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  • Richard Conniff

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    Ending Epidemics: A History of Escape from Contagion: “Ending Epidemics is an important book, deeply and lovingly researched, written with precision and elegance, a sweeping story of centuries of human battle with infectious disease. Conniff is a brilliant historian with a jeweler’s eye for detail. I think the book is a masterpiece.” Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Posts Tagged ‘ivory’

Japan Pulls Slowly Back from the Bloody Business of Elephant Slaughter

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 5, 2016

(Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

(Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

by Richard Conniff/

Though China has earned much of the blame for the massive slaughter of elephants across Africa over the past decade, Japan has been an equal partner in this continuing environmental crime—and a stubbornly determined one. When delegates to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species voted in October to close all domestic ivory markets, Japan obstinately declared that it was not subject to the decision. Japan’s minister of the environment publicly denied that his country’s extensive ivory industry, largely devoted to the production of hanko—personal stamps, or seals, used in lieu of a written signature—trafficked in poached ivory.

But developments over the past few months suggest that this resistance may be weakening. In November,, one of the larger online retailers of ivory hanko, announced it would no longer sell ivory, and specifically cited the need to end poaching in Africa as the motive. Two other hanko retailers—Toyodo and Shoeido—have also announced an end to ivory sales.

Many others, including Yahoo Japan—described as “the world’s largest online dealer of elephant ivory,” have yet to follow. But the pressure to extend the movement against ivory appears to be growing both from the international community and at home in Japan. In the past, said Masayuki Sakamoto, executive director of the Japan Tiger and Elephant Fund, neither the government nor the press was

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Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Namibia’s Hidden Poaching Crisis

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 29, 2015

From the ivory black market in Okahandja, Namibia (Photo: Shi Yi)

From the ivory black market in Okahandja, Namibia (Photo: Shi Yi)

This story is dismaying for me, as I have often written about Namibia as a model of smart conservation and anti-poaching common sense. But no place is safe in the current war on wildlife. Or, let’s call it what it is –China’s continuing war on wildlife.

Here’s the reporting by Shi Yi, a Chinese investigative journalist working in southern Africa:

Caprivi imagesIt was a quiet evening in Zambezi, until a herdsman heard a gunshot in the wilderness. By the time the police arrived, they found an elephant carcass – and the tusks had been taken.

“It could be a good trophy animal. Poachers never take small ones,” said chief control warden Morgan Saisai at the Katima Mulilo office of Namibia’s Ministry of Tourism and Environment (MET).

The carcass brought the number of elephants poached in Zambezi, [a region until recently known as “the Caprivi Strip”] in the far north-eastern region of Namibia, to 37 this year.

Namibia is known for its extremely dry climate and desert landscape, but Zambezi is an exception. With the Zambezi river and its tributaries flowing through lush wetlands, it is home to nearly 10,000 resident elephants and thousands of migratory elephants, according to MET.

Poachers take advantage of this. Since 2011, more than 230 elephants have been reported poached in Namibia, more than 90% of them killed in Zambezi.

In the southwest of the country, more than 100 black rhinos have been poached. In addition to these two iconic species, poaching of other animals such as lions and pangolins is also on the rise.

There are indications that Chinese are the buyers behind some of the cases. Despite the anti-poaching messages that can be seen at many places in Namibia, I was frequently approached by locals for ..

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »

Killing Elephants for Fun and Profit

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 26, 2014


A game guard points out where the poacher’s bullet killed this young elephant.

This is a hard photograph to look at, but it’s what ivory poachers do, and what we are complicit in when we buy ivory objects.

It’s from a poaching incident in Mozambique, where a survey is about to begin to determine how many elephants still survive there.  You need to know how many there are in order to protect them and keep stuff like this from happening.  Here’s the press release:

Great Elephant Survey To Commence in Mozambique

Hard Data Needed to Better Address Elephant Poaching Crisis

Maputo, Mozambique, Sept. 26, 2014 –The Wildlife Conservation Society is partnering with the government of Mozambique, Paul G. Allen, and USAID to conduct a national elephant survey to collect data essential to protecting Mozambique’s highly threatened and diminishing savannah elephant population.

The survey is a part of the Great Elephant Census–an effort to count savannah elephant populations across sub-Saharan Africa  in response to the current escalating wave of poaching sweeping across Africa. The census will provide an essential Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

In Mozambique, A Turning Point in the War on Elephants

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 12, 2014

Tusks seized in Niassa raid (Photo: WCS)

Tusks seized in Niassa raid (Photo: WCS)

The arrest of a deadly six-man poaching gang this past Sunday in the Niassa National Reserve, on Mozambique’s border with Tanzania, could mark a turning point in the war on elephants for two African nations critical to the survival of the species.

