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Elephants are easy to forget

Endangered species vie for world’s attention

By Walt Braun

African elephants are hard to hide. They’re also hard to protect from poachers, who kill the animals, cut their tusks off and leave the carcasses to rot.

Experts say there may be 400,000 African elephants left on the planet. If that sounds like a lot, consider that in 1980, there were perhaps 1.3 million of the massive creatures. And consider that representatives from CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species ) told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week that tens of thousands — imagine a herd of tens of thousands of elephants — were lost last year alone to poachers. CITES was joined in the hearing by officials from other preservation organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund and TRAFFIC, the world wildlife monitoring network.

If it’s hard to believe poachers could kill tens of thousands of African elephants last year, it’s also difficult to imagine that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will give the issue much of its time. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, who founded Save the Elephants, was right in concluding that the crisis with African elephants “does not appear to be on many people’s radar in the U.S.”

That’s unfortunate for the elephants, for people who struggle with limited resources to protect them and prosecute poachers, and, of course, for future generations of humans who might know elephants only from books and movies.

The black rhinoceros is in even graver danger. About 25,000 remain, which makes the poaching of 448 rhinos for their horns last year even more acute.

Simple profit isn’t the only motive for poachers’ efforts to meet the demand —  particularly in China, Thailand and Vietnam — for tusks and horns. Increasingly, the money is going to international rings or funding insurgencies in unstable countries.

That’s what made the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a valid forum for the discussion about African elephants and rhinos. The groups hope to persuade the United States to continue exercising its influence to get other nations to do more to protect elephants, rhinos and other endangered species. More funding for preservation efforts as well as moratoriums on ivory imports in countries such as China are among priorities.

Unfortunately, in a world whose nations are preoccupied with wars, economic turmoil, pollution, climate change, poverty and disease, even something as big as an elephant has trouble competing for attention.

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