James A. Baker III was U.S. secretary of state from 1988 to 1992.
Throughout my life, I have been an avid hunter, fisherman and outdoorsman. I hunt quail, wild turkey, dove and other birds. I’ve been on safari in Africa a number of times to hunt Cape buffalo and other plains game. I hunt elk in the Rocky Mountains every year. In my native Texas, I fish the Gulf Coast’s bays for redfish and trout, and I fish Wyoming’s cool streams for freshwater trout.
Like most sportsmen, I am also a conservationist. From the days of Teddy Roosevelt, American hunters — and, indeed, the Republican Party that Roosevelt represented — have held a deep reverence for nature and the wildlife found there. Roosevelt had a hand in the creation of 23 national parks. A half-century later, President Richard M. Nixon signed into law the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
So it was with great satisfaction that I carried that mission forward as secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush. Responding to the rampant poaching of elephants, we joined representatives of the diplomatic and conservation communities in 1989 in Lausanne, Switzerland, to call for a total ban on ivory trade through the 1975 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). We were particularly proud that the United States paved the way for this historic agreement though a unilateral ban on ivory imports.
Yet while the ivory trade ban at first enabled some elephant populations to recover, the past decade has seen a resurgence in poaching that has sadly reversed that trend.
Elephant poachers today are meeting a growing demand by consumers in Asia and other places where ivory is a symbol of status and wealth. As the ivory market has become more lucrative, more nefarious players have entered the trade, posing a threat not only to elephants themselves but also to the stability and security of communities where they live.
In contrast to the situation decades ago, when many participants in the sordid ivory trade were driven largely by practical motivations such as feeding their families, poaching today is driven by organized crime syndicates, and the global wildlife trade has taken its place alongside trafficking in weapons, drugs and human beings. Local militias such as the Sudanese Janjaweed and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, equipped with modern weaponry, have joined the illegal wildlife trade to finance their terrorist activities.
The result has been devastating to elephants and the courageous wildlife rangers who protect them — to say nothing of the communities through which these militias rampage, sowing fear and instability. Today, up to 35,000 elephants are killed annually in Africa. The Wildlife Conservation Society has reported that fully 65 percent of all African forest elephants were lost between 2002 and 2013, and numerous wildlife guards are killed each year.
The killing and the trafficking in ivory must end. As secretary of state, I urged the U.S. Defense Department to provide surplus Army helicopters to Kenya to help Richard Leakey’s fight against elephant poachers. While prohibitive maintenance costs made that idea unfeasible at the time, we should revisit this idea today by passing the Eliminate, Neutralize and Disrupt (END) Wildlife Trafficking Act.
The legislation, led by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), would bolster wildlife trafficking law enforcement and increase support for wildlife rangers, including the transfer of military equipment for ranger use. Importantly, the law could enable the prosecution of wildlife crime through laws targeting racketeering, which carry stiffer penalties.
Meanwhile, as global conservation leaders convene in Johannesburg this September and October for the next CITES meeting, any call for legal ivory sales should be opposed. One-off sales of African countries’ stores of confiscated ivory in the past two decades — which were permitted under the assumption that they would drive down the price of ivory — instead appear to have had the opposite effect. Poached ivory looks nearly identical to legal ivory, enabling vast amounts of illicit material to be laundered and sold openly — further driving trafficking and the poaching of elephants. It is time to end all ivory sales worldwide.
Teddy Roosevelt long ago cautioned us not to leave our wild places more diminished than we found them. If we extend that idea to an increasingly interconnected world, we must acknowledge a collective responsibility for the survival of elephants as a species.
Since the dawn of human civilization, these magnificent, awe-inspiring creatures have been with us. Let us not be the ones who let them disappear forever on our watch.