For Elephants, Making Something Out of Nothing

The laws of physics tell us something of substance can't be created from nothing. That may be true when it comes to the physical world, but recent events show it doesn't apply to the world's burning passion for wildlife.

Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced, in partnership with the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, winners in a worldwide design competition to raise awareness of the ongoing global poaching and wildlife trafficking crisis.

The Service crushed more than 7 tons of elephant ivory - seized in the course of multiple wildlife trafficking investigations - in 2013 and 2014. The winning designs will use this crushed ivory to create exhibits at multiple AZA institutions, helping millions of visitors understand the role of consumer demand in driving the current crisis.

Just last week in Kenya, people across the world saw unforgettable images of more than 105 tons of elephant ivory - taken from countless dead elephants - going up in flames. The pyres, which took the Kenyan government a week to assemble and even longer to burn, ignited more than just ivory.

By showing the world that ivory is nothing - nothing - unless it is part of a living elephant, Kenya has joined the United States and other countries working to destroy demand for ivory and other "products" derived from the slaughter of imperiled wildlife.

Whether burned in a massive bonfire or pulverized in an industrial rock crusher, ivory taken from poached elephants can never and should never enter trade. It is contraband, no different from seized drugs and weapons. It cannot be allowed to fuel consumer demand, or give the illusion of class and wealth to consumers unaware of its true social and environmental cost.

Yet just as we experienced after our ivory crushes, Kenya has received a steady stream of criticism from those who think renewed trade is the solution.

Critics continue to push governments to try to flood the world market by selling ivory, using the proceeds to fund conservation. They have again characterized efforts to destroy ivory as feel-good wastes of time that fritter away valuable resources needed to counter the effects of poaching.

I respect their desire to help wildlife. But I couldn't disagree more.

How can the United States, Kenya, and other members of the global community convince consumers - who are, after all, at the root of the current crisis - that buying products made from these imperiled species is wrong if we're the ones doing the selling?

How can we stigmatize the sale and possession of ivory and similar products when we're selling it ourselves? Decades of experience have shown us we can't.

As long as there is demand, criminals and desperate people will try to satisfy it. There will never be enough ivory tusks, rhino horns, tiger bones or countless other animal products in the world to satisfy that demand if we continue to create it.

Combating poaching and wildlife trafficking through trade, even if done for the best of reasons, undercuts global efforts to stigmatize ivory and similar products. It enables criminals to "launder" illegally sourced contraband and sell it. It conveys status by making these products luxury commodities. And it reinforces the idea that they reflect success, rather than greed and indifference.

Destroying ivory won't solve this crisis by itself. A problem this complex and far-reaching requires collective action across the supply chain.

That's why we're working with international law enforcement to prevent poaching and prosecute traffickers. Why with local partners, we're putting millions of dollars on the ground in Africa, Asia and Latin America to support community-based efforts to help local residents find alternatives to poaching and selling wildlife, improve the capacity of range countries to protect their wildlife, and to reduce conflicts between humans and animals.

It's why we're working with nations across the globe to ensure that carefully regulated, legal trade in wildlife and plants is sustainable and provides revenue to support long-term conservation. And why we're collaborating with the public and private sectors to educate consumers and reduce demand for ivory and other products.

Working together across the Federal Government under the President's National Strategy to Combat Wildlife Trafficking, we're making real progress.

Most important, we're seeing a growing understanding among ordinary people that their choices as consumers matter.

Across the globe, more and more people are coming to realize that by choosing to see ivory as nothing - like Kenya, the United States and so many other nations have - they can help achieve something real and enduring. Together, we can help ensure that elephants and other beloved animals continue to roam wild across their native landscapes.

That's something that can't be bought or sold at any price.