Sunday, March 25th, 2012



By Fred O'Regan

March 21, 2012



The illegal ivory trade starts with the slaughter of elephants, continues with wildlife traffickers smuggling ivory across international borders and ends with the under-the-counter sale of carvings, signature stamps and trinkets, in marketplaces in Asia and online.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare is working to cut the supply chain at all its major touch points by training rangers in anti-poaching techniques, lobbying politicians to take action to block the sale of ivory, collaborating with customs and law enforcement authorities to arrest black-market sellers and reducing consumer demand through out the world, especially China, one of the largest consumers of wildlife products including ivory.

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Wednesday, May 4th, 2011














 “On a personal level, one of my missions is to educate people – to try to reduce demand (for animal parts) by helping the public to know that poaching exists.  



QUESTION: What do the seemingly disparate topics of a wildlife forensics lab, the horrific gorilla bush meat trade, elephant trauma and psychology, and the butterfly black market share in common? 

ANSWER: These are only a few of the many subjects that have been illuminated by Dr. Laurel Neme, gifted environmental journalist and all around Renaissance woman, who aims to translate the current plight of our wildlife and their habitats from a niche science into a very accessible public conversation. 

Neme’s sterling academic credentials (a Master’s degree from University of Michigan and a Ph.D. from Princeton University) led her to an early career as an international consultant in natural resource management, working for the U.S. Treasury Department, World Bank, USAID, and a host of influential NGOs with conservation missions.  

 But wildlife is where her heart is, and the increasing decimation of their numbers due to trafficking cartels has given rise to a passion that has fueled her commitment to raise the public’s awareness of this tragedy. 



In fact, the horror of wildlife trafficking and its devastating impact on the animals and the environment, is the dirty secret of much of our retail life; it cuts a wide swath across the disciplines of the Chinese medicine, the exotic food, jewelry, art, pet and clothing worlds.  Few of us have escaped the cache of owning or eating exotic goods, and tragically, most of us are completely oblivious as to the deadly consequences. 

Neme’s goal first, is to bring attention to how intimately we are connected to our wildlife and the ecosystems they support, and second, to help us understand our own capacity to change the calculus of the destructive forces that are eroding our planet at an alarming rate. 

 ABC NIGHTLINE: A short introduction to wildlife trafficking


Neme’s charisma – her infectious laugh and embracing personality have undoubtedly contributed to her success.   In talking with her and in reviewing her work, it occurred to this writer more than once, that she just might be wildlife’s female counterpart to Indiana Jones.   She is apparently fearless and has boundless energy: In her own words, she has “has camped in the Kalahari, investigated walrus carcasses on Alaska's Bering Sea beaches, and gotten lost in the Amazon jungle with the Brazilian Federal Police–all in pursuit of knowledge and a better story.”  

And that’s only the beginning. 

In her highly acclaimed book published in 2009,  Animal Investigators: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species, Neme has written what has been called a wildlife CSI crime investigation, giving us a glimpse behind the closed doors at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service forensics lab – following the dedicated agents in their painstaking examination of the mutilated corpses and seized parts of trafficked animals, in their efforts to identify the poachers of endangered species.   See the photo gallery on



Animal Investigators

With a Foreword by Richard Leakey


In between writing, Neme hosts a popular weekly radio show, The Wildlife, in which she interviews all manner of wildlife scientists and experts on subjects, ranging from wildlife law enforcement, to the dark side of new species discovery, to elephant poaching in Chad, to the lucrative and dangerous black market in butterflies.  And these are only a few of the more than seventy topics she has covered since she started the show in November 2009.

Neme is also a Fellow at the University of Vermont’s Institute for Environmental Diplomacy and Security, and she has an active speaking schedule which takes her to museums and environmental conferences all over the country.   Finally, she has recently signed on as a correspondent with Jeff Corwin’s new wildlife conservation web portal, Jeff Corwin Connect.




Wolf carcasses to be examined in the forensics lab


Action Now+Network recently spoke with Dr. Neme about her life, her love for wildlife and the natural world, and about her ultimate goal:  to bring the public into the conversation about the impact of wildlife trafficking, on  vital ecosystems, and ultimately on the planet.   


A.N.N.: You started out your professional life with degrees in Political Science and Public Policy from University of Michigan, and a Ph.D. in International and Public Affairs from Princeton University.  From there, your niche has been environmental and wildlife policy and natural resource management. 

Is this what you thought you wanted to do when you completed your doctorate?   What led you down this path — how did you get interested in this field?

