The announcement was a centerpiece of the final day of the Clinton Global Initiative, the Clinton family’s annual charitable gathering in New York. In remarks at a Thursday luncheon, Clinton said the slaughter of elephants for their ivory tusks had reached crisis proportions.
“Unless the killing stops, African forest elephants are expected to be extinct within 10 years,” Clinton said. “I can’t even grasp what a great disaster this is ecologically, but also for anyone who shares this planet to lose a magnificent creature like the African forest elephant seems like such a rebuke to our own values.”
Clinton drew a direct link between terrorism and elephant poaching, citing growing evidence that terrorist groups in Africa are funding their activities in part by trafficking ivory. She said that includes al-Shabab, the group responsible for the recent attack at a shopping mall in Nairobi.
“This is not just about elephants,” Clinton said. “It is about human beings, governments, trying to control their own territory, trying to keep their people safe, as well as protect their cultural and environmental heritage.”
The new program will enable an expanded law enforcement presence at 50 major elephant sites that together harbor 285,000 elephants, or roughly two-thirds of the African population. It also will include the hiring of an additional 3,100 park guards, adding sniffer-dog teams at 10 key international transit points and beefing up intelligence networks.
President Ali Bongo of Gabon was among the leaders who joined Clinton and her daughter, Chelsea, onstage for Thursday’s announcement. Elephant poaching, he said, “threatens the very stability of our countries and blocks our economic development. It is time for the global community to act decisively against this plague.”
Gabon and other African nations pledged to increase penalties for killing elephants. Meanwhile, 10 countries — including China, Japan, Vietnam and other Asian nations that are among the biggest consumer markets for ivory — committed to helping reduce the demand among their citizens for the product, including through public education campaigns.
“Many people in Asia don’t understand that it’s not like losing a tooth,” Clinton said. “You have to kill the elephant to get the tusk.”
Ivory trafficking has become one of the world’s most lucrative criminal industries, with an estimated value of $7 billion to $10 billion annually, according to several nonprofit advocacy groups.
Since 1980, the estimated population of African elephants has fallen from 1.2 million to less than 420,000. In 2012 alone, 35,000 elephants were slaughtered, according to the groups’ data.
Wildlife protection advocates said rangers who are supposed to help protect elephants are often poorly paid or not paid at all, while well-armed poachers do not typically receive long sentences if caught.
“The benefits of poaching and selling ivory are far greater than the risks to the poacher,” said Jane Goodall, a British primatologist famous for helping protect wild chimpanzees who is involved in the new elephant initiative.
For Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, elephant conservation is not a new focus. They learned of the challenges during a trip to Africa in 1997, during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Hillary Clinton raised awareness of the issue at the State Department but become particularly involved this past spring after she left.
Cristián Samper, president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, said he wrote a letter to Hillary Clinton saying: “We’re losing the war. We need to engage you.” He said that she responded a week later and that they had a series of meetings, including a visit to the Bronx Zoo.
Advocates said the connection between poaching and terrorism helped prioritize the issue for African and other governments, as well as for the United States. In July, President Obama signed an executive order to combat elephant trafficking.
“That connection made this more than just an animal issue,” said Carter Roberts, president of the World Wildlife Fund. “It made it a security issue, it made it a governance issue, it made it a criminal issue.”
Chelsea Clinton, meanwhile, visited with elephant rangers and conservation advocates in Africa this past summer during a trip with her father.
“We are now confronting the possibility of a world without elephants,” she said. “For my parents and for me, addressing this challenge is a personal commitment, as well as a policy concern.”