Live from CITES CoP17, 9-27-16
Most media coverage of the threats elephants face from poaching focuses on African elephants. Asian elephants are threatened as well, however, and their overall numbers are much smaller. There may be as few as 30,000 Asian elephants remaining, compared to 400,000 African elephants. At the presentation “Wanted: Dead or Alive”, a new threat to Asian elephant elephants was described - the skinning of poached animals for leather and jewelry. This symposium was hosted by IFAW, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, with support from the Elephant Family NGO. Researchers for these groups showed how the tough outer skin is made into leather goods, and the softer inner skin is dried into beads for jewelry that resemble amber. Increased focus on the plight of Asian elephants is needed to fully understand the threats to elephants globally. One of the most interesting events today was “Wildlife Forensics for CITES Implementation”, presented by the consortium of UNODC, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Trace, the wildlife forensics network, TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, USAID, the US Agency for International Development, and the Society for Wildlife Forensic Science. As you can see, little happens at CITES without much interaction. Clearly, the ability to have any real effect on something as complex and international as wildlife trafficking requires global collaboration. A challenge for CITES participants is sorting out which groups are involved in which proposals, and who to talk to about pretty much anything. One of the most encouraging uses of forensic science is seen in recent work showing that confiscated elephant ivory can be traced genetically back to the region of Africa where it was collected. This type of analysis gives a great deal of information about how and where poaching occurs, and how ivory makes its way to trafficking hubs.
In addition to the presentations, discussions and voting that form the hub of a CITES conference, there is also a large exhibit hall where both governmental organizations and NGOs have staff booths and give presentations. These exhibits offer the chance to learn more about a particular species or proposal, as well as to speak directly with representatives from different groups. During one pass through the exhibits we spoke with people from the Pew Charitable Trust and the Manta Trust. The Manta Trust booth was set up with full virtual reality video capabilities. Note in the photo, Shark Research Institute Executive Director Marie Levine, “diving” with mantas using a VR headset! Jennifer Schmidt, PhD Director of Science & Research The Shark Research Institute