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.

Jack Fay and elephant Naipoki
Minnesota advocate Jack Fay traveled to Nairobi to meet Naipoki, the elephant he “fosters” with donations. After the encounter, Fay helped pass an ivory ban in his state.
Courtesy of Jack Fay

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 %.

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.

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?

Jack Fay

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?”

Pillows made from giraffe skins
In the U.S., giraffe skins are offered for sale as pillow covers.

To strengthen federal protections that block imports into the U.S., animal advocates can support measures like listing giraffes under the Endangered Species Act. Since 1985, wild giraffe numbers have dropped by 40%, and yet between 2006 and 2015 around 33,000 giraffe parts and products were imported commercially into the United States, and another 4,000 were brought in as trophies. A 2018 investigation by the HSUS found taxidermy giraffes and giraffe parts—including giraffe hide rugs and throw pillows and giraffe bone knife handles and carvings—for sale throughout the U.S.

In addition to lobbying for better state and federal protections, advocates with means can also journey to see the species they are trying to save and in doing so support ecotourism, underwriting conservation and winning communities’ support for wildlife without killing animals, says Iris Ho, senior specialist for wildlife programs and policy for Humane Society International. “We travel across the globe to be in awe,” she says. “It can be expensive, but look at it as an investment. These animals are collectively the natural heritage of our generation.”

Icon of a rhino

Number of rhinos poached in South Africa in 2017, out of 29,000 rhinos worldwide.

Icon of a giraffe

percentage giraffe populations have dropped since 1985.

Shark icon

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.”

Pile of seized ivory
Ivory seized before it could be exported from Kenya is piled to be burned in Nairobi, a demonstration of the government’s commitment to halting the trade.
Iris Ho
Shelves full of dried shark fins
Wholesalers in China display shelves of dried shark fins. Millions of sharks are killed each year for their fins.
Iris Ho

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.

Diagram depicting how deep into an elephant's face a poacher would cut into to remove a tusk for ivory
The bottom third of a tusk is rooted deep in an elephant’s skull. Poachers hack off the face to get the ivory.

Dealers take advantage of legal and consumer confusion. Because federal law allows the sale of antique ivory, many claim that is what they offer, though the ivory very likely has been exported recently from Africa. Very few of the dealers in the investigations had paperwork to prove the ivory’s age. (In 2012, federal agents discovered a Philadelphia dealer was staining ivory brown to make it appear older than it really was.)

“They will tell you, ‘This is 18th century,’ ” says the HSUS investigator. “You’re supposed to believe that based on their ‘expertise.’ In the end, they’re in it to make a sale.”

In the same way state ivory bans have squeezed that trade out of some regions of the country, 13 state shark fin bans passed with support from the HSUS and other animal welfare groups have shifted U.S. trade in these fins, worth 20 to 250 times the value of the meat, depending on the species. The fins are used in the Chinese delicacy shark fin soup, providing the distinctive look and texture of a $100-a-bowl status symbol.

Worldwide, tens of millions of these apex predators—essential to marine ecosystems—are killed for their fins. Fishermen don’t even bother to bring sharks ashore. Instead they hook the animals, pull them aboard boats, cut off their fins and toss the sharks back in the water to sink to the bottom, where they die from suffocation, blood loss, predator attacks or starvation. The shark fin trade has decimated global populations, reducing some by 90%, with a quarter of all shark and ray species now in danger of extinction.

Diagram depicting the slices that would be made to a shark to remove the fins in the shark finning trade
To feed the global fin trade, fishermen haul sharks onto boats, cut off their fins, then toss them back in the water to die.

While shark fins are still consumed in China and Hong Kong, public education has led young people there to question the practice and the government to ban the serving of shark fin soup at official banquets. Now other countries import the majority of shark fins. But the trade runs through nations around the world, including the U.S., which sends the majority of its raw and frozen fins to Hong Kong and China, where they are soaked, trimmed and bleached. A portion of the processed fins are imported back into the U.S., where some restaurants still offer the soup.

Bans in states such as Hawaii, California, Oregon, Washington and New York have already driven the shark fin trade to ports on the Gulf of Mexico and southeastern Atlantic. Advocates are now working to close these remaining legal markets. When the HSUS began work to pass a shark fin ban in Texas, around half of U.S. shark fin exports were going through Houston/Galveston—an increase of 240% in four years. After the ban took effect, exports from there went down, while exports from Georgia and Florida spiked.

“Any place that has a large port is going to fall prey to the shark fin trade,” says HSUS Southwest regional director Katie Jarl, who worked to get the ban passed in 2015.

Federal laws bar shark finning in U.S. waters and require boats to bring sharks, excluding a species called smooth dogfish, to shore with fins intact. State shark fin bans further restrict the trade in the U.S. and reduce incentives globally for fishermen to bring in sharks.

Dead shark on the ocean floor after fins were removed
Fred Bavendam
Minden Pictures

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.

Right: Photo of Anna Clark outside the Capitol. Right: Anna Clark's daughter Jordan raising money.
The Texas shark fin ban started with advocate Anna Clark (second from left, in Austin). Daughter Jordan raised money.
Courtesy of Anna Clark

That’s good news to Anna Clark, a volunteer activist who started the campaign to ban shark fins in Texas. Clark has never seen a shark, but since she was young, she has found sharks “awe-inspiring.” In 2011, as she was reading a book about sharks to her children, then ages 4 and 6, and came to the number killed each year, they became so upset, Clark knew she had to take action. She contacted San Francisco-based Shark Stewards and was named chairwoman of their newly formed Texas chapter. She contacted the HSUS and enlisted aquariums and museums. She wrote op-eds and, with her children, tabled at grocery stores and visited legislators in Austin. Quickly, the movement grew to people across the state, Clark says. “I was this grassroots person who started a contagion.”

Off the coast of Texas, Stunz and fellow researchers track signals from transmitters on 21 sharks, watching as they journey south, into dangerous waters where fishermen could take them, and farther, to the Caribbean, or up the Atlantic coast. The sharks have names: Caroline Mae, Lazarus and Sam Houston. The lines tracing their movements are jagged, drawn from signals sent each time dorsal fins break the surface. Beneath the waves the sharks swim on—majestic, powerful, infinitely more valuable than their fins.

Get involved!

  • Support Endangered Species Act protection for giraffes by submitting comments to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
  • Ask your federal legislators to support the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act, H.R. 737.
  • Ask your federal lawmakers to support the Conserving Ecosystems by Ceasing the Importation of Large Animal Trophies (CECIL) Act, H.R. 2245, named after the famous lion lured out of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe and killed by an American trophy hunter in 2015.

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