African elephant slaughter renews faith in ESA

This year is the 100th anniversary of the passend pigeon’s extiction. And we’ve recently learned the slaughter of elephants in Africa could render Earth’s largest land mammals extinct within the decade. These two sad facts remind us of the value of environmental conservation and, in particular, America’s oft-maligned Endangered Species Act.

Since a broad bipartisan majority in Congress passed the ESA in 1973, the law has saved salmon, bald eagles, gray wolves, grizzly bears and numerous other animals that would have otherwise disappeared from this planet forever.

The act has also preserved countless other animals and plants whose existence depends on those species. For example, Orca whales, bears and bald eagles rely on salmon as a food source. Our ecosystem is truly a vast web of interdependence.

Sometimes the preservation of a species is in direct conflict with human activity. For example, we face uncertain effects in Thurston County caused by the listing of the Mazama pocket gopher and a few smaller species. But the alternative is worse.

The ESA arrived too late to save the once abundant passenger pigeon, a species that once blackened the sky during its migrations, turning day into night for hours at a single location. The passenger pigeon’s extinction was one of the key events that triggered wildlife protection laws in the U.S.

But there are few laws protecting imperiled species in many nations, and the laws that do exist are often unenforceable. It’s this regulatory vacuum that emboldens poachers to kill wild elephants at such a furious pace that the animals could vanish in a few years.

According to a new National Academy of Sciences study, conducted with data collected over a 16-year period, 100,000 elephants were killed between 2010 and 2012. It’s estimated that just 400,000 elephants remain in Africa.

The cause is clear, according to the study’s authors: the rising standard of living of China’s middle class and their willingness to pay exorbitant prices for ivory. This promise of easy riches has encouraged impoverished African people to risk criminal charges and illegally kill the elephants in order to harvest and sell the ivory.

But the risk of being caught and prosecuted is small, because the governments of Central and East Africa are either unwilling or unable to stop the poaching. Chinese and other ivory dealers allegedly pay these cash-poor governments large amounts of money to turn a blind eye to this awful, illegal slaughter of a magnificent animal.

International forces are mobilizing to protect the elephants, as they did during a previous, Japanese-fueled poaching epidemic in the 1970s. So there is hope.

The elephants’ plight reminds us how human actions can affect, and alter, the web of life. And it renews our appreciation for the Endangered Species Act.