In a 1 a.m. raid, the result of a 10-month-long investigation, local police together with wildlife scouts from Niassa and the adjacent Lugenda Wildife Reserve surrounded the gang members as they were transporting a dozen ivory tusks.  The largest of the tusks, at 57 pounds apiece, came from an elephant believed to have been at least 40 years old.  Police also confiscated two high-powered hunting rifles.  During questioning, the shooter in the group, a skilled marksman, admitted to having killed 39 elephants in the Niassa Reserve this year alone.

That admission came in a bid to obtain repatriation to Tanzania, where four of the alleged poachers are based, according to Alastair Nelson, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Mozambique program, which co-manages the Niassa reserve with the national government.  “But that’s not going to happen this time,” he said. “These guys are in prison now and we’re pretty confident they’re going to remain there. Mozambique’s new minister of tourism himself phoned the warden and asked that these men be tried under a new law passed June 20.”

That law, for the conservation of biodiversity, criminalizes poaching of endangered species.  In the past, poachers often got off with a fine.  But the new law now mandates a prison sentence of eight to 12 years, on conviction.  That represents a major change for Mozambique, where in the run-up to elections last year, local police and politicians were rumored to be themselves participating in ivory poaching.

“We’re seeing a number of things beginning to align,” said Nelson.  “We have had

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Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

An Elephant Story That Should Resonate for Modern China

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 19, 2014


Tusks in the factory at the end of my old street in Deep River, CT

Tusks in the factory at the end of my old street in Deep River, CT

Back in 1987, when Audubon Magazine had a more ambitious and expansive view of its role in the world, a great editor there named Les Line gave me an assignment to write about a story that had turned up literally on my doorstep.  At that point, I was traveling all over the world reporting stories on wildlife.  So I was startled, one day at home, to discover that the town where I had bought my first house had once been the center of the ivory trade in the Western Hemisphere.

It turned out to be an especially interesting story for me, as I dug into it, because the nineteenth century founder of the ivory company at the end of my street had also been a leading abolitionist.  But he had somehow never noticed that his business depended entirely on the slave trade in East Africa.

The resulting story of moral complication, “When The Music In Our Parlors Brought Death to Darkest Africa,” still resonates for me personally, and apparently also for others in the context of the modern slaughter of elephants.  NPR’s “Morning Edition” nicely paraphrases that original Audubon piece (with a few minor mistakes) in today’s show.  It’s only seven minutes long and worth a listen.

If you’re interested in hearing more, here’s an interview I did a while back with NPR’s Colin McEnroe, about what China can learn about the ivory trade from small town Connecticut. It runs 10 minutes, starting at 38:00: … …  And here’s a piece I published here on the same topic.

I keep meaning to publish that original Audubon piece as an e-book, and maybe one of these days I will get around to it.  Will keep you posted, if so.


New York (August 19, 2014) – The following statement was issued by John Calvelli, WCS Executive Vice President of Public Affairs and Director of the 96 Elephants Campaign:


“Today’s landmark study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, authored by 96 Elephants partner Save the Elephants and other groups, confirms the widespread slaughter of elephants throughout Africa driven by ivory poaching.  These tragic numbers underscore

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Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Yes, Hotshot Harry Can Be A Hunter and a Conservationist, Too

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 17, 2014

Prince Harry

Britain’s Prince Harry continues to take heavy flak for being simultaneously a hunter and a conservationist, with the appearance in today’s Daily Mail of the above photograph.  It’s 10 years old, and shows “Crackshot Harry, The Buffalo Killer” in Argentina, smiling over the carcass of a water buffalo, not exactly an endangered species.

Harry has been taking a public relations hit since going out earlier this month on a boar hunt in Spain with his brother William, immediately prior to making a public pledge to fight against the illegal trade in ivory, rhino horn, tiger parts and other endangered animals.

My Irish and American family background means I am no great fan of royalty, and I should probably welcome the endlessly clumsy, tone-deaf behavior by the British Royals.  It makes a better case for republicanism than any Fenian or Federalist ever did.  (And it’s so much more entertaining.)  But that said, a legal hunt for water buffalo or boar is Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

China (!) Leads Crackdown on Wildlife Trafficking

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 11, 2014

This report comes from CNN.  To put it in perspective, the announcement is undoubtedly timed to this morning’s opening of the Wildlife Trafficking Symposium in London.  (More on that below.)  Even so, it’s gratifying to see China take the lead against an illegal wildlife trafficking epidemic it has, up to now, largely tolerated and paid for:

A wildlife operation involving dozens of countries and organizations, seized more than three tons of ivory and a bevy of rare wildlife products as well as rare wood.

Operatives found rare animals — both living and dead — during the international, month-long operation.

The China-led transnational effort, codenamed Cobra II, aimed to crack down on illegal wildlife trade. Authorities recovered over 10,000 live European eels and pig-nosed turtles, as well as over 2,000 live snakes, according to Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency.

They also seized three tons of ivory, 36 rhino horns, and over 1,000 hides and skins from tigers, leopards and snakes as well as several hundred kilograms of pangolin scales from wildlife traffickers.

