New York Leads the Way in Protecting African Elephants and Rhinos

Elephants fight at the Elephant National Park in Addo, South Africa, Friday, July 9, 2010. The first soccer World Cup on the
Elephants fight at the Elephant National Park in Addo, South Africa, Friday, July 9, 2010. The first soccer World Cup on the African continent is on its way since June 11. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

Today we laud New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for signing a historic law banning the purchase and sale of elephant ivory and rhino horn. Through their leadership, Gov. Cuomo and New York's legislators have moved to end the state's role in this devastating international trade, which is driving these extraordinary species toward extinction across many parts of their ranges.

The legislation amends the state's environmental law to ban elephant ivory sales while accommodating common sense exceptions for products -- including antiques with small amounts of ivory and certain instruments made before 1975 -- that are not key drivers of this pernicious and growing trade.

The plight of African forest elephants slaughtered indiscriminately for their tusks may seem distant, but New York is in fact the biggest market for ivory in the United States, which is itself estimated to be the second largest commercial ivory market in the world. In 2012, authorities from the Manhattan District Attorney's Office seized 72 boxes of ivory trinkets from the city's Diamond District -- all that was left of 100 slaughtered African elephants.

In 2012, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. seized $2 million in illegal elephant ivory in New York City. Photo: Manhattan District Attorney's Office.

Over the past 12 years, African forest elephant numbers have plummeted by an astounding 65 percent. In 2012 alone, poachers slaughtered an estimated 35,000 elephants across Africa. Poaching elephants does not only pose an ecological threat. The illegal ivory trade fuels criminal syndicates that create chaos locally and threaten security abroad.

In recent years, poaching has evolved into a sophisticated and highly-coordinated criminal enterprise with armed gangs operating at night with helicopters and night vision goggles - killing elephants with high power weapons.

As a way to raise awareness of this carnage, the Wildlife Conservation Society last September launched its 96 Elephants campaign -- named for the number of elephants killed on average in Africa each day. A public advocacy campaign, 96 elephants now involves 160 partners. The campaign brings together governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and citizens to stop the illegal ivory trade and help save this iconic species.

Due to the demand for illegal wildlife products like ivory, poachers are slaughtering elephants and selling ivory articles for large profit. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher © WCS. Courtesy the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

96 Elephants grew out of a commitment organized by the Clinton Global Initiative last September, when leaders from Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cote D'Ivoire, Gabon, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia gathered in New York to call upon the rest world to join them in halting the ivory trade. The campaign focuses on securing effective U.S. moratorium laws; bolstering elephant protection with additional funding; and educating the public about the link between ivory consumption and the elephant poaching crisis.

New York State residents are supportive of a ban on ivory sales by an overwhelming majority. According to a statewide survey published earlier this year, more than 80 percent of all New Yorkers favored a permanent ban on the sale of ivory. Support for a ban held up across all demographic groups and political affiliations. Even when respondents were presented with opposing arguments that a ban would affect businesses, along with the rights of private property owners, their support remained strong.

With today's signing of New York's ivory and rhino horn ban, we join the global efforts to stop the killing, stop the trafficking, and stop the demand drive the international trade in these products. New York's leadership on this issue is important both for our state and in setting an example that can be replicated in state houses across the U.S. and capitals across the world.

Confiscated ivory destroyed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in November 2013. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher © WCS

The federal government is also taking on the issue of wildlife trafficking. In November 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service publicly destroyed six tons of confiscated elephant ivory. The government of China undertook a similar ivory crush soon after, with Gabon, Philippines, France, Chad, and Belgium following suit. On the recommendation of the President's Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking, upon which I am privileged to serve, the Obama administration last February announced a proposed ban on the commercial ivory trade that would prohibit most ivory sales.

It is critical that recent efforts by some in our Congress to thwart those proposed rules changes through legislative action and riders be stopped in order to allow the public comment period to commence. Toward that end please let your Member of Congress know that you oppose bills and riders that short-circuit the proposed rule making process to ban commercial ivory in the U.S.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed signed a new law to combat the illegal ivory trade on World Elephant Day, a day devoted to raising awareness and support for the plight of Asian and African elephants and their habitats. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher © WCS

From the protection of dwindling whale populations from commercial hunting and the restoration of American bison herds as they teetered on the brink of extinction to the creation of terrestrial and marine protected areas and national parks across the globe, the power of conservation and our reverence for wild nature has moved people to take action again and again.

Today we see those values on display once again as New York State takes a powerful step to protect elephants and rhinos before it is too late.