I’ve always loved animals, but in college, I got away from that a little bit – got more into the policy side of things and into sustainable development and how people interact with the environment.  However, I have been consistently drawn to the way people interact with wildlife –and I got more engaged in that field as I got more deeply involved.

A.N.N.: In your studies and in your professional life, how do you sense that people engage with wildlife – as a part of the environment or something separate, or as something that they can own? 

Here in the States, especially in the urban areas, you get separated and divorced from your natural landscape.  Once of the reasons I live in Vermont is because I don’t feel divorced –we purposely moved here because our environment is embedded into our subconscious – it is part of how people engage in their daily life. 

In most places around the (developing) world, the immediate environment is not something separate – you rely on animals, they rely on you.  Sometimes they are a big nuisance – when elephants destroy the crop, then what do you do?  You get rid of the problem because it is your livelihood – your survival.  But there are alternative ways, and there have been so many great success stories about how you can take away the conflict—and create win-win situations where the animals can still survive and thrive and so can the people.


A.N.N.: You have a regular radio show called The Wildlife –can you tell me a little about it, how you got started with it. 

I got into it because after I wrote my book, Animal Investigators, I was doing a lot of publicity, including on some great programs such as NPR’s Science Friday and ABC News Nightline – and they did a great job, but the one thing that was missing is that they were still short pieces, without a lot of detail.  And I had the idea of being able to get the story behind the story and being able to talk in depth without the sound bites, and being able to talk about different scientific discoveries and issues.  The show is all related to wildlife and animals and investigations – sometimes scientific investigations and sometimes criminal investigations.


A.N.N.: How do you select your guests and your topics for this show?

I choose the guests:  I do a lot of reading,  keep my hand on the pulse of a lot of issues, and some things just strike my fancy – sometimes its popular, like Chris Palmers book,  Shooting in the Wild — it was getting a lot of attention, and I wanted to explore the issues with him.  Other times, the topic may be obscure but important, like research on porcupine farming in Vietnam, which I see as having broader implication – in this case for policies related to the idea that commercial farming of wildlife is a viable strategy to reduce poaching in the wild.  This study showed it didn’t work. 

I’m always interested in wildlife stories – and the wildlife trade and trafficking doesn’t get a lot of attention, so this was my way of focusing on those stories – but if you focus on the stories (about the trafficking) without getting an appreciation of the species too, it gets depressing and people feel disempowered.  My goal is to empower people, and that’s why I don’t focus exclusively on wildlife trafficking. 

So some of the topics I’ve had, such as Lorises, have a big trafficking component but I also focus on the biology – how strange and how interesting these prosimians are.


A.N.N.: What exactly are Lorises?


A Slow Loris

Lorises are a kind of primate that are found in southeast Asia.   One of the reasons I got interested in Lorises was that I had been working on this story for Nightline – they were interested in doing a story related to my book, Animal Investigators, on the wildlife forensics lab, and I had been looking around for cases where good video was available.  A lot of times, video is not available or not releasable.  This was a case that involved a Hmong refugee woman from Laos living in Minnesota who had imported thousands of wildlife parts for traditional medicine.  Agents had gone undercover and had shown the sales of different animals.  This case was interesting because it showed how one person could have a huge impact, and it also showed the diversity of species that the forensics lab had to identify.

This was especially Interesting because people think of traditional medicine as being Chinese, but it is actually prevalent across Asia in a lot of cultures, using some of the species like salamanders and Lorises,  that we had never known about in the international trade in traditional medicine.

Not much was known about traditional medicine in Laos – this case was one that identified all the species used in Laos.  As part of her sentence, this woman was required to provide info as to what they used these animals for.  However, ….she never gave up much information about that.

So – back to how I find interviewees for my show…

Eventually, I saw an article about some innovative research on the use of lorises in traditional medicine in Laos, which, of course, struck a nerve with me.  I contacted and interviewed the researcher, a woman from London, Anna Kekaris, who was an expert who also looks at the biology of the species. 

People don’t realize that wildlife trafficking is even an issue.  It’s one of the reasons I wrote my book – before I stumbled upon it (the issue of wildlife trafficking) by talking to a ranger in Kenya who had trained at the lab, most people, including me, didn’t even know that this exists.

That episode has been used to provide info to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services for future cases, and also at universities – I know professor here at University of Vermont has assigned it in anthropology case – which shows traditional use of wildlife.


A.N.N.: The idea of your radio show is brilliant.  It lets you straddle academic subject areas with a more popular presentation of the material.  You have the ability to reach a more diverse public. 

Well, another reason I started this show is that it gives me an excuse to investigate interesting subjects. It’s enjoyable –and it gives me control over the product.  I might still do an article related to the subject, but I don’t have to – I already have a deliverable.


