University of Vermont

Former RSENR Staff Member Helps Bring Awareness of Elephant Crisis to Vermont

Elephant family group in Africa.  Photo credit: Charles Foley / WCS
Elephant family group in Africa. Photo credit: Charles Foley / WCS

We will never be able to see an African Western Black Rhino in the wild again. Never. They are officially extinct and were officially declared so two years ago. Elephants are on a similar path to extinction due to unprecedented poaching, and on October 17th, the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources did something to shine a spotlight on the crisis.

On October 17, 2013, 300 people attended Battle for the Elephants: A Special Screening and Solutions Panel Discussion, hosted by the Rubenstein School and in conjunction with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The event featured the one-hour National Geographic documentary (which can be seen on www.pbs.org) followed by a panel discussion on dynamic solutions to the “blood ivory” crisis.

The film recently was a winner at the 2013 Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival. Panelists included John Heminway, writer, producer, and director of Battle for the Elephants; Dr. Joshua Ginsberg, Senior Vice President, Global Conservation Program, Wildlife Conservation Society; Dr. James Deutsch, Executive Director, Africa Program, Wildlife Conservation Society; and Dr. Laurel Neme, Vermonter and author of Animal Investigators, contributor to National Geographic, and Fellow at UVM's Institute for Environmental Diplomacy and Security.

Media attention around the event included a televised piece on WCAX, an interview with panelist Laurel Neme on Vermont Public Radio, and two articles in the Burlington Free Press, including a cover story in the Sunday paper following the event.

What makes this current crisis for elephants worse than other times in history is the fact that we are starting with fewer numbers of them than ever before — just 472,000 left on the African continent. Presently, elephant poaching in Africa is at a record high, literally decimating the species.  An elephant is killed every 15 minutes for their tusks, with an estimated 36,000 being slaughtered each year.  If the killing continues at the current level, elephants will be extinct in 10 years.

Elephant activist and former RSENR staff member Ashley McAvey helped Interim Dean Jon Erickson to organize the event. She said, "I am so proud of the Rubenstein School for yet again showing how current and engaged it is in working toward global ecological solutions.  The degree of support from the RSENR community for the event was unbelievable. People care and they absolutely understand how serious this situation is for elephants and humans alike. Everyone at the School got on board— this is what made the event such a success."

She added, "The event was incredible and it's just a starting point.  Wildlife trafficking is the third largest illegal trade in the world, after drugs and guns.  Given the tremendous ecological loss at stake, the brutality of the poaching (just recently over 300 elephants in Zimbabwe were killed by cyanide dumped into their drinking holes), and the deeply rooted global security implications (evidence is increasingly showing that illicit proceeds from ivory are financing some of the world's worst militia and terrorist groups including Al Shabaab and the Lord’s Resistance Army’s Joseph Kony), this event was just the beginning of what it will take to truly stop the killing."

The event also emphasized that millions of people's livelihoods are at risk given the vital importance of tourism in many African countries and communities.

Next up for Ashley is an ambitious plan to work with the leading minds and organizations in the world to call for a ban on the domestic U.S. ivory market — state by state.  Ashley said, "Not many people realize that while it is illegal to bring ivory into this country, it is perfectly legal to buy and sell ivory domestically. This must change before we can ask China to drop the trade."

Ashley is excited to bring her message to local schools in Vermont to empower young people to act, too.  And she is petitioning the Vatican to publicly disavow the use of ivory. "The ripple effects of this would be profound.  Above all, I think the key is not to lose hope. We can change the way things are going by doing something today and making sure that once we are successful, we never, never come back to this place again.  I remain so grateful to the Rubenstein School for taking the first step in Vermont to get us there."

To find out more about the elephants and what you can do today, visit 96elephants.org.