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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Dobie: Road to ivory stained with blood

Jewelry and carvings are displayed during a press

Jewelry and carvings are displayed during a press conference where Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., announced the guilty pleas of two ivory dealers and their businesses for selling and offering for sale illegal elephant ivory with a retail value of more than $2 million on July 12, 2012 in New York. Credit: AP / Bebeto Matthews

The ongoing slaughter of African elephants, in service to the worldwide trade in illegal ivory, is shameful and heartbreaking. But a series of recent events here and abroad is seeding optimism that progress can be made in the fight to stop the killing.

The United States has banned nearly all trading of ivory and crushed six tons of seized ivory last year, prompting China and France to do the same. The United States also was one of 46 nations at a London conference earlier this month that called for a global crackdown on wildlife trafficking that kills tens of thousands of elephants, rhinos and other endangered species every year.

Time will tell whether those words lead to actions that help solve this intractable problem.

The status quo is deplorable. An estimated 35,000 African elephants are killed yearly by poachers; once numbering in the millions, the population now is about 400,000. One species, the African forest elephant, has declined 76 percent since 2002 and could be extinct in a decade. And it's not just elephants at risk. Hundreds of African park rangers have been killed in the last few years.

And all for elephant tusks, used in jewelry and carvings.

As consumers, we play a role in this. New York City's ivory market is the largest in the nation, and the United States is one of world's prime destinations for ivory, behind only China in some estimates.

Elephant ivory trade was banned worldwide by treaty in 1989, which temporarily slowed the killing, but the blood business is back in full swing. Terrorist organizations and rebel groups such as Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda cell in East Africa, and the Lord's Resistance Army in central Africa are now raising funds via the illegal harvest of ivory. The United Nations estimates the global trade at more than $30 million a year.

The 1989 action and the new U.S. ban were well-intentioned, but problems with both limit their effectiveness. The first ban exempted ivory harvested from elephants killed before 1989, an exemption partially continued under the U.S. ban. But the age of ivory is notoriously difficult to prove; often it comes down to the seller's word. Some sellers stain ivory to make it look older. Allowing some legal trade of ivory has masked the illegal trade and allowed it to flourish. As for the U.S. ban, it came via executive action by President Barack Obama, not legislation, and can be undone by the next chief executive.

These problems are addressed by state legislation being offered by Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst). It calls for a complete ban on ivory sales and tough penalties to match. Given the size of the New York market, its effect could be dramatic. It's a strong complement to the federal ban and deserves passage. And it could serve as a model for other states. Wildlife Conservation Society officials say groups in eight other states -- including California and Florida -- are interested in supporting similar legislation.

The good news appears to be that the world finally is waking up to the magnitude of this crisis. But saving elephants is not just a matter of government action. That's where we as individuals come in. We need to understand that when we buy ivory, we're helping to make extinct the largest and most majestic land animal on earth.

So it's time to ask yourself:

Do you care?

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.



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