A.N.N.:  I want to talk about your book, Animal Investigators, which is about the forensics lab operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service out of Ashland, Oregon.  This is the only dedicated wildlife crime lab (in the world); it is also a lab available to CITES member countries (via a Memorandum of Understanding). 

This book is a really compelling account of how the lab works with the wildlife offices to determine cause of death of the various animals –whether they were natural or illegal – for the purpose of finding and prosecuting the traffickers. 

Yes, this is the only dedicated wildlife crime lab in the world.  There are other wildlife forensics labs but they are attached to a human forensic lab or another entity.  This is the only dedicated wildlife lab.


A.N.N.: What is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service all about?  How does it operate?  What is it’s role?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is part of the US Department of Interior.  Its Office of Law Enforcement is the place that focuses on investigating wildlife crimes and enforcing our wildlife protection laws, like the Lacey Act and Endangered Species Act.   The agents are very dedicated.  I do think they are hampered by a lack of funding and a lack of staff.  You compare the numbers of the DEA or the FBI to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Law Enforcement and you’re talking 5000 DEA agents and 200 U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and of those 200 maybe 50 are in management and aren’t working in the field anymore.  There aren’t a whole lot of agents to police the country. 

(The wildlife forensics lab) is vitally important because the laws are such that even if you have a dead wildlife product, it may or may not be illegal –it depends on what species it is.  If the product is protected, then a crime has been committed.  But if not, then it’s not illegal, even if the victim (the animal) has been turned into a purse.

On the one hand they trying to do more with less, and collaborate more, but there has also been a shift within U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service where the older guard – and this is true of all federal law enforcement agents – they are forced to retire at 57 – so there are people retiring and not being replaced because of budget constraints.   A new class just completed training in December will bring the number up to 200, but that’s a lot of “newbies” – and working wildlife cases is very dangerous because they have to be prepared to face people with guns out in remote areas, without backup.     So when you start thinking about it, you have to pick and choose the cases you work on.  They are doing a lot, but there is also a limit. 


Bear bile products


The other area that’s doing great work and often gets discounted, is the training done by regional law enforcement networks like the South Asian Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN-WEN), and the work they are doing about wildlife trafficking when the wildlife is crossing borders.   (In the same vein,) I did an interview with Suwanna Gauntlett, (CEO) of Wildlife Alliance ,  and was talking with her about the difference she is making. When wildlife crosses borders, you can lose them.  But with these networks, you can pass the tracking on to the next guys. 

We’re also seeing INTERPOL making huge busts on wildlife traffickers – INTERPOL doesn’t run the operation, they coordinate different law enforcement agencies.   One of their huge busts (called Operation TRAM) was related to trafficking traditional medicines with illegal wildlife products.  They seized $13 million worth of medicines with illegal ingredients like tiger, bear and rhino and the operation involved 18 countries across 5 continents.  INTERPOL was involved in another huge bust related to tigers – this job involved six tiger range states and twenty-five individual arrests.  So we’re starting to see a shift – trying to make more with what we’ve got. 


 Ivory carvings from walrus tusks


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a model for the rest of the world – and they are amazing.  They’re working really important cases – they’re not catching everything but are doing what they can with what they have.


A.N.N.: One thing I learned from your book is that forensics is an exquisitely painstaking science.  It involves taking the parts, analyzing them, then, waiting for the results, which takes a lot of time.  There is a protocol: You need to understand the solutions that are used, make sure everything is analyzed in exactly the right way so that the results aren’t invalidated.  It seems like one lab could barely scratch the surface.  What do we need to do to get additional labs?

People don’t realize that wildlife trafficking is even an issue.  It’s one of the reasons I wrote my book – before I stumbled upon the use of forensics to stop wildlife crimes issue by talking to a ranger in Kenya who had trained at the lab, most people, including me, didn’t even realize that wildlife trafficking was so prevalent.

It is vitally important because the laws are such that even if you have a dead wildlife product, it may or may not be illegal –it depends on what species it is.  If the product is protected, then a crime has been committed.  But if not, then it’s not illegal, even if the victim (the animal) has been turned into a purse.

A.N.N.: You have a fascinating examination of the forensics –on what it takes to get to the point where the lab can do the analysis – in this book you talk about the walruses, ruby macaws, and black bears, captured and tortured, essentially for their bile: the chapter on bear bile particularly moved me – as the cruelty involved in obtaining this bile boggles the imagination.

You described that in your book, with the bear bile, when the samples turned out to be pig instead of bear, and the trafficker got off “scott free”.

