Investing in the Future of Africa

For more than two decades, I have lived and worked in and around Africa. As a journalist, I have witnessed a fair share of treachery, but also bore witness to many of the continent’s more hopeful milestones. The end of apartheid in South Africa, peace agreements reached in Angola, Mozambique, and Sierra Leone. As a conservationist—I am at present the Executive Director of Tusk, a charity wholly focused on wildlife, communities and education – I have been privileged to know as well as support some of the best and brightest scientists and community leaders working in Africa.

What I could never have predicted, however, was that I would find myself all these years later in Denver, Colorado at a US government facility that houses all matter of wildlife products—one more gruesome than the next—and that the issues I reported on in the context of business, politics, and conflict would become integral to my job trying to protect wildlife.

But so it was this past November when the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, in collaboration with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), gathered a core group of conservationists—leaders from the non-profit sector—as well as representatives from the Interior, Justice and State Departments, to witness the destruction of its stockpile of confiscated ivory.

“Today, by destroying the US stock of ivory, we are acknowledging it for what it really is, a death warrant for the world’s elephants,” said former Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes.

More importantly, perhaps, Hayes and his colleagues went on to define the destruction of confiscated ivory in terms of the scale and threat posed by wildlife trafficking in general. More than a conservation tragedy, the trade in illegal wildlife products has become a sinister global industry, worth some $15 billion annually, ranking alongside the trafficking of drugs, weapons and human beings.

It is an issue that deeply concerns Tusk’s Royal Patron, The Duke of Cambridge, who last September committed to further collaborate with several other conservation organizations in a global effort to combat illegal wildlife trafficking.

“At the root of the illegal wildlife trade is the demand for products that require the death of tens of thousands of these animals every year, pushing them further towards extinction.”

It is a tragedy I have seen first-hand since working for Tusk, a tragedy that directly impacts people as well.

Last year my friend Aidan Hartley, a veteran war correspondent, wrote me an email. “Not so long ago in Kenya I saw a bullet-riddled elephant carcass. Nearby was a mass grave in which the bodies of dozens of people killed in ethnic fighting were buried. For me it underlined how there’s a very real link between ivory poaching, human bloodletting and war. This is a warning for state failure. The destroying of elephants might herald all manner of human disasters to come.”

Sadly, Hartley’s email would prove prescient. The Westgate Mall terror attack in Kenya that left more than 70 people dead forever entwined the world of conservation with issues of national security. Al Shabaab, in claiming responsibility for the attack, definitively linked the slaughter of Africa’s elephants and illegal trade in ivory to insurgency groups and an all too real human cost.

Which got me thinking about a common denominator. Human greed, consumerism that goes so far beyond our needs as to threaten our very existence.

It is easy for those of us in the West to blame China, citing its rapid industrialization and scramble for natural resources across the African continent, as well as a fast growing middle-class with a seemingly insatiable appetite for luxury—the more exotic the better. But as I sat and listened to my colleague Grace Gabriel, IFAW’s Asia Regional Director, tell the story of a Chinese Taoist philosopher who, 2,300 years ago, wrote of heaven, earth and people in perfect harmony, an early idea of sustainability, I began to accept the demand driving the trade is everyone’s to own, that a pro-utilization policy is “poison air permeating society.”

It is a sentiment echoed by The Duke of Cambridge.

“Seeing a badly injured animal, such as a rhino missing its horn, has come to me to symbolize human greed.”

I considered pro-utilization policies I subscribe to, and the link between consumerism, environmental destruction and human suffering. And did a quick inventory of my own impact, from the fish I eat—mostly the product of commercial trawlers using long-lines—to the petrol that fuels my car, to the coal and gas that heats my home and the tantalum in my mobile phone and laptop. Not to mention all the industrial uses of cobalt, chromium and platinum that affect my daily life, as well as diamonds, gold, copper and zinc. Much of which comes from Africa, specifically regions that are embattled in horrific civil conflict, bloodletting and state failure.

Symbolic perhaps, the decision by the United States government to crush its stockpile of ivory has sparked both debate and action. Dan Ashe, Director of US Fish and Wildlife, referred to ivory as “an emblem of greed and indifference,” and called for a ban on domestic ivory sales as well as an end to the ivory lobby.  While Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Judy Garber reiterated the $1 million reward offered for information relevant to dismantling the wildlife-trafficking syndicate, Xaysavang Network, which facilitates the killing of endangered elephants, rhinos and other species for products such as ivory.

And the fight continues. Next month Owen Patterson, British Secretary of State for Environmental Affairs, will host colleagues from across the world at a conference on the illegal wildlife trade. At the top of the agenda, demand reduction.


Which leaves me hopeful. For if consumers are driving much of the world’s trade in wildlife products, then as a consumer I can make a difference by changing some of my own habits that are negatively impactful. In fact, it is something we all can do.


Meredith Ogilvie-Thompson

Executive Director, Tusk USA

20 November 2013