The operation included 27 other countries Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Here’s Why It’s A Mistake to Discount China’s Ivory Crush

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 8, 2014

Ivory going into the crush Monday morning in Guangzhou (Photo: PLAVESKI/SIPA/REX)

Ivory going into the crusher Monday morning in Guangzhou (Photo: PLAVESKI/SIPA/REX)

Among many Western environmentalists, the response to China’s public destruction of confiscated ivory (first reported here and on TakePart this past Saturday) has ranged from skepticism to derision

Here’s Joe Walston, Asia Executive Director for the Wildlife Conservation Society on why that’s misguided:

China destroyed a portion of its massive stockpile of confiscated ivory on Monday – a first for the country.

The action has left the international conservation community struggling with its own conscience. Whether to praise a monumental shift in approach to conservation by the world’s biggest consumer of the world’s wildlife or condemn the event as posture, devoid of substance and commitment? Before judging, it’s worth examining the situation in a little more detail.

It was probably no coincidence that China crushed 6.1 tonnes when, just two months earlier, the US crushed a slightly smaller amount. In the US’s case it was almost its entire stockpile, while in China’s case it is a fraction: 17 tonnes were confiscated between 2010 and 2013 alone. Which raises the obvious question, why only the six tonnes? If China was serious about destroying stocks, then why not Read the rest of this entry »

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China’s Ivory Destruction Goes Forward

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 6, 2014

ivory to crush

Here’s the first photo of the confiscated ivory that the State Forestry Administration destroyed a few hours ago in Guanzhou, China.  It’s interesting to see the almost floral presentation of the ivory beforehand, and also to note that the amount ultimately destroyed was 6.1 tons, just a fraction more than the United States destroyed in November.

Representatives of 10 foreign nations attended, among them three of the countries hardest hit by the continuing slaughter of elephants, Kenya, Gabon, and Tanzania.

There was also a certain quality of floral presentation in the praise for China served up by those engaged in the fight against the ivory trade.

From Patrick Bergin, chief executive of the African Wildlife Foundation: “This is a courageous and critical first step by China to elevate the important issue of wildlife trafficking and elephant poaching among its citizens and around the world. The Chinese government is to be commended for taking the issue seriously.”

From Cristián Samper, president of the Wildlife Conservation Society: “We congratulate China’s government for showing the world that elephant poaching and illegal ivory consumption is unacceptable. We are hopeful that this gesture shows that we can win the war against poaching and that elephants will once again flourish.”

Now the real question is whether China will take the lead to stop the war on elephants, instead of merely following the example of other nations.  As Samper put it:  “If China were to destroy the remainder of its ivory stocks and lead the world by committing not to buying ivory in the future, it would have a transformative, positive impact on the survival of African elephants.”‘

Saving the elephants, instead of eradicating them, could become a lasting status symbol and win China the admiration of the world.  But with 35,000 elephants–almost 10 percent of the remaining wild population–being slaughtered every year, now is the time to take that next step.

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China To Destroy Illegal Ivory: New Hope for Elephants?

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 4, 2014

Tusks in Hong Kong: (Photo: Bobby Yip/Reuters)

Tusks in Hong Kong: (Photo: Bobby Yip/Reuters)

 Back in November, I predicted that the U.S. decision to destroy its six tons stash of confiscated ivory would have no real effect. 

Now it sounds like I was wrong.  China–the last place on Earth you expect to turn its back on the ivory trade–will also destroy six tons of ivory this Monday. My latest for TakePart. 

In a remarkable turnabout, Chinese authorities have announced that they will destroy six tons of confiscated elephant ivory on Monday. “The burning ceremony of illegal ivory and other wildlife products” will take place at 11 a.m. local time (10 p.m. Sunday U.S. Eastern time) in Guangzhou, where the rampant ivory trade has until now gone almost entirely unregulated.

In a cordially-worded invitation sent out Friday to foreign diplomats and non-governmental organizations, China’s State Forestry Administration described the event as being “for the purpose of raising public awareness, and demonstrating the Chinese government’s resolve to combat illegal wildlife trafficking.”

The move comes as the trade in ivory is rapidly pushing Africa’s elephants to extinction in the wild, with 35,000 elephants being killed every year for their tusks. Some estimates put the remaining population in the wild as low as 400,000. The modern ivory trade is dominated by China, which accounts for an estimated 70 percent of the market, followed by Thailand and Vietnam. “China is the epicenter of demand,” a senior State Department official recently told the publication China-US Focus. “Without the demand from China, this would all but dry up.”

For China’s rising middle class, ivory chopsticks, bookmarks, rings, combs, and other trinkets have enormous value as status symbols and gifts. This taste for ivory carvings extends to officials at the highest levels of the central government. But that may now be changing.

According to a U.S. wildlife expert close to the planning of Monday’s event, the State Forestry Commission has been a reluctant participant Read the rest of this entry »

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