That’s not to say that he wasn’t actually trafficking bear bile – and that’s the rub — the science itself is neutral.  If it’s not neutral then you question the results, because there are questions of bias. 

This is why a dedicated wildlife crime lab is so important in my mind – because you are able to develop the scientific protocol and do the research necessary to find identifying characteristics of a product and a species, and the complicating factor is that there sometimes is no identifying characteristic.  So you couldn’t tell a chest feather of an eagle from that of a turkey.  But oftentimes there is an identifying characteristic – and the methodology for finding that identifying characteristic varies.  It can be chemistry, morphology, or genetic.


Measuring seized bear claws in the lab


Using the example of bear gall bladders, they can be fresh frozen, dried, crystallized, or they can be used as an ointment – so you need a characteristic that that says its bear in all of those forms to be scientifically valid.  For bear bile, the identifying characteristic is unique levels of three bile acids.  It’s important to realize that the identifying characteristic may vary depending on the part and the species.  It is extremely complicated, it takes time and innovative thinking.  

Once the scientists have developed the protocol and it’s been scientifically accepted then anyone can run the analysis.  In other words, once a diagnostic characteristic is proven and a methodology for finding it is established, it can be used by other forensic labs.

It seems to me that the public has to be engaged on two different levels:  first,  they have to understand from a moral perspective that it is a terrible thing to cause such pain and injury to an animal – and second, the viewers/listeners should be empowered, to feel that they can do something. 


A.N.N.: Tell me about your gig with Jeff Corwin Connect.  He is an icon in the field, his name is identified with Animal Planet and wildlife adventures.

 I’ve always admired Jeff Corwin – professionally, in my mind, he’s stood apart.   I’ve been impressed because he takes complex issues and makes them funny, yet he still provides a ton of information.  He has a very enjoyable way that I have felt is not exploitive.   He’s a wildlife biologist – he has a Masters degree, he has tons of field experience, has a great way of making the information accessible and entertaining to everybody.  The issue is so serious, so tragic, it’s easy to throw up your hands and feel you can’t do anything. 

The skill that Jeff Corwin has is to provide the facts and to make the issues accessible, popular, sexy.  


A.N.N.: Is there a way to make this information on trafficking plain and simple for the public, so they can clearly understand the consequences of purchasing these items – so that every time they buy something with rhino horn in it, or bear bile –that they understand that each purchase means first, the torture and horrific death of an innocent animal – and second, an irreversible impact on the ecosystem.

L.N.: In terms of reaching the public, there are a couple of issues that are important:  it seems to me that the public has to be engaged on two different levels:  first, they have to understand the impact of their actions, from pain and injury to an animal to the effect on the ecosystem.  Second,  the viewers/listeners should be empowered, to feel that they can do something. 

The issue is about saving the species and being a part of saving the environment, and preserving the ecosystem, and not about laying all this guilt on the listeners.


A.N.N.: We are all stewards of this plant, we need to pass this information to our children and grandchildren, so that our planet can stay healthy – if one species goes, it throws the entire ecosystem off kilter – you were talking about this as well, in your book, about the Macaws.  And I think that people don’t normally think about this, that everything has an effect, we are all connected to the wildlife, to the environment.

In this context, we are all responsible.  Celebrities, in particular, have a responsibility – when you see (reality TV stars like) the Kardashians, for example, filmed getting out of a car wearing fur, or (American idol contestant Adam) Lambert wearing python boots – there is a great opportunity to educate people..Image becomes very important.


A.N.N.: What about the poaching cartels?  Is there anything the public can do about them?

When I started writing this book:  I’m often asked when I give presentations, “what surprised you most.” 

I think the thing that surprises me most is how pervasive (wildlife trafficking) it is–what’s interesting is that I, who am fairly knowledgeable about it, was still shocked to learn how pervasive it is.   I had this image – do you remember in 1989 when the international ban of commercial trade of ivory was announced – Richard Leakey (famed anthropologist and former Director of the Kenyan Wildlife Service) had been the person behind all this – burning this pile of ivory.  To me that was an amazing symbol –He burned this pile of ivory –he was burning away millions of dollars because he believed that that was the right thing to do to save the species.  

In fact, (with respect to elephant poaching) there are a lot of one-off cases, but you have this image that it’s over – that elephants are coming back – but the reality is that it’s not the case – there is a HUGE volume of ivory being trafficked.




Ivory carvings made from walrus tusks


Same with the rhinos and rhino horn.  I was at a dinner one night with some Princeton alums, giving the presentation, and there was this guy from Kenya –talking about how rhinos had been at the brink of extinction, and had made a huge recovery.   But in past three to five years they are again on the brink of extinction because of poaching.  In 2010 in South Africa, over 300 rhinos were killed for their horn.  Yet, despite the rumors, there has never been any scientific proof that rhino horn has any medicinal value whatsoever.

