Two-month-old Mpuni and her mother Mbali at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo.

On Feb 21st, The Wild Side reposted an article from the WWF-Canada Blog about the poaching of Central African forest elephants for the illegal ivory trade. It closed with an invitation to sign a WWF petition asking Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to ban all ivory trade in her country. Demand for African ivory is high in Asian countries due to its popularity as a material for making jewellery, talismans, and traditional medicine and Thailand is home to the world’s largest unregulated ivory market.

Nearly 1.5 million individuals signed the petitions circulated by WWF and Avaaz. Fortunately, this did not go unnoticed; on March 3rd, Prime Minister Shinawatra pledged to end to Thailand’s illegal ivory trade in her opening statement at the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) 16th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties. In her speech, she committed to amending national legislation to align with international norms. “We’re thrilled to hear that Prime Minister Shinawatra took this opportunity,” responded Carlos Drews, head of WWF’s delegation to CITES. “But the fight to stop wildlife crime and shut down Thailand’s ivory markets is not over. Prime Minister Shinawatra now needs to provide a timeline for this ban and ensure that it takes place as a matter of urgency.”

CITES CoP16 wrapped up March 14th in Bangkok. Delegates representing over 150 governments, NGOs, indigenous groups and businesses were present to discuss amendments to rules regarding specific species, many of which related to the escalation of poaching and illegal trafficking of animals.

Representatives from over 30 countries held a roundtable discussion on wildlife crime at the conference on March 4th. They shared the strategies they are implementing to counter wildlife crime including imposing stricter penalties for criminals, deploying more rangers, and sharing intelligence across borders. The need to seek additional support from police and custom officials was acknowledged, and the lack of funds, front-line enforcement officers and technology required to counter increasingly sophisticated crime groups were identified as challenges.

On March 6th, the conference hosted the launch of a new report. “Elephants in the Dust – The African Elephant Crisis,” produced by UNEP, CITES, IUCN and TRAFFIC, underlines the threat of increased poaching and habitat loss to African elephant populations. It also draws attention to the growing involvement of criminal networks in the trafficking of ivory between Africa and Asia. Among the report’s recommendations are strengthening national legislative frameworks; training enforcement officers in the use of tracking, intelligence networks and forensic analysis; and increasing international collaboration to enhance law enforcement across the entire ivory supply chain. Currently, “organized criminal networks are cashing in on the elephant poaching crisis, trafficking ivory in unprecedented volumes and operating with relative impunity and with little fear of prosecution,” according to Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC’s ivory trade expert.

Everyone at CITES CoP16 has been talking the right talk, but only time will tell whether governments step up to curb the trade and save elephants from slaughter. WWF and TRAFFIC are continuing to ask CITES governments to sanction countries that have failed repeatedly to meet commitments to better regulate domestic ivory markets, such as Thailand, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Treaty rules allow CITES member states to recommend suspending non-compliant countries from trading in the 35,000 species listed under CITES.

The plight of African elephants is something remote to most of us here in North America, but even a brief elephant encounter can bring us closer to these clever giants. I recently had the pleasure of meeting two-month-old Mpuni and her mother Mbali at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo (pictured above). I was really impressed by Mbali’s intelligence and trust as she demonstrated the husbandry behaviours she’s been trained in (e.g. allowing her handler to check the inside of her mouth with his hand), as well as her cheeky daughter’s determination to steal the show. Nothing is more inspiring than seeing live elephants up close, so get out and meet one if you can!

You can catch all the conference news at cites.org and learn how to help protect elephants on WWF’s elephant page or at WorldElephantDay.org. World Elephant Day is August 12, 2013!

Ellen Jakubowski is a former A\J editorial intern with a BSc in Biology from the University of Guelph and a science communication diploma from Laurentian University. She works as an interpreter at the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory and blogs about animals in The Wild Side.

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