years back. Other than his, there have been no major gangs who had elephant poaching as their business in India. The reasons are :
    1. Elephant is treated akin to God as the Elephant-faced god, Ganesha, is widely worshipped in India.
    2. A large number of elephants are domesticated and it is a lovely sight to see bejeweled elephants in various processions. This has made elephants accessible to many and hence loved by most.

    The actions I would suggest are :
    1. Making a sustained campaign to make elephant a loved animal. Make them accessible to people so that people will know their value. Love for anything is more powerful than any other worldly thing. Use banner, radio, TV, pamphlets, statues, etc.
    2. Identify the section of the people who work as poaching workers and provide them alternate means of earning and protection from poaching masters.
    3. Find and shutdown the ivory transfer routes, borders, bank accounts, etc. Make a pact with neighbouring countries and announce big rewards for the heads of poachers. If generations of men can learn the knack of successful poaching, is it difficult to train a another bunch of men to go after those poachers and kill or capture them ?
    4. If a premeditated murder of a human can warrant death sentence, it can be considered for killing an elephant also. The justice should be quick and almost instantaneous.
    5. Identify the destinations markets, workshops, dealers, auctioneers, etc, and work with those governments to shut them down effectively. Try for international sanctions against those countries not curbing them effectively.
    6. Finally, unless there is consumption there wouldn’t be a market for Ivory and hence there won’t be any poaching. Who is buying ivory products – identify and do an effective camp
  • Mar 5 2013: This may not go down to well with you but. The only way to save elephants is to domesticate them.

    In India this is the only reason elephants are not being poached for their tusks. Elephants belong to private individuals, companies, elephant schools and of course the majority to temples.
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    Mar 4 2013: Despite Allan’s big mistake that killed thousands of elephants, his current plan is working and could save the elephants, people from starvation, and the planet.

    this is truly a game changer.

    P.S. this would also turn a profit and create employment/jobs, instead of costing.
    • Mar 5 2013: I agree : an excellent TED talk, and brilliant work. first thing that has lifted my hope for ages.
  • Mar 4 2013: Perhaps this should be a United Nations issue. There should be some leverage that Kenya could use to get China to control the market in ivory. China has invested heavily in Africa and Kenya in particular. Is there something that China wants from Kenya that Kenya can hold back until China stops the ivory market? China has a tremendous control over its own people, fabulously wealthy or not. China could stop the Chinese ivory trade, they need to be given a reason to do so.
  • Mar 3 2013: Drones
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    Mar 1 2013: Why can't the governments stop it? I do not understand this. Why doesn't the government send armed security to stop it? Entities like yours could raise capital in the US thereby leveraging your spending power converting dollars to your currency to support your activities. Like here in the US...illegal drugs are rampant....but I have never seen a Cuban Cigar. Perhaps you could be granted a contract to protect the Elephants and all wildlife if they won't do it. I think it's a shame...Africa is the most beautiful place on the planet. She has natural resources like no other. I wish the governments where able to shake the chains of colonialism...rid themselves of tribalism and want to better the lives of all their citizens. Rid themselves of the rich and poor....Perhaps reach out to the diaspora, victims of slavery to know who we are and where we came from. You could provide free trips to your country so the world could see how beautiful it is. If I can help, please let me know.
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    Feb 28 2013: G’day Paula

    What do drugs do to the brain? They alter the brain chemistry to make one feel good, it’s the same with ivory or anything precious it’s actually mind altering so to change people’s minds in owning such mind altering products you will have to be just as mind altering within your re-education. Ask yourself has any amount of re-education worked within the drug trade? Not when there is so much money to be made especially now with the way the world economy is going.

    I know people are going to say ivory & drugs are quite different. Try taking the wealth off a wealthy person & see what happens, you will witness very simular withdrawal symptoms in the way they react just like they did in the great depression, many went into deep mental depression & some of them committed suicide.

    In regards to re-educating I don’t think they are going to help with this in let’s say China for instance in re-educating the newly found wealthy over there for starters but I could be wrong.