This is tragic – and more and more you find the poaching and sale of ivory, rhino horn, tiger bone and more, is being directed by organized syndicates.   There is a lot of evidence for (syndicated) wildlife trafficking although it is mostly anecdotal.  John Sellar from CITES has written several interesting papers related to anecdotal evidence– and Bill Clark (former head of Interpol’s Wildlife Crime Working Group) has too.  

Then, Sam Wasser, from University of Washington has been able to prove through DNA forensics that ivory shipments are linked, that families of elephants (in a geographic region) have been attacked.  

What this tells us is that the driver for poaching used to be poverty – and now (we know) the driver is wealth.   He (Wasser) was able to genetically match the samples in the trafficked ivory in Singapore with related animals living in a herd in a small geographic region.  Given where the transport had gone, one can prove that a syndicate was equipping poachers to kill a herd.   They proved it in two cases of seized ivory that it analyzed.  So (this evidence) is turning on its head, the notion that we’re dealing with a one-off type of hunter.  Now they (the syndicates) are equipping poachers. 

It’s the same with rhinos. – there is a lot of proof in South Africa that syndicates are equipping poachers –they are going in w/high powered rifles, helicopters and infrared binoculars.  The case of one syndicate of traffickers who were arrested in September was supposed to go to trial in South Africa on April 11, 2011 (but it’s now postponed to September).

On a personal level, one of my missions is to educate people – to try to reduce demand (for animal parts) by helping them to know that poaching exists.  So many people don’t know this problem exists and just the knowledge that it exists will build support for wildlife law enforcement and stronger penalties.   More prosecutors will take the cases because they feel it is more important, and if they understand the impact on the ecosystem.


A.N.N.: A lot of these cartels originate In Asia, and in southeast Asia, and their use of ivory is deeply embedded in their cultural beliefs.  How do you begin to change the beliefs of a culture? 

On the one hand, yes, it is part of the culture.  The animal parts, the bear bile, the shark fins, the rhino horns and tiger parts are used in Chinese medicines and is a part of the cultural identity.  Yet culture is not static.

In many cases, these products have never been proven to have medicinal properties.  On the other hand, bear bile does have medicinal properties, but you can also get it in synthesized versions.   And there are herbal alternatives.  Plus, many traditional medicine practitioners in China and elsewhere are against using bear bile because the cruelty (of extracting the bile) takes your breath away.  Harmony with nature is part of the Chinese and Asian cultures – so this conforms to cultural beliefs, too. 

In China, you have both traditional medicine and manufactured/processed medicine.  It isn’t so black and white, and not everyone in China wants traditional medicine using endangered wildlife.  There are a huge number of traditional medical doctors who are supporting alternatives.


There are many hopeful signs of a cultural shift.   We’re seeing that public pressure can have an impact. 

For example – there is a big bear bile company, the largest bear bile company in southern China –I did a blog on it –it is interesting because this company wanted to list on the local stock exchange to raise money to expand its business.  That meant increasing their “stock” from 470 bears to 1200 bears.  But what I found so interesting was that once it made the listing, there was a huge backlash on the internet with lots of tweeting, and other social communication, and the angry reaction was coming from the Chinese public.  Jill Robinson (President of Animals Asia) is one of my personal heroes.  She has helped to create a movement in China.  She said that China is waking up to this cruelty.  It is really encouraging.  

That’s one inkling that change is happening in China. 

There is another example of backlash: 

Citibank had a shark fin soup promotion in Hong Kong – the Hong Kong division of Citibank was offering credit card holders 15% off a shark fin dinner .  There was a highly visible Facebook campaign that was trying to stop the shark fin promotion – but it was the Chinese consumers themselves who were pushing it.  In the end, Citibank withdrew the promotion. 

Public pressure does have an impact.  We are beginning to see pressure from within China – the Chinese consumers are saying this promotion will negatively impact Citibank.

Attitudes do change –even it is something traditional, attitudes can change.

Here’s how the public can be a part of the campaign to stop wildlife poaching.


Laurel Neme website


Jeff Corwin Connect


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Poaching on the rise at key national park

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011



Tuesday, 11 January 2011 

By Zephania Ubwani

The Citizen Bureau Chief

Poaching is among major problems facing Katavi National Park located south west of Tanzania. Elephants are the favourite animals targeted for their trophies as their tusks have a growing market in the Far East, said the acting chief park warden, Mr David Kadomo.

