U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Robert F. Godec Remarks Things R Elephant! The Great Debate on The Future Of Elephants

Opening the Third Debate: How Do We Stop the Demand for Ivory?


Good afternoon.  It is a pleasure to join you for the Great Debate on the Future of Elephants.  The first session asked “Are elephants special?”  I wasn’t asked to speak on that question… but there really is no doubt, yes, they are!

Everyone, I believe, who comes into contact with an elephant understands very quickly that they are deeply intelligent, emotional, majestic creatures.

And, everyone, all of us, every person, should have the opportunity to meet an elephant.  It… transforms you.

From my own experience…. from meeting Babylon in Samburu, to adopting the orphans Tundani and Ndotto at Sheldrick’s, to “speaking” with Enid and Elliot in Amboseli… meeting elephants, seeing them, hearing them, touching them, having their trunk wrapped around your arm… has extraordinary power.  Spending time with elephants is magical.  They are almost human.

When you meet them, it becomes powerfully, unquestionably clear that ivory belongs on elephants… not in carved statues, or trinkets, or baubles.

But as long as people covet ivory, the elephants will be at risk.  Recent studies show that poaching in Kenya has either stabilized or gone down.  For that, Kenya and Kenyans should be commended.  I also want to commend President Kenyatta for the recent ivory burn.  But, globally, the scale of wildlife trafficking continues to grow at an alarming rate.

A Save the Elephants study recently estimated that 100,000 elephants were killed by poachers between 2010 and 2012 in Africa.  And, in 2014, reports indicate more than 30,000 elephants were killed.  This equals one elephant every twenty minutes.

At that pace, soon there will be no elephants left in the wild.

Our challenge, as human beings who share this country, this planet, with elephants is how do we stop the poaching, stop the trafficking and stop the demand?  This challenge is not just a Kenyan challenge.  It is an international challenge.  A global challenge.

To stop the demand, the issue in this debate, we must put an end to the idea that you can enhance social status through owning ivory or other wildlife products.  And we must ensure that everyone understands the damage poaching is doing.  We need to make owning a piece of ivory unthinkable.

While Asian countries are a principal destination for ivory, and the one most people talk about, we recognize that the United States is also a destination country.  I would like to point out some of the ways that we are attempting to reduce demand in my country, and to punish those that deal in illegal wildlife products.

The United States has long prohibited the import of ivory, and we have banned domestic commercial ivory sales.  In 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service crushed six tons of ivory to demonstrate our commitment to end the ivory trade and draw attention to the seriousness of elephant poaching.  History makes clear that if there are NO legal sales of ivory, fewer elephants are killed at the hands of poachers.

In the United States, we have also directly targeted those responsible for wildlife trafficking.  “Operation Crash,” run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Justice, started in 2012 with the arrest of eight individuals, as part of our initial “takedown” of illegal traffickers of wildlife products.  Since then, there have been more than two dozen arrests and a dozen convictions.  Operation Crash investigations are continuing, with charges ranging from violations of the Endangered Species Act and Lacey Act, to charges of conspiracy, smuggling, money laundering, mail fraud, tax evasion, and document forgery.

Severe, deterrent penalties are an effective tool to stop the trafficking, but we also need trade experts to track the movement of goods and help enforce existing trade laws. We need finance experts to study and help close the black markets that deal in wildlife products.

And, we need strong wildlife protection agencies and community commitment, through conservancies for example, to protect elephants and wildlife.  The U.S. government is providing considerable financial and other assistance for both, helping, for example, the Kenya Wildlife Service with equipment and training and providing support to the Northern Rangelands Trust.

And perhaps most importantly, the U.S. government is working to spread the message that buying goods and products from trafficked wildlife and endangered species is unacceptable.  We must persuade people to stop buying ivory, rhino horn, and other products that require the slaughter of wildlife.

Everyone has a role to play in this effort.  We want “friends telling friends” that they don’t want to be associated with anyone who consumes, displays, or otherwise uses products that come from endangered species, anywhere in the world.

The San Francisco-based NGO WildAid works to reduce global consumption of wildlife products by persuading consumers and strengthening enforcement through a very simple slogan:

  • When the Buying Stops, the Killing Can Too.

And here in Kenya, I have closely followed Wildlife Direct’s Hands Off Our Elephants campaign.  I attended the launch and participated in the one-year anniversary of this truly African, Kenyan, effort to address the scourge of poaching.  It is a powerful and important campaign in the effort to stop the demand.

All of this reminds us: together, we can end the demand.  Together we can save the elephants.

But I am not here to debate this topic!  The topic will be debated by Paula Kahumbu and Charles Onyango Obbo.

Dr. Paula Kahumbu is, of course, the CEO of Wildlife Direct, founder and leader of Hands Off Our Elephants, and recipient of the 2014 Whitley Award, and was conferred with the Order of the Grand Warrior State Commendation recently.  Paula has a doctorate from the prestigious Princeton University.  She was formerly the head of parks at the Kenya Wildlife Service.

Paula believes that Kenya’s experience and deep knowledge of elephants gives it a special responsibility and leading role in the global effort to save the species from extinction.

Charles Onyango Obbo is one of Africa and Kenya’s best known journalists.  He is the editor of the Mail & Guardian Africa, and a columnist for Daily Nation and The East African.

Charles studied at Harvard University and has his Ear to the Ground about what is going on in Africa.  Charles writes mostly on African political and democratic transition issues, the political economy of new technologies and social trends.  In his spare time Mr. Obbo manages his own blog, Naked Chiefs, which he describes as an “irreverent take on all things African.”

After the ivory burn on March 3, Charles wrote in The Nation, “Don’t burn tusks; sell them cheaply to beat poachers and save elephants.”  Charles also wrote a fascinating article entitled, “Ivory poaching needs Al Capone’s business mode.”  Hmmm.  Al Capone?  The notorious and violent crime boss who ran illegal liquor trafficking in Chicago in the 20s??

Please welcome Paula and Charles.  We are all eager to hear what these extraordinary and brilliant African leaders have to say about reducing demand for wildlife products and protecting our great gray friends!

And, to start them off, I would like to ask this question of each of them.  If it were in your power to take three concrete, specific steps to stop the demand for ivory what would they be and why?  And please make these specific actions… not vague wishes.  Paula and Charles…