  • Feb 28 2013: Nobody needs ivory. What right does anyone have to do this to elephants? Their grief, you can see it.
    I have piano I love. once it would have had ivory keys. Now it has plastic ones. I accept that. Why would I want ivory at such a terrible price?
    Let people invent an artificial ivory, I'm sure it can be done. artificial jewels of various kinds are close enough in many ways.
  • Feb 28 2013: There is some information on elephant tusks at this link;
    It explains that about a quarter of the tusk is inside of the elephant, so poachers would still have a large amount of ivory to harvest.
    Education is the key. When people become educated they are more apt to understand the connectedness of all life. They begin to understand how everything they do has a ripple effect.
    In the case of rising wealth in Asian countries and the hunger to show wealth, one needs to ask; Do the people who buy ivory even care about the elephants? Would they stop if they knew? Would the poacher stop if he had access to work that he could do to feed his family and gradually acquire the material things he is willing to risk his life for, now?
    Perhaps eco-tourism? There is a growing trend of eco-tourism and some governments are cashing in on it. Once established, local people benefit greatly from it, and can become very possessive about "their" animals, thwarting poachers of animals and plants. It is a long road, but it can be done.

    Unfortunately, as long as there are people willing to pay the price, elephants will be slaughtered for their ivory, tigers killed for their penises, (females are killed when the poacher cannot tell the difference) and rhinos will be killed for the so-called aphrodisiac effect of their horns.
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    Feb 28 2013: In addition to the plan we have so far, some enterprising science lab like the CSIRO could work on producing synthetic ivory. It is organic in origin afterall so you might be able to grow it in culture.
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      Feb 28 2013: Hi Peter, synthetic ivory has been tried adn this hasn't really worked, the Chinese users will pay much more for the real thing because of it's association with the elephants. I would love help from a lab like CSIRO to help me to find a means of permenanently marking the ivory in our stockpiles so that it can be traced to ensure that it never enter the illegal markets and gets laundered into the legal markets.
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        Feb 28 2013: You just need to make the synthetic ivory good enough so no-one can tell. That's why a biological mechanism would be best. I'm not talking about immitaion ivory I mean "synthetic" it's real ivory just made in a lab. Like synthetic diamonds and saphires etc. There are few natural stones used in jewellery anymore as the synthetic versions are so good.
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    Feb 27 2013: A BBC report states that some elephants are no longer growing tusks

    "...as a rapid and effective evolutionary response to escape slaughter by ruthless and resourceful poachers who kill elephants for their ivory trophies"

    Full report:


    Not sure evolution can work that quickly. There must be some other genetic reason perhaps?

    Peter's idea of controlled tusk removal I think is a good one. And, as daft as this may sound, the fitting of prosthetic tusks anchored to the remaining real tusk stumps might enable continued normal feeding and mating behaviour. Given that elephants live for between 60-70 years, it would be time and money well spent. I guess the prosthetic tusks would also have to be coloured in some way so that poachers can see they aren't real.
    • Feb 28 2013: In reading about tusks on the link I entered, the author also had this to say; Some likely reasons for the greater proportion of tuskless Asian elephants compared the African elephants may be due to strong selection in the past by humans killing the tusked male elephants and an gene in Asian elephants which is not as recessive.