Refugees from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and other countries have been blamed for wanton killing of the animals which, he said, has become worse in recent times. He revealed this in a report presented to a team of journalists from various media houses who visited the game sanctuary recently.

Said he: “The killing of wild animals for their trophies is now carried out for commercial interests, with elephant tusks being smuggled through neighbouring countries.”

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Tuesday, November 30th, 2010



The Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, Africa, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a natural wonder of the world.  The Serengeti is now in grave danger.  The Tanzanian government has approved a highly controversial measure to build a highway that cuts through the migration corridor for millions of wildebeest and zebra.  This highway will likely mean the ultimate destruction of the migration, the wildlife, the villages that depend on the tourist trade, and a delicate ecosystem that keeps our planet in balance.


See a clip of the migration in the video below, and an interview with African Wildlife Foundation CEO Patrick Bergin, Ph.D., in which he explains why and how the proposed highway can be rerouted.




See Save the Serengeti for information on how you can help!


The proposed highway could destroy a major carbon sink — The Ecologist


Alternate Route Presentation by the Frankfurt Zoological Society


Jane Goodall response to Save The Serengeti Highway 


New York Times article


African Wildlife Foundation official position 

on the proposed Serengeti Highway





Map showing proposed northern route (red)

and the alternate southern route (green)

PLEASE WRITE to your Tanzanian Ambassador now!

  Find sample letter and addresses here.

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DNA Detectives Track Elephant Poachers

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010



February 26,  2007


Ivory poaching is surging out of control in Africa, a new study says. But scientists say they've found a way to use DNA "fingerprints" to track down the poachers.

The study, which currently appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says well-armed gangs of poachers have been killing elephants by the thousands. Black-market sales of elephant tusks were relatively rare five years ago but are now at an all-time high.

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Monday, August 23rd, 2010






“The rest of the world is strip mining Africa of its wildlife.  Millions of animals are killed

or trafficked every year for the ivory and pet trade, for skins, for bush meat.”


Ken Bernhard and friends.


Elephant Poaching: We’ve all seen the horrific photos and heard the heart rending stories.  For most of us, it is difficult to fathom the depth of cruelty in which humans engage against helpless animals, particularly against those that are intelligent, gentle, and  human-like in their emotions and interactions.  When presented with the terrible evidence, we tend to feel overwhelmed with helplessness, sadness and anger.  This is certainly the case with the slaughter of the elephants. 


Tragically, animal trafficking and the poaching trade is a multi-billion dollar business, a cartel, not unlike drug dealing and gun running.   But unlike those criminal activities, it inflicts immediate torture, pain and death on innocent creatures whose sole, very important role for us is just being. They are part of the world’s biology that sustains our planet.


This is the fascinating story of Connecticut attorney and businessman, Ken Bernhard, a long time activist with animal protection organizations, a man who decided he could make a difference.   Outraged at the illegal elephant slaughters in Kenya, he chose to volunteer for duty on the front lines of the offense.


In the last forty years, Bernhard has built an enviable career as an attorney and community leader.  His resume hints at his sense of adventure. 


Educated at Yale and NYU Law School, his work has covered the spectrum of business and law, state and local politics.  His legal expertise is expansive and diverse. :  He is admitted to practice law in the courts of both Connecticut and New York and before the court of U.S. Military appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court;; He has taught  American  Constitutional law at the United States Military Academy at West Point, and at law universities  in Bulgaria, Poland, Latvia, Russia and Mongolia.  He serves on the boards of numerous not-for-profits and for eight years was in the Connecticut General Assembly. Now, at 66, he could easily choose to settle into his successful law practice as a principal in the Bridgeport firm of Cohn and Wolf, PC, content to entertain friends with stories of his world travels. 


But for Bernhard, all that came before was just Act 1.


His real passion is being an advocate for animals, and on the subject of cruelty and abuse, he is an unwavering critic.  “Whether we’re talking about puppy mills in the US or the assault on wildlife in Kenya, we, humans, have a moral obligation not to engage in unnecessary cruelty and killing”, he says.  “Shamefully, the international animal trade is the third most profitable illegal business in the world, after drugs and guns.  Animal trafficking may now have surpassed guns, to become #2”.


 “African wildlife is a world heritage, a biological treasure.” he says.  “The rest of the world is strip mining Africa of its wildlife.  Millions of animals are illegally killed or trafficked every year for the ivory and pet trade, for skins, for bush meat.”


At the watering hole


So what did Bernhard do about it?  He spent eleven days in Kenya as part of a sting operation coordinated by the Kenyan Wildlife Service to catch the secondary sellers of poached ivory.



