Friday, August 7, 2015


Right outside Memorial Stadium at the University of Nebraska's Morrill Hall is a large bronze statue of an ancient elephant, affectionately named Archie. You have certainly seen him on your way to a Huskers game. While the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha is in the process of constructing a new habitat for elephants, and the Lincoln Children's Zoo does research into high rates of infertility in captive elephants, at this moment, Archie is the only elephant I’m aware of in Nebraska. As Nebraskans, perhaps our main connection to the wild elephant is through our understanding of the importance of proper stewardship of the land and wild habitats.

With our many challenges at home and across the world, endangered elephants are not top of mind for most of us. But I want to take a moment to examine this in greater detail. The problems elephants face are connected to larger crises that range from the funding of terrorism to the destabilization of indigenous peoples. The decline of elephant populations is an indicator of not only ecological problems, but problems related to national security.

The plight of elephants is particularly pronounced in Africa, with decimation threatening entire herds. Although no one is sure exactly how many elephants remain on the continent, experts estimate that African elephants have dwindled to around 400,000, with 100,000 having been killed in just the last few years. Overall numbers across the continent have dropped by half in the last seven years.

Much of this decline results from poaching in ungoverned space, where elephants are shot for tusks that are sold on illegal ivory markets. This deadly harvest has expanded in recent years into violent terrorist activity. Militants from extremist organizations like Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram exchange ivory for weapons, aiming profit from the slaughter of elephants at the slaughter of innocent people. As terrorist networks grow and collaborate from Africa to the Middle East and extend into Western nations, the ivory trade is emerging as a silent killer that makes the entire world less safe. The largest demand for ivory comes from China.

In an effort to help check this grim and dangerous economy, I supported language in the State and Foreign Operations Fiscal Year 2016 budget to enhance wildlife preservation and anti-poaching measures. The legislation combats the transnational threat of poaching and trafficking and prevents U.S. funds from aiding foreign military units that are alleged to have participated in illegal wildlife hunting for profit. All these initiatives promote our national security interests.

The head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently contacted me to discuss their attempt to stop the trade in ivory. Items such as tusks and carved statues would be banned, but certain exceptions would be granted for minimal amounts used in musical instruments, antiques, and decorative firearms. We also discussed a holistic approach that looks at economics, livelihood, and governance. New models of conservation are emerging to help indigenous peoples manage their land, bringing stability and security to environments plagued by lawlessness.

In 1861 the King of Siam wrote to the President of the United States to offer several pairs of elephants that could be "turned loose in forests and increase till there be large herds." President Lincoln politely declined, explaining that our geography and climate were not suitable for the species. Today, elephants grace zoos across our country, and many of us have enjoyed seeing them in person. We might not have a natural elephant habitat, but our desire to preserve this majestic species—and our national security interest—give us reason to pursue the worthwhile goal of helping protect these endangered animals.

About the Author:

JEFF FORTENBERRY has served as the U.S. Representative for Nebraska's 1st congressional district since 2005. He is the Chairperson for the Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition and Forestry. Vice Chair of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights and has a seat on the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia.

He is a member of the following Caucus groups: Civil War Battlefield Caucus - Congressional Biofuels Caucus - Congressional Farmer Cooperative Caucus - House Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus - International Conservation Caucus - Sportsmen's Caucus.

Congressman Fortenberry has become the most knowledgeable representative on Capitol Hill for nuclear security issues.

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