A Chorus for Elephants

The recent obituaries for Van Cliburn tell the stunning story of an unlikely genius from Fort Worth, Texas, who stunned the crowds in Warsaw with his performance of Tchaikovsky's first Piano Concerto and connected the world in unexpected ways.

It reminded me of my own poor version of how music can bridge those things that divide us. When I was 12, I started singing. I started in groups and at 17, I had the out-of-body experience of touring the Soviet Union in 1977 with a small ensemble, performing Sondheim reviews in Warsaw and Stalingrad, and performing a high mass in a Warsaw cathedral where we were buried in flowers and applause from a packed house. All this served to remind me that music truly is a universal language.

Harmonies take time to assemble. Different voices come together, but unless they are unified and mindful of their message they can create something discordant and jarring. But give them the discipline or the motivation or the moment of inspiration and they can blend into harmonies that cross stone cathedrals and move even the toughest of audiences. And make no mistake -- every voice matters. Subtract one, and the sound loses just a bit of majesty.

Last week, that rare moment happened with 1.5 million voices from 227 countries and territories coming together in a call to end the ivory trade in Thailand, home to one of the biggest unregulated ivory markets in the world. Their shared vision: to save the world's elephants.

A strong note was struck when actor, conservationist and WWF Board Member Leonardo DiCaprio stepped up to help lead a massive outreach effort to raise awareness of illegal wildlife trade and gather signatures on a petition to Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Current Thai law permits the sale of ivory from domesticated elephants, resulting in a major loophole that allows for massive quantities of illegal African ivory to be sold alongside the domestic ivory in Thai shops.

Prominent celebrities and activists began adding their voices to the cause and taking to Facebook and Twitter to spread the word. Within days we were garnering hundreds of thousands of signatures, and we knew we had struck a chord.

These voices were unified by a common cause -- the story of how the illegal wildlife trade is robbing the world of elephants, stealing the wealth of African nations and threatening global security.

Illegal wildlife trade has escalated dramatically in recent years and threatens to undo decades of conservation gain. Tens of thousands of elephants are poached every year to answer demand from Asian countries for ivory carvings and trinkets. The mechanized and heavily militarized scale at which poaching now occurs across Africa also poses a serious security crisis where militias and insurgencies use the profits from their war on elephants to buy more arms and sustain conflicts.

As the opening approached of the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) conference in Bangkok, the global campaigning group Avaaz.org joined with Leonardo DiCaprio and WWF for a final global push. We quickly pushed petition signatures past the 1 million mark.

The music peaked at just the right moment. On the morning of Prime Minister Shinawatra's opening remarks at CITES, we had nearly 1.5 million voices together and Leonardo DiCaprio published a commentary in The Bangkok Post calling on the Prime Minister to use this moment in the international spotlight to do something courageous.

And she did.

In her opening speech, Prime Minister Shinawatra boldly pledged to end Thailand's ivory sales. She said that her government would amend national legislation to shut down the trade, showing strong global leadership.

But of course, the fight to save elephants isn't over.

We must remain vigilant. As the two-week CITES convention continues, we are urging the Thai government to announce time-bound steps to ensure that the Prime Minister's promise to the international community becomes a reality. And we hope other leaders step up and follow her lead, especially those from countries most responsible for either supplying or consuming illegal ivory.

We need to keep telling the story of elephants to educate Americans and other tourists about what not to buy while traveling so they are not unknowingly contributing to this illicit industry.

We must end wildlife crime so that our children inherit a world with elephants, rhinos and tigers.

But for this moment we reflect on an amazing achievement, where every voice mattered, and together, became, a chorus of hope for the world's elephants.