For the last two decades, Kenya has stood out in its enforcement of strong anti-poaching laws. It has declared all ivory sales to be illegal.



Orphaned calf self feeding with a bottle.


However, illegal elephant poaching in Kenya remains a problem for a number of reasons. 


First, there were loopholes in the 1989 international poaching ban voted by the world’s largest conservation organization, CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) that opened large windows of opportunity for poachers to ply their ugly business.

Secondly, in 2007, restrictions were lifted in the international ban, which had prohibited ivory sales to China and Japan. (1)  This opened the floodgates for poachers seeking to sell ivory to the Asian market.  The problem is particularly acute in Kenya, which is situated next to the Somali border where bandits can regularly , and easily cross to slaughter elephants for their ivory.


And lastly, ivory poaching and tourism seem to have an inverse relationship.  The African economies are highly dependent on the tourist trade. When tourism declines, for any reason, the incidence of poaching rises as locals find they need an alternative income source. 

“A number of years ago”, says Bernhard, “a Connecticut tourist was killed by bandits in Kenya and that unfortunate incident had a huge adverse impact on the tourist business. Both the local people and the animals suffered.  The wildlife attracts the tourists whose dollars and euros fuel the local economy and the animal protection efforts.  Without abundant and diverse wildlife, the tourist industry suffers and the downward, economic spiral continues.   African countries need the dollars and euros in order to trade with the rest of the world.” 



Target practice for the real thing.


Throughout it all, however, Kenya has remained steady and strong in its efforts to protect its elephant populations and continues to enforce its ivory  ban to the fullest extent.


“Among the African nations, Kenya stands out with respect to its understanding of how important it is to protect animal populations from the kind of exploitation that occurs elsewhere.  There are no legal hunts in Kenya – there are no safari hunts, there are no canned hunts.” 


Through his work with International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Bernhard met Bill Clark, a legendary wildlife conservationist and current Chief of the Interpol Animal Crimes Group, who connected him with the Kenyan Wildlife Service. “In January of this year, Bill Clark invited me to Kenya to work with the Wildlife Service in doing some  undercover work and to join him on anti-poaching air patrols. He didn’t have to ask twice”, Ken said.



Kenyan ivory dealers won’t sell to the local population or to anyone whom they suspect could turn them in to the authorities. If arrested and convicted, they face up to two years of prison time..  Most of these dealers have the storefronts in towns that are patronized by both locals and tourists. 


The KWS informants had found numerous suspected ivory dealers, and needed someone to pose as an American tourist looking to purchase ivory. 


“Bill and I wore wires when we went into these storefronts.  There was a lot of suspicion when we approached the dealers.  They asked a lot of questions.  We were offered mahogany or soap stone pieces instead of ivory – but we told them we were not interested and wanted something more “African”.  Most said they didn’t trade in ivory but every once in awhile, we gained their confidence, and they produced ivory pieces..  The plan was that KWS personnel would sweep in when they heard the dealer offer us the ivory and we confirmed that we were looking at the pieces.” 



Bernhard explains that things didn’t always go smoothly.   On one occasion he had made the contact with a local dealer named Jack and they were all set up and ready to go, when the military suddenly flooded the town.   Apparently, there had been a death in the royal family, and the military motorcades were everywhere.  “The KWS didn’t want to go into town with guns – we had to stand down for 3 hours while the President attended the funeral.  By time they got back to Jack to make the arrest, the locals were gone.  Jack had spent the night carving out an ivory elephant.  But he looked out of his shop window, saw the strangers and became suspicious.  He ran out the back door, and abandoned his shop.  He was picked up later.”  



The inevitable question:  What about danger.  In this James Bondian scenario, was Bernhard ever afraid for his life?  His response is modest and understated:


“I never had a sense that the dealers were armed or dangerous, he says.   This was the secondary market, the small dealers who bought from the poachers to supply their art and souvenir business for the tourists.   One woman with whom we had multiple conversations was a grandmother!  Our job was to gain their confidence – convince them that we were serious buyers of ivory.  I was always protected by the KWS team who were well armed should any disturbance occur.


The real risk, he continues, is in the field – the rangers are the ones in real danger.  They get killed in the field.  And the air patrol pilots – they fly at low altitudes over savannahs and forests to locate the poachers in action –they are shot at regularly.  They are the true heroes who work for little pay and put themselves in great danger in order to protect animal populations.” 

Flying low over the Kenyan savannah on the lookout for poachers.



There are several ways, says Bernhard, to reduce the problem. 



