'E' is for elephant, not extinction
● By J. Chambless
Jen Samuel leads a march to ban ivory poaching.
Landenberg native Jen Samuel has a passion for saving elephants, leading her to start a non-profit called Elephants DC.
The group's mission is very clear: To end the ivory trade worldwide and advance elephant well-being. “I'm just one person making a difference for elephants,”she said. “Truly, anyone can make a difference if there is something you care about.
“I’ve loved nature since I was a little girl, and when it came to elephants, I was always in awe of them,” Samuel said.
When she attended Temple University, Samuel met another elephant enthusiast, Katie Lazaro. They quickly developed a close friendship, bonding over their mutual interest. Through her new friend, Samuel learned about the intelligence of elephants, their herd loyalty and their family groups.
Tragically, in 2002, Katie Lazaro was killed, a victim of gun violence. “When you lose a loved one, especially tragically, something they cherished often becomes a symbol of that person. You hold on to that. With Katie it was the elephants,” Samuel said.
In 2013, Samuel became aware that elephants were being poached to extinction. Through social media, she read about the massacre of 33 pregnant elephants in a protected range in Chad. “Elephants from different herds gather there until they gave birth. They have been doing this for thousands of years,” she said. The previous year, more than 600 elephants and their young were killed in Bouba Ndjida National Park in Cameroon. Terrorists on horseback killed the elephants for their tusks, using grenades and AK-47s. While more than 100 poachers took part in the massacre, none were apprehended.
Reeling from the tragic news, Samuel discovered that an international march for elephants was being organized by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. The march was part of the trust’s iWorry campaign to bring awareness to the elephant crisis.
“Part of me thought if my friend Katie was here, the matter would already be before The Hague,” Samuel said. “She was one of the smartest people I knew.” Since Lazaro wasn’t there to stand up for the elephants, Samuel thought she might organize a Philadelphia march. She ended up being asked to co-organize the Washington, D.C. march.
The global march was held simultaneously in 43 cities around the world on Oct.14, 2013, connecting people who were dedicated to ending the ivory trade. It was through the DSWT that she first understood that the goal was a complete ban of ivory.
“At first we were marching for the elephants; I didn't understand,” she said about the scope of the campaign. “Then things started to fall in place.
“After the first march, everyone said, 'What’s next?'” Samuel said. “We marched, we came to the White House, but the ivory trade did not stop.”
So Samuel resigned from her position as a newspaper editor and started the non-profit Elephants DC. “If there had been an organization fighting for a complete ban in the U.S., we never would have formed,” she said. But there was not, so Elephants DC took on that mission.
In July 2013, President Obama announced an executive order to combat wildlife trafficking and diminish trade in animal parts, such as elephant ivory and rhino horns. The order underscored that elephants and rhinos, specifically, were facing “significant decline or even extinction.” Further, the report stated, “Wildlife trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar illicit business that is decimating Africa’s iconic animal populations. The United States is committed to combating wildlife trafficking, related corruption, and money laundering.”
The State Department and the United Nations both declared wildlife trafficking a security threat. The flow of funds has been tracked directly from the illegal ivory trade to rebel forces in Central Africa. In 2014, a National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking called for a ban on the commercial trade of elephant ivory. The strategy called the illegal trade in wildlife a global security threat. While this ban dealt with the commercial import and export of ivory, it did provide provisions for the sale of ivory antiquities.
“One thing I found, being a journalist, is [you have to] read the small print,” Samuel said. “A lot of times you hear, 'U.S. bans ivory sales' or '20,000 elephants are killed a year in Africa.' If you look at the reports, there is always fine print. The 20,000 killed is based on the Savanna landscape, not the forests, where the elephants have been decimated up to 85 percent, like in Gabon and Tanzania. So you have to be a media watchdog, too. The media reported this as a U.S. ban, but it is not – it's a near-ban. That's the scary part -- the misinformation, when this is a race against extinction.”
On World Wildlife Day, March 3, 2016, the United Nations declared that elephants are being poached faster than they are being born. Elephant herds continue to disappear. It is estimated that 96 elephants are being killed for their ivory every day.
