As elephants die at the rate of thirty thousand a year, our own lives change. Most of us who are neither for or against ivory trafficking, watch on the sidelines. Occasionally, we might notice the statistics that spell out the tragic story. Putting aside the heartbreak, we’ll realize that all life matters and that one life-system supports another.
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We secretly hope that the madness will end before the extinction of Loxodonta—the scientific name for African elephants. We hope that the good work of conservationists, NGOs, and law enforcement will cancel out the evil work that has made ivory smuggling a world industry. But we also know that it doesn’t matter enough for us to want to change our busy lives. We are wrong.
This is not an argument for “the butterfly effect”, where small events can have large, widespread consequences—like a tornado in Texas being caused by the flap of a butterfly wing in Brazil. The larger meaning of the catch phrase is that the correlation is impossible to prove. Not so much with the effects of African elephant poaching. I believe that the illegal trading of endangered species—not only elephants—diminishes the quality of our everyday lives.
The connection between natural ecosystems and virtual—which we use to maintain our social media relationships—is not obvious. So it’s not hard to look the other way. But like it or not, the natural and virtual worlds are linked, and pretending this symbiosis doesn’t exist has dystopian consequences.
While researching my thriller, Atone for the Ivory Cloud (to be released on March 1, 2017), I observed the escalation and increasing sophistication of the ivory supply chain in tandem with the use of powerful tools available on the legit and Dark Web. I imagine that we are all drowning in this storm from ivory trafficking in the Internet cloud:
Poachers hack the tusks out of elephants. The societal impact: Poachers are deluded into believing that the poaching lifestyle is sustainable and therefore no effort is made to develop alternative, legal ways of making a living. Because the income is sporadic and dangerous, war lords offer alternative forms of employment and protection: Poachers are recruited into warring factions, often loosely aligned with foreign ideologies, such as ISIS and al Qaeda. Warring factions commit atrocities that tear apart the traditional societal fabric.
Tusks are sold to middlemen. These traffickers are controlled by organized crime. Organized crime becomes better “organized” using the technologies of the Dark Web. The social media, or rather, anti-social media, of the Dark Web incentivizes cybercrime syndicates to collaborate by bartering arms for ivory with the war lords. Anonymizing technology such as TOR—The Onion Router—facilitates bitcoin and other cryptocurrency transactions, making a mockery of the notion of “following the money”. The terror traders follow suit. The societal impact: We all become vulnerable to cyber criminals who are well-funded and hidden. Successful attacks on individuals, companies and governments attract talented hackers who out-code, outwit and out-earn their peers employed in legitimate cyber security operations in both the private and public sector. State actors have followed, becoming emboldened and meddling in foreign governments. Cyber attacks breed insecurity in financial markets, which shut down capital spending and hiring. And we wonder why our GDP hardly moves up.
The revenue of these nefarious organizations comes from ivory sales to predominantly Asian retail markets. Despite recent efforts by Asian governments and international watchdog organizations like CITES and TRAFFIC (the wildlife trade monitoring organization), the demand for ivory is booming.
Efforts by CITES—The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora—have disappointed due to their lack of vision in their own Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, which in part, states that “the cultural, social and economic factors at play in producer and consumer countries.” should “promote transparency and wider involvement of civil society in the development of conservation policies and practices.” Unfortunately, CITES—the acronym, pronounced “sighties”, as in, appropriately, little sights—has failed us: The plan neglects to state that a “civil society” does not condone the reckless exploitation of wildlife. In its shortsighted focus on the regulation of the endangered species trade, it makes no effort to see the bigger picture and campaign to stop the flagrant consumption of ivory, not to mention rhino horn and parts of many other species.
At the recent seventeenth meeting of CITES the organization failed to protect elephants that die at a rate of one every fifteen minutes.
The proposal to give elephant populations from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe the highest protection failed by 62 votes to 71. Sadly, the EU that has 28 votes, voted against the proposal. So much for the civilized world that brought us classical music and the piano—with its ivory keyboards.
It’s true that the negative societal impacts are somewhat mitigated by leaders who speak out and act in an attempt to stop the carnage, specifically, princes William and Harry, and others including Leonardo DiCaprio, whose Netflix documentary The Ivory Game exposes ivory trafficking. The most visionary initiative, however, is The Great Elephant Census, a Paul G. Allan project. Over the past three years, GEC researchers have been collecting elephant population data from 18 countries in Africa in what is the first continent-wide aerial survey of African elephants. The results are alarming.
Unless those who are not involved take some responsibility for our planet—on which African elephants are now struggling to exist—our future is bleak. We know that a small change in our lives to take this travesty into account would make a difference. For example, unlike the flap of a butterfly wing, we know that social media engagement of the global crowd, through platforms such as Twitter, can change hearts and minds. The crowd can help eradicate the traditions that ascribe mythic power to animal parts. Conservation innovation is also helping: Drones, carbon dating, tracking dogs
and other methods are working to slow down the poaching. But perversely, as the supply is restricted and the demand for ivory persists, the price of ivory climbs–making trafficking more profitable.
Governments can help: Unless the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is passed by all partners it might fall to China, which is not a signatory of the agreement, to call the shots—and you can bet they will not ban wildlife trafficking as the TPP does. Wild Life Watch points out that hundreds of millions of animals and animal parts, from tens of thousands of species, are sold as pets, medicine, food, souvenirs, and spiritual and luxury items each year.
Ellie Weisel said, “Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil.” Therefore, let us not have to atone for our indifference—and especially not for tolerating the #ivory cloud. Let us instead celebrate and manage our interaction with wildlife so that it is sustainable. We should never have to blame the negativity in our own lives, even in small part, on the exploitation of wildlife.
Geoffrey Wells’ thriller, ATONE FOR THE IVORY CLOUD is a fictional story of the consequences described above. Impressions on a South African farm, boarding school, a father who read from the classics to his children, and a storytelling mother, sparked Geoffrey Wells with a writer’s imagination. Though the piano and drum kits and Mozambique led to his first thriller, A FADO FOR THE RIVER, his career as Art Director in advertising led him to the American Film Institute, and an awe of digital technology propelled him to VP/CIO at Disney, ABC-TV stations and the Fox TV stations. Wells wrote an award-winning animated film, has visited elephant reserves, and climbed to the tip of Kilimanjaro. He lives on Long Island where he swims the open water and writes thrillers about imperfect characters who, always with a diverse band of allies, fight villains that devastate our natural and virtual ecosystems.
Geoffrey Wells writes about privacy, elephant conservation, cyber trends and music. And of course, updates on his latest thriller, Atone for the Ivory Cloud.