First, the public in developed nations needs to appreciate how their buying habits adversely affect what is happening in Africa..  The consumers in developed countries, not African ones, are creating and driving the poaching business. For the most part, it is not local populations that are buying the finished goods or purchasing the skins and artifacts of wildlife trafficking and poaching.  The buyers are in Asia, Europe and the United States. They buy the ivory trinkets, the exotic pets, the animal skins, the animal trophies and the medicinals concocted from the bones of big cats..  If there were no market, the poaching business would dry up.  Governments need to educate the consumers and they, in turn, need to understand that the wildlife population is finite, and, at the present rate of slaughter, it will disappear within a generation or two. 



Because of competing human priorities, the wildlife agencies throughout Africa are under funded and thereby poorly equipped.  For example, it might sound ridiculous, but in one instance in Chad, the poachers got away on bicycles.  Efforts to protect African wildlife  require the assistance of developed countries if there is going to be any hope of preserving these animal populations for future generations.  Until recently, in Senegal, the poachers had AK-47s and were challenged with rangers armed with only World War I rifles. Many rangers go out into the field with shower flip flops for shoes and discarded oil cans for water containers.  Operating air patrols is the best and most effective way of protecting wildlife, but it is expensive and funds are always in short supply for training, fuel and repairs.  African countries don’t have the financial resources to provide the equipment to effectively withstand the assault of bandits who are devastating their wildlife.   It’s impossible to fight this battle without international support. 



Finishing up air patrol duty




Lastly, there is a need to intercept the local businessmen who deal in illegal bush meat and ivory sales. The ivory dealers are ferreted out by undercover sales like the ones done by Ken Bernhard and Bill Clark .  The bush meat venders are mostly storefront managers that buy from the poachers who bring millions of tons (not an exaggeration)  bush meat into the market every year.    While bush meat dealers operate in the open, they are difficult to track because once an animal is killed, it is difficult for the purchaser to know what kind of meat he is buying.   One important tool for intercepting bush meat sales would be to have a DNA testing facility.


“When the local customers patronize a butcher shop, for example, they have no way of knowing for certain that the meat they buy isn’t giraffe or lion or gazelle.  The only way the buyer will know for sure is if the butchers are “DNA clean”, that is, if their product has passed a DNA test that would be required by the government in order to do business.  To convict a meat supplier or butcher of trading in illegal bush meat, law enforcement needs to be able to prove the source of the meat. Only DNA testing can do this.”


There isn’t such a DNA test available now in African communities.   Bill Clark has developed the technology for use in Kenya, where he wants to establish the first such laboratory.  A DNA lab would cost approximately $80,000, which if put in place, would represent a milestone in deterring criminal poachers from plying their trade.”


Dr. Bill Clark, for anyone unfamiliar with his reputation, is not just a random contact interested in animal protection.   He is an American citizen living in Israel who is dedicated to protecting wildlife around the world.  He is the CITES Coordinator for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, Department of Law Enforcement, and, through the years, has worked exhaustively with Interpol’s operations targeting illegal ivory markets in Africa.  His efforts have resulted in hundreds of arrests of ivory dealers, and seizures of thousands of ivory carvings, illegal weapons and ammunition.  He’s had military training in Senegal and Liberia and among many other things, has worked to develop the air patrol anti-poaching units, teaching the pilots how to avoid ambushes and sniper fire.  He is currently the Chief of the Interpol Wildlife Crimes Group.  


Bernhard and Clark are raising money to build the first DNA forensic lab in Kenya.



Finally, says Bernhard, the tragedy of elephant poaching isn’t just about the animals, which suffer a horrific and unnecessary death.  In the end, the poaching industry alters the balance of the entire ecosystem which has an impact on the country, the continent and ultimately, the rest of the world.  For example, the elephants spread undigested seeds through their dung, which helps to cultivate the flora in the savannah.   When the elephant populations decline, the landscape will fundamentally change.  This change will affect all the wildlife, from the ability of the predators to camouflage and hunt, to the ability of the herbivores to find food resources.  These changes will in turn have serious implications for impact on human populations.  



So what’s next for Bernhard?  “I will continue to do whatever I can to help people understand that the opportunity to save these wild African creatures is disappearing quickly and the responsibility to do so is a world wide responsibility. I love being in the field, but I am available for education and funding opportunities anywhere and anytime.”





Contributions for the DNA forensics lab can be made to the The Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation (Lindbergh Foundation), with designations to the Aviation Green Investment Program – DNA Forensics Lab.


For a copy of the Kenyan Wildlife Services proposal, email


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For additional information, contact: 

Shelley L. Nehl, Managing Director/Grants Program Administrator
phone: 763-576-1596 



[1] For a full discussion of the elephant poaching trade and of the regulated and unregulated markets, see   



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