A businessman from New Mexico has been indicted by a federal grand jury in Pensacola, Florida for the illegal sale of two African elephant tusks. Charles Kokesh is alleged to have imported a sport-hunted African elephant trophy mount from Namibia in a legal manner, but then illegally removing the tusks to sell them to a buyer in Florida.
Kokesh is charged with violations of the Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act for removing and selling the trophy’s tusks and for “making false accounts of wildlife related to that sale” to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Elephant tusks represent the most prized form of ivory in the world. Overwhelming global demand for ivory brought the world’s elephant population to near extinction between 1979 and 1989. While their numbers have rebounded to some extent since then, African elephants are by no means out of danger.
According to the Department of Justice, Kokesh’s trophy mount came from Namibia, one of 175 countries which has signed the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). CITES, established in 1973, regulates international trade in wildlife and plants for populations that need protection. In Namibia, under CITES, African elephants may still be hunted for sport and “personal” use, but may not be used for “commercial” purposes.
The United States, also a CITES member country, forbids via the Endangered Species Act the “commercial” use, including sale, of sport-hunted African elephant trophies, even if the trophies are legally hunted and imported, as Kokesh’s apparently was. African elephants are considered a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act, meaning they are likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of their range.
The sport hunting of elephants is permitted under CITES in several countries. Elephant trophies can be legally exported from Botswana, Cameroon, Gabon, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
African elephants are the world’s largest land mammal, weighing in at 6 tons apiece. They inhabit 37 countries across Africa and can live as long as 70 years in the wild. In the 1930s and 1940s, an estimated three to five million African elephants roamed that continent. Today, current numbers are significantly lower. Exact figures are difficult to calculate because of the enormous range the elephants roam and the wide variety of habitat in which they live. Poaching and habitat loss are the biggest threats to these magnificent creatures.
Populations of African elephants vary considerably within their range, which affects where they are considered a protected species. They are deemed plentiful in Southern Africa, where they number about 300,000. They are considered “vulnerable” in West Africa and Eastern Africa, and “endangered” in Central Africa.
Less than 20 percent of the African elephant’s range is currently protected, according to the World Wildlife Fund. WWF estimates that within 50 years, if additional protections are not put into place, the African elephant could be locally extinct in some parts of Africa. They are already considered regionally extinct in Burundi, Gambia and Mauritania.
Let’s return to the star of our story, however. Charles Kokesh has a lot of problems on his plate these days. The Santa Fe New Mexican reports that he is awash in unpaid debt and foreclosure problems, and was ordered to vacate his plush Santa Fe home by May 31st.
Photo Credit: Thinkstock