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Interview: Maranda Pleasant

Maranda Pleasant: Tell us about the biggest thing that you see happening right now in wildlife trafficking.

Crawford Allen: The elephant ivory issue and the devastating rate of poaching that is linked to some serious security concerns. Militias and even terror groups are being linked to poaching elephants and using the money made from trafficking in elephant ivory for funding terrorist activities, including buying weapons and arms. We don’t have completely solid evidence on that, but there are so many figures indicating that this is the case. We haven’t got access to top secret information, but we have Hillary Clinton and senior leaders in the UN saying this is a serious security threat, that financing is going to terrorist groups, and we have to believe it. It is getting beyond control in some places in terms of the rate of poaching and the volume and scale of the trafficking.

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MP: What are some of the best solutions that we can actively, immediately, and effectively implement?

CA: We are having to pull money into site-level protection for elephants just to keep them alive. But there isn’t enough money to go around. The people involved in protecting those elephants, like rangers on the ground, are so under-resourced. They have very few vehicles, they have very poor weapons (if any weapons at all), and they are treated as the bottom of the tree when it comes to law enforcement priority. They are risking their lives for virtually no pay, no thanks, and in very harsh, difficult conditions. We need more investment there.

The thing that concerns me most is that this issue has become the realm of transnational criminal networks. In my view, nobody is really effective in tackling those organized crime networks that are making connections from Africa to Asia to fund and facilitate the poaching of massive volumes of ivory, and then selling it on the Asian market. Very few people have tried globally to tackle that serious organized crime threat that is also linked to militia groups. That needs to change. You need to bring the full weight of government attention to dealing with that. There’s not enough intelligence analysis, there’s not enough intelligence gathering, and there’s not enough enforcement being done in the courts and airports to really tackle it.

MP: Are there groups that we can get behind that are fighting to get the governments to respond?

CA: When you are dealing with serious organized crime, armed militias, and poaching gangs, you really are only talking about supporting governments or international agencies like INTERPOL, in terms of the very frontline work. There is a whole network of organizations like World Wildlife Fund that are trying to push technical expertise and new tools, and advocating and lobbying for action and for governments to take it seriously. Those organizations, some of them local and very small grassroots (who are still doing a great job on the frontline), are taking risks. For larger organizations that have a much better capacity and ability to bring larger scale change across the globe, like the World Wildlife Fund—when they ask you to advocate for change, cast your voice, add your name.

We are all consumers of wildlife. We may not realize it but there’s probably something in your home or something you own that came from wildlife. Probably the majority of those things that people possess may be legal or sourced sustainably, but there are other things that people just don’t realize. You have to really watch out for this, particularly when you are traveling or buying things off the internet.

There’s a good deal of ivory being sold that claims to be antique ivory. In fact, we’ve seen evidence that there are fake antiques being carved in countries like China. Several months ago, that ivory was literally living on the face of an elephant walking across Africa, which was then slaughtered. This ivory was shipped across to Asia, where people are copying designs from antiques and selling them to online websites in the U.S. People are buying it thinking it’s a nice antique piece, when in fact it is not. The blood is on their hands then, too, and they just don’t realize it. People ought to shop smart and really think about what they are buying. There is lots of information about that on our website.

We also feel that people can do remarkable things when they put their voices together. We saw that recently. A key problem in Thailand is a massive illegal market for ivory. We worked with the Thai government for about ten years to try to persuade them to change their laws and enforce their laws, because they had huge loopholes that allowed elephant ivory to be sold locally and legally. There was no way they could stop it with the loopholes in their laws. We worked hard with AVAAZ [avaaz.org] and people like Leonardo DiCaprio to do a massive campaign. 1.7 million signatures for this petition.

MP: I signed it!

CA: Well, thank you so much! At the conference in Thailand, we saw the Thai Prime Minister stand up and say they were going to close down that black market. We followed up and followed up, and they are still saying the same thing. We believe that legislative change takes time, but it is such a very hard thing. We’ve got that push now. That’s a really strong example of what people can do when they come together and feel very strongly about something, that something is just so obviously wrong.

That’s what’s happening with the Clinton Global Initiative. We’ve got some very strong voices from Africa now saying to the world, “We’re not going to take this anymore and we need your help.” The only way forward is a unified global push by countries and organizations like ours to save Africa’s elephants. That’s the only way there’s going to be change—when you start getting to high-level agreements and initiatives, where civil society and ordinary people are backing it, pushing it, and holding everyone accountable. You can stand on a stage in New York City and make very strong statements, but now everyone has to be held accountable equally.

MP: Can you recap the announcement that Hillary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton made at the Clinton Global Initiative?

CA: At the Clinton Global Initiative, they announced a commitment made by African leaders (we believe there are about eleven countries now signed up) and by a number of organizations, including World Wildlife Fund, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Conservation International, the African Wildlife Foundation, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare. They all made commitments that they will contribute $80 million to help save elephants in Africa. We are calling upon people to implement solutions to stop the killing, stop the trade, and stop the demand.

What the Clintons have done is bring together African nations to stand behind a commitment to protection for elephants. That includes trying to prevent illegal trade from flourishing and closing down the markets, with a target of 2016 to bring about certain levels of reduction in the killing, trade, and demand. The CGI is holding people accountable to those commitments.

MP: Thank you so much.

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