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Blog: A World Without Elephants?

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"Do you want your children to grow up in a world without elephants?" asks an ecologist in an impressive piece of reporting in the New York Times the other week. Unfortunately, looking at trend lines, the question must be asked. After seeing this article, I got together to swap ideas with a senior State Department official who is trying to tackle this difficult problem.

Elephant poaching is back with a vengeance. The worst slaughter in three decades, these intelligent and majestic animals are disappearing in the tens of thousands every year, killed for their ivory tusks.

Poachers are now armed to the teeth -- AKs, RPGs and other high-powered weapons. Africa's Garamba National Park is a war zone, with park rangers outmanned and outgunned. Groups like Joseph Kony's LRA are getting into the ivory trade to fund weapons buys. Al-Qaeda linked al-Shabaab, based out of Somalia, has begun to train its fighters to infiltrate neighboring Kenya and kill elephants to fund its terrorism. African militaries have even been implicated.

What's behind this? A sign of status, Asian demand has driven the price of ivory through the roof. A pound of ivory can get you $1,000 in a back alley in Beijing.

"China is the epicenter of demand. Without the demand from China, this would all but dry up," State Department's Robert Hormats told the Times. There are worthwhile efforts to stigmatize the use of ivory, especially among younger Chinese. But that's a long term project.

We should be targeting the networks that are part of this illegal trade. With these prices, global crime syndicates have come in to move the ivory out of Africa. The U.S. has a lot of experience and some successes denting drug cartels, international arms traffickers, and terrorist networks -- knowledge and lessons that could be brought to bear against these networks.

This requires a hand from the intelligence community. With the ivory trade funding terrorists and the LRA, why not put some enterprising analysts on the case.

It's not natural for conservationists to look to a DEA agent or terrorist tracker. But it's time for that. Unless this crisis is met, we may only be able to show our children pictures of elephants.


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