The face of poaching has changed over the decades. There has always been conflict between farmers and elephants. Farmers may have killed a marauding elephant to protect their crops, or an elephant might have been slaughtered to feed hungry families. But today, poaching has become a trade for highly organized terrorist groups using helicopters, GPS trackers, and assault weapons. The elephants are slaughtered, and tusks removed. Often, elephants are just immobilized by a gunshot and left to die a painful, lingering death. Killing elephants for ivory has been banned by international law, so the only access to ivory is through illegal poaching.
A priority for Samuel and her team at Elephants DC is to promote ivory bans at the state level. They dedicate countless volunteer hours to raising support and finding a champion lawmaker who will stand up for the cause.
“You need someone powerful to raise their voice,” Samuel said. Her first involvement with a state ban was also her most victorious. She knew that there were already people in the Garden State fighting to save the elephants. She added her voice, reaching out to members of New Jersey's Congress and lawmakers. “I just called them up and said, 'Ivory is killing elephants and funding terrorism, can you support me?'” she said.
Within two weeks, she connected with the New Jersey Humane Society and met Sen. Ray Lesniak, who agreed to sponsor the bill.
“Sen. Lesniak has sponsored some of the most far-reaching environmental laws in the country,” Samuel said. “He is a social justice campaigner.”
The bill was passed within three months of its inception, one of the fastest moving pieces of legislation to ever clear the New Jersey House. “In 2014, New Jersey became the first state in the U.S. to completely ban the buying, selling, or import of ivory, as well as the possession of ivory with the intent to sell. New Jersey shocked the world by their ban,” Samuel said.
Riding on the success of the New Jersey bill, Elephants DC has continued to push for statewide ivory bans. Not all have been successful, but they keep fighting. The defeat of the ivory trade bill in Pennsylvania was particularly frustrating for Samuel.
As she often does, she was called to give testimony at the judiciary hearing to ban ivory sales. “There was an amazing lineup of speakers,” she said. “I was scheduled to testify as an ivory trade expert, along with other people.” Included among the speakers were two schoolgirls. “These girls spent their weekends working on their speeches,” Samuel said. “More children are hearing about the issue and they ask the simple, pure question, 'Why?'”
However, right before the hearing started, the judiciary chair informed Samuel that she and the others could no longer testify. She feels that groups with a lot of political clout that oppose the ban, such as the NRA, successfully block ban supporters from speaking. “I wanted to stand up and go on record,” she said. “My Pennsylvania spirit runs very deep.”
She had a similar experience in Delaware, being invited to speak then having the opportunity taken away. “To be there, to be the voice of a species, and they won't let you speak -- I just couldn't believe it,” she said. Fortunately, her win in New Jersey has provided her with enough encouragement to keep fighting. Though the Pennsylvania and Delaware bills were defeated, new measures have been introduced this year. To date, California, New York and Hawaii have also passed laws banning ivory sales, but those state bans are not as comprehensive as New Jersey's ivory trade law.
“Strength multiplies,” said Samuel, using her favorite Bob Marley quote. It is a fitting mantra for her organization. In addition to their own work, Elephants DC supports the work of other organizations fighting to save elephants from extinction. They hold a fundraiser each year at the Gabon Embassy in Washington and continue to hold an annual march for elephants.
Though the marches started small, every year they get larger as more people become aware. “Most people thought ivory trade was banned in 1989. The export of ivory out of Africa was banned, but the domestic trade never stopped here,” Samuel said. This year’s march will be held on World Elephant Day, Aug. 12. It starts at the Lincoln Memorial and terminates with a rally at the White House. It is a family-friendly event and all funds raised support the organization’s mission.
This fall, Samuel will will travel to Gabon, on the west coast of Africa, as the face of Elephants DC. With the support of Ambassador Michael Moussa-Adamo of Gabon, she is partnering with the Republic of Gabon and a local NGO. Her trip has three components: Field monitoring, youth education and anti-poaching strategies.
“I want to go as far as I can to connect with the youth, to inspire them to be the change,” she said.
Gabon's potential for eco-tourism is being considered. According to David Sheldrick, a living elephant is worth $1.7 million through tourism dollars, versus $30,000 for the ivory.
“I don’t know how far I can get on this first trip; I have to be realistic,” Samuel said. She has planned her trip to coincide with the full moon, as most elephants are killed when the night is bright.
“It’s a very dangerous time for an elephant. I am a peaceful person, but I feel like this is a war we must win,” Samuel said. “The cost of extinction is too great.”