The world's attention is on President Barack Obama as he travels to Africa this summer, with visits scheduled to Ethiopia and Kenya - his father's birthplace. While the visit will target economic development and strengthening political relations, it is also an important opportunity to draw global attention to Africa's wildlife trafficking crisis.
With elephants slated for extinction in the wild in as little as a decade, time is running out for world leaders, including President Obama, to band together to protect elephants and other endangered species for future generations of all citizenship.
Here are three areas where swift, decisive, and unified action could make all the difference for elephants.
1. Ban all ivory sales, now.
Recently, there have been some promising steps towards ending the global ivory trade. Even China, the number one consumer of ivory on the planet, has pledged to "gradually" phase out its legal ivory trade. After international marches in 2013 galvanized citizens of all nations to take action for elephants, President Obama announced greater restrictions on unabated ivory trade in 2014, and nearly 30 states have taken some action to ban ivory sales within their borders. (New Jersey was the first state to fully ban all ivory sales in 2014.)
However, these actions to ban ivory sales worldwide are happening at a snail's pace, while extinction approaches like a rocket. There are still very real loopholes in the world's anti-ivory sales laws that allow criminals to smuggle ivory from recently slaughtered elephants into the open marketplace, where sellers promote the items under the guise of "antique," "art," "bone," "mammoth" - and even "jewelry."
World leaders need to step up and band together to accelerate the timeline to save elephants while they still can. We need action and honest dialogue between the top ivory consuming nations, and not more rhetoric.
Given the strong ties between the ivory trade and terrorism, banning ivory sales is a "no brainer." It's not just good for elephants - it's good for the world.
"As long as ivory is for sale, elephants will be needlessly, brutally, and selfishly killed," said Jen Samuel, president of the elephant advocacy organization Elephants DC. "Elephant extinction is imminent with elephants no longer procreating faster than their death rate. We must, we will, we shall give up our love affair to consume elephant tusks."
2. Strengthen international protections against wildlife trafficking.
World leaders can demonstrate their full, unwavering commitment to ending all elephant and rhino horn poaching by strengthening protections under CITES, the international treaty, sanctioned by the United Nations, governing wildlife trade. The next CITES conference will be held in 2016, and world leaders must act now to ensure that the event historically and irrevocably restores full protections to elephants - and rhinos.
CITES governs wildlife trade in part by assigning classifications to species that defines how that species can be traded internationally. Species that are most threatened fall under the Appendix I classification, which restricts all trade of the species.
However, CITES's current classifications are rife with flaws, particularly in how the organization classifies elephants and rhinos. Appallingly, CITES still allows legal trade in elephant ivory and rhino horn, even as these species are threatened with imminent extinction.
Moreover, many of the horrific decisions that have outraged animal advocates in recent months were all permissible under current CITES rules. For example, because CITES classifies elephants in Zimbabwe as Appendix II (as opposed to the most-protected Appendix I standing), Zimbabwe was permitted to kidnap dozens of baby elephants from their mothers and ship them to China to suffer miserable lives in captivity.
As Princeton University professor and wildlife conservationist Andrew Dobsonrecently put it, the notion that any rhino horn or ivory should be available for legal trade is "intolerable nonsense."
"Our vanity is no excuse for elephant extinction," adds Jen Samuel. "We are talking about destroying - annihilating for unnecessary ivory products - the largest land mammal on the planet. Have humans no shame?"
Let's urge all our world leaders to ensure that the upcoming CITES conference acts to restrict all trade of elephants and rhinos by classifying all of them as Appendix I. If they fail to do so, corrupt governments will continue to seek short-term profits from selling and trading their wildlife, at the expense of the long-term sustainability of their ecosystems.
"If we don't have the full commitment to stop these crimes by [the] CITES 2016 [conference], we won't have any time left to make a difference," said Dobson.
3. Preserve and defend ecosystems through sustainable tourism.
World leaders can make huge strides in helping elephants and preserving ecosystems by establishing and strengthening sustainable tourism programs in African nations. Sustainable tourism - also known as conservation tourism - is so successful because it empowers and engages local communities to protect their wildlife resources, rather than poaching them.
When poaching is the only answer to dire poverty, it will continue. But if real, sustainable economic opportunities are in place instead, particularly through the tourism industry, everyone benefits - including elephants.
However, not all tourism is sustainable. Unfortunately, the World Bank recently made the widely criticized decision to fund a "trophy" hunting program in Mozambique, a nation that has lost nearly half its elephants since 2009. Hunters who kill endangered species for sport argue that "trophy" hunting supports conservation because of the tourism revenue it generates. However, in reality, funding the destruction of endangered species is unsustainable and inexcusable, and hunting revenue most benefits the rich, not the poor.
Simply put, killing elephants doesn't save them. The one-time revenue boost from hunting an elephant is nothing compared to the tourist dollars that a living elephant can bring in. A recent study by The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust found that a living elephant can bring a nation more than $1.6 million over its lifetime through tourism. And that's not even factoring in the revenue that an elephant's children can bring in over their lifetimes.
The only answer is sustainable tourism - and there's nothing sustainable about killing off an endangered species for fun.
We urge world leaders to take vital steps to protect ecosystems and wildlife while involving, engaging, and incentivizing community participation. This includes protecting wildlife corridors so that elephants and other species have the space they need to roam and migrate, especially across national borders.
As President Kennedy said, "One person can make a difference, and everyone should try." For all that is good, we need world leaders courageous and honest enough to end the ivory trade for the betterment of all. Until then, we will continue to rely on the fearless support of the people to save elephants from extinction. No, ivory traders, we won't give up!
There are still many challenges ahead in protecting elephants, but if we stand together and urge our leaders to act, we can make a difference now. Ask President Obama to speak up for the elephants and against the ivory trade during his visit to Africa.
Future generations are depending on us to safeguard the future of these vital keystone species. It's up to us. Can we do it?
Want to get involved to help elephants? Join us at our World Elephant Day Happy Hour and Short Film Screening on August 12 in Washington, DC! And save the date for the third annual International March for Elephants, too.