Seven years ago, Minnesota attorney Jack Fay went to Kenya to meet the orphaned baby elephant he had been “fostering” through online donations. The HSUS state council member waited at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, on the edge of Nairobi, as Naipoki’s keepers brought her back from a day in the forest for an evening feeding in the nursery. All at once, Fay was close up with an animal most Americans know from pictures and drawings before they can speak but few have seen outside of a zoo. He got to hold Naipoki’s bottle as she guzzled milk. The young elephant watched him with a hungry eye, as if she were worried he might steal her meal. When the milk was finished, Naipoki snaked her trunk into the enclosure of another orphan searching for more.
“To see the intelligence of that little girl,” he says. “I already felt the passion, but [now] the passion was fully aflame.”
One day in the next several years, when she chooses to wander away from her keeper, Naipoki will go back to the wild. It should be a joyful day, but in that moment, like other elephants, she will become a target for poachers who cut off animals’ faces, even juveniles’ faces, to get their tusks and sell the ivory.
This year, inspired by Naipoki, Fay worked with the Humane Society of the United States to help pass an ivory and rhinoceros horn ban in his state, which became the 10th to prohibit such sales.
Despite a 2016 federal ban on commercial ivory imports and exports, the U.S. is still among the top markets for ivory, along with China, which has banned the trade, and Japan, which has not. Generally, law enforcement agencies such as Interpol estimate that they seize just 10% of the illegal flow. Ivory smuggled out of Africa and into the U.S. is offered for sale in many American states, with buyers often unaware of the link between jewelry and carvings and the slaughter of elephants. From 2007 to 2014, as the global illegal ivory trade doubled, the number of savanna elephants in 18 countries in Africa fell by 30 percent.
Trophy hunters argue the way to conserve elephants and other threatened and endangered animals is by paying to kill them and put their bodies on display. They claim the money will pay for conservation and benefit local communities (though it rarely does). Poachers and people who kill sharks for their fins similarly take the lives of animals for their most valuable parts. Much of the killing happens in Africa or out at sea, far away from people in the U.S. But the brutal global trade decimating populations of elephants, sharks, giraffes, lions and other wildlife reaches into every part of the United States. U.S. animal advocates can act locally to end it, by pursuing state bans on ivory and rhino horn, shark fins and other wildlife products from trafficking and trophy hunting.
Fay likens it to a jigsaw puzzle of 50 states. “Piece by piece we fill in the puzzle, which has a worldwide effect. If we shut down markets, who are the poachers going to sell to?”
Number of rhinos poached in South Africa in 2017, out of 29,000 rhinos worldwide.
Percentage giraffe populations have dropped since 1985.
Nearly a quarter of all shark species are threatened with extinction.
Like Fay, HSUS Pennsylvania district leader Ann Lewis also traveled to East Africa, following a similar itinerary. After visiting the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, she saw her first wild elephants around a water hole in Kenya’s Maasai Mara park, examining them in detail through a telephoto lens.
“It was amazing,” Lewis says. “Hearing their noises—their trumpets and kind of low rumbles. How they were drinking. What their tails looked like. And their skin. It just gave me more drive. We can’t have a world without elephants.”
Now Lewis is working with Ho and HSUS Pennsylvania state director Kristen Tullo to pass a state anti-trafficking bill that would ban the trade in ivory, rhino horn and parts of more than 20 other species. It was introduced in the state Senate in April.
As big markets, such as California and New York, have banned sales of ivory, the trade has flowed into once smaller ones, like Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts, where the HSUS is also pushing for ivory bans. An HSUS investigation this year in the nation’s capital found ivory openly displayed in shops and antique stores. HSUS investigations this year and in 2017 documented a thriving ivory trade in Massachusetts.
The fewer markets there are, the less valuable fins will be. State bans make it easier to stop the smuggling and “laundering” of illegally taken fins: More than 85 alleged shark finning incidents in violation of federal law have taken place since 2010 in U.S. waters. Once fins are removed, there is no way to determine how or where they were taken, or in some cases even which species, without DNA testing. State bans also discourage the import of shark fins from 80 countries around the world that export them, many of which allow shark finning and do not regulate which species fishermen take.
“We want to take us out of the shark fin trade,” says Kathryn Kullberg, HSUS director of marine and wildlife protection.
The HSUS is working for more state bans and, with Humane Society Legislative Fund, the Animal Welfare Institute and Oceana, for a full federal ban on the import and export of shark fins called the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act.
“We cannot ask other countries to protect sharks unless we are no longer providing economic incentives for them to behave badly,” reads a letter signed by Ho and representatives of Oceana, WildAid and the Center for Oceanic Awareness, Research and Education.
Since the Texas shark fin ban passed, there has been legal action against those taking part in the trade—arrests for possessing shark fins on a fishing boat and the seizure of shark fins from a restaurant. And Gulf populations of species such as tiger sharks are rising, says Dr. Greg Stunz of the Harte Research Institute in Corpus Christi, rebounding from the lows they hit in the 1980s and 1990s, thanks to the increased federal and state protections, public education, take limits and the rise of catch and release recreational fishing.