      Of course there is no telling how many generations this took.
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      Feb 28 2013: Thanks Allan. Tusklessness is now prevalent in two African elephant populations - Murchisons Falls in Uganda and Addo in South Africa. I'm not sure that it is not a state you'd want elephants to be in - tusks evolved for a specific purpose, they are used in fighting, finding food, and even rescuing each other.
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    Feb 27 2013: Perhaps a program of tusk removal and regulated sale of ivory would produce a supply large enough to lower the street value to the point where poaching wasn't worthwhile. It would mean the rangers would need to tranquilise any animal with large tusks to allow their removal and it would only be able to be done in good habitat where tusks are less used to gather food. Perhaps a trial in a small area to asses the effects of tusk removal on the long term survival of a herd would be a good place to start.
  • Mar 6 2013: McCrea-Steele said IFAW has advised Google on illicit trading, as well as China's Alibaba Group, which runs the popular e-commerce platform Taobao. She said both were "very responsive" and had taken action to stamp out illicit activities.
    IFAW has also worked with eBay, which it once called "one of the main channels through which trafficking in wildlife and wildlife products are conducted online." The company imposed its own voluntary ban in 2007 after IFAW persuaded them that ivory was indeed being trafficked with the help of their site.
    "They've cleaned up, that's sure," said Adrian Hiel, an IFAW official attending the CITES conference in the Thai capital. "But there are so many ads that come out every day, you have to be vigilant. You have to keep checking."
    Even now, concerned Internet shoppers still allege ivory is being sold on eBay. One called attention to a carving of a rural Asian village scene selling for $1,000 that is labeled as "Fine Chinese Ox Bone." The item is advertised by a seller in Los Angeles with the note, "Ships to: Worldwide."
    Hiel said it can be tough, based on photos alone, to determine whether such products are really elephant tusks. You can always make an educated guess based on where the object is being sold and how much it goes for. But "unless you buy it and examine it, it's hard to tell for sure what's legal and what's not."
    "Our argument is that the onus should be on the seller to prove the legality of what they're selling," Hiel said. "Because law enforcement can't go around ordering stuff of eBay just to test the legality of it."
    Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said that when elephant poaching last reached crisis levels several decades ago, web-based trafficking was not something anybody had to consider.
    Now, "Internet-based crime is an important aspect of control," he said. "It makes it much more difficult, but we have to deal with it."
  • Mar 6 2013: Why can't law enforcement order products to see if they are legal? Then,if they aren't, charge a large fine to cover their operations. The websites could post warnings that this is being done. Wouldn't that get rid of most of the traffic overnight?

    You see, I've been reading this about that: (eventually I realized this article is Mr.Long's pick)

    BANGKOK (AP) — Conservationists say there's a new threat to the survival of Africa's endangered elephants that may be just as deadly as poachers' bullets: the black-market trade of ivory in cyberspace.
    Illegal tusks are being bought and sold on countless Internet forums and shopping websites worldwide, including Internet giant Google, with increasing frequency, according to activists. And wildlife groups attending the 178-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in Bangkok this week are calling on global law enforcement agencies to do something about it.
    The elephant slaughter, which has reached crisis proportions unheard of in two decades, is largely being driven by skyrocketing demand in Asia, where tusks are often carved into tourist trinkets and ornaments.
    "The Internet is anonymous, it's open 24 hours a day for business, and selling illegal ivory online is a low-risk, high-profit activity for criminals," Tania McCrea-Steele of the International Fund for Animal Welfare told The Associated Press on Tuesday from London.
    In one investigation last year, IFAW found 17,847 elephant products listed on 13 websites in China. The country, which conservationists call the world's top destination for "blood ivory" from Africa, is not alone.
    IFAW says illegal ivory trading online is an issue within the U.S., including on eBay, and it is rife on some websites in Europe, particularly nations with colonial links to Africa.
    It is often advertised with code words like "ox-bone," ''white gold," ''unburnable bone," or "cold to the touch," and shipped through the mail.
    (continued in following post)
  • Mar 5 2013: One of the difficulties conservationists encounter is that anything that restricts the supply of ivory will tend to increase the price, making poaching more attractive. Unfortunately (for elephants) the available evidence (and there is very little) suggests that people will still buy ivory, even if the price is high, as long as they have the income to do so. I offer an economic analysis of the issues and some links to the literature here http://worthwhile.typepad.com/worthwhile_canadian_initi/2013/03/can-evolution-save-the-elephant.html
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    Mar 4 2013: What if there was a group of scientists that made a solution that would seep into elephant tusks and ultimately making less or undesirable to buyers or poachers, like when people used a special paint to mark arctic seal fur so they would be less desirable.
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    Mar 4 2013: No bullets, just tranquilizers and make some legal profit.
    Elephants will adapt. And jobs will be created.

    Economic problems need economic solutions.
    Humans are doomed already, this will just buy a little more time for the elephants and us.
  • Mar 4 2013: I'm sure this has been pointed out before, but I'd just like to mention again the prospects of domestication, or privatization, of the elephant.

    Domestication has preserved many species of animals for, (I'm guessing) many generations. Dogs, rabbits, chickens, and other animals have had great succes. Despite the many abuses they suffer today, the one terminal privation they do not suffer from is extinction.

    Domestication is not the easiest solution, but it is one guaranteed to work.