By John Crump
A candid interview with Humanitarian Operations Protecting Elephants' Founder and Chairman, Steve Brignoli on the smart path towards saving wild elephants.
USA – -(Ammoland.com)- Every year 20,000 to 40,000 elephants are poached. Less than a century ago there was 10 million elephants in the wild, but today there is less than 450,000 of these majestic creatures left in the wild. We are on the brink of losing them forever to the underground ivory trade.
In some eastern cultures, especially in China, ivory is used to increase things such as fertility. Of course the myth of the medical properties of ivory is false, but that doesn’t stop ivory from selling on the blackmarket. With the price of ivory as much as $1,000 per pound there is a thriving black market that is hard to stop.
Humanitarian Operations Protecting Elephants (H.O.P.E.) is an organization that is trying to reverse the trend and stop illegal poaching. I had an opportunity to sit down with Steve Brignoli, the co-founder and chairman of H.O.P.E., to talk about H.O.P.E. and their mission to save elephants.
John Crump: What is H.O.P.E.?
Steve Brignoli: Humanitarian Operations Protecting Elephants, aka H.O.P.E., is a US based, 501(c)3, non-governmental organization that provides world class training, advisory, assistance and procurement services to African counter-poaching and counter-wildlife trafficking programs. We deliver for our African partners by leveraging the skill sets of experienced conservationists, US military veterans, sustainable development experts and entrepreneurs with successful track records in emerging markets.
John Crump: What is your background?
Steve Brignoli: I grew up in a small town in the Northeast before studying at Furman University where I was part of the ROTC and played football. After graduating with a degree in fine art and graphic design I entered the US Army where I served in the 173rd Airborne, becoming XO in Iraq. I eventually joined 10th Special Forces Group with whom I deployed to Africa. After leaving the Army I founded a series of successful companies with specialties ranging from defense contracting to physical fitness.
John Crump: What made you decide to start H.O.P.E,?
Steve Brignoli: During my time in Africa with the US Army, I saw first-hand how the illegal ivory trade was helping to not only decimate wildlife but build criminal networks that are destabilizing the entire continent. I love wildlife and Africa provided me some of the peak experiences of my life. I wanted to give back to the place that had such an impact on me and so with co-founder Scott Throckorton, we launched H.O.P.E.
John Crump: What does H.O.P.E do?
Steve Brignoli: We make African counter-poaching and counter-wildlife trafficking programs more effective by providing them with both turnkey and bespoke solutions. Our philosophy is to listen to our partners first and to provide services that fit within their social, political and economic contexts. We are currently supporting private and public sector partners in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia. Our services include training anti-poaching guards in hard skills like patrolling, tracking, self defense and evidence collection to sourcing and delivering game changing equipment like 2 way radios and night vision, to raising public awareness of specific counter-poaching efforts and their impact.
John Crump: What is the biggest challenge in fighting poaching?
Steve Brignoli: The biggest threats to wildlife conservation are poverty and a lack of economic opportunity, and involvement in poaching is often an outgrowth of that. The biggest challenge we see are policies that dispossess rural African people from the wildlife resource. When people have no social or economic stake in the conservation of wildlife like elephants, and at the same time must endure the negative impacts created by that wildlife, like crop damage and even loss of life, a huge incentive to participate in poaching emerges. Until the positions of many Western NGOs, and national and international policies, catch up with this reality, and rural people are given the opportunity to profit from healthy wildlife populations instead of suffer them, poaching will remain a widespread challenge.
We have solid research from Tanzania showing that some of the elephant poaching that is occurring there is driven more by the spite of locals over command and control conservation programs that dispossess them from the land where they live than it is the illicit market for ivory.
The experience of our own partners in Zimbabwe has been an increase in elephant poaching following the loss of hunting revenue due to a US ban on trophy imports from that country.
The simple fact is, the ban and burn approach favored by many Western NGOs and their allies is not helping. Whether people like it or not, ivory is a commodity. Its status is determined by markets, not governmental policies. Ending the industrial scale elephant poaching we are now seeing in Africa depends on recognizing that these markets exist, developing the infrastructure to make them ecologically sustainable and creating opportunities for rural Africans to profit from them.
John Crump: Have you seen a difference since starting H.O.P.E?
Steve Brignoli: The biggest difference we have seen is a growth in animal rights extremism influencing conservation policy. The post-Cecil political environment has provided conditions that have made it easier for feel good approaches to conservation, like burning ivory stockpiles and banning the transportation of hunting trophies, to gain traction while more effective market based approaches, grounded in science, are pushed to the margins. If elephants, rhinos and other African big game are to thrive this needs to change.
John Crump: What should be done to combat the illegal ivory trade?
Steve Brignoli: Ultimately, the work that H.O.P.E. and our partners do only provides some breathing room, buys some time, for African nations to find the necessary economic and political solutions to the poaching crisis. There is a lot of rhetoric thrown around by some organizations and individuals that creates the perception that the poaching crisis is a challenge we can fight our way out of. In our experience that viewpoint is not based in reality and it has great potential to lead people and resources down paths that are likely to yield little in terms of wildlife conservation.
More than anything, involvement in poaching and ivory trafficking needs to be disincentivized and more incentives need to be created to conserve healthy elephant populations. Rural people must be empowered to be more invested in the outcomes of elephant conservation efforts.
A good example of how to achieve this is our strategic partner in Zimbabwe, The Communal Areas Management Program For Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE.) The majority of Zimbabwe’s people live in the rural Communal Areas that cover roughly 50% of the country, the majority of which provide exceptional wildlife habitat for elephant and other species. Under the CAMPFIRE Program, local communal governments – District Councils- are empowered to lease Communal Areas for hunting and other sustainable uses of wildlife. 80% of the income generated goes back to the rural communities who collectively decide how it will be spent. The remaining 20% is utilized to cover the administration of the CAMPFIRE Areas.
Related to this, national and multilateral bodies should openly embrace and promote the benefits that market based approaches rooted in the sustainable use of biodiversity are delivering for elephant conservation.
South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe all have thriving elephant populations. In some places, like Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, elephants are even overpopulated in relation to the available habitat, a fact creating its own set of conservation challenges.
These success stories all have sustainable use and an embrace of markets in common. While poaching has not been eliminated entirely within these countries, it has been much less of a crisis in this region than in other parts of Africa. The result has been that these countries have amassed stockpiles of ivory that, by some estimates, are worth over $9 billion and they have expressed a desire to use them as a basis for reopening a legal, international trade in ivory so the proceeds can be used to fund conservation and humanitarian endeavors. Their proposal has been dismissed out of hand by many, but it really deserves a more serious look.
Beyond that, there needs to be a comprehensive, executable, multilateral strategy that involves the private sector as full partners. The hunting industry oversees counter-poaching efforts on an area twice the size of the entire US National Park System, yet it gets shut out of many of the most critical discussions about how to arrest Africa’s poaching crisis. The photo tourism sector also has a tremendous reach into African wildlands yet, according to the UN World Tourism Organization, only about 50% of operators are contributing to counter-poaching efforts. There needs to be some capacity building and accountability there. Coming together at the table as equals sets the stage for driving increased cooperation across sectors and advancing critical policy tools like the institution of hot pursuit agreements between nations and established communication and coordination vehicles between law enforcement, the military and private counter-poaching programs.
John Crump: Most ivory goes to China. Is China doing anything to prevent the ivory trade?
Steve Brignoli: With 70% or more of all illegal ivory eventually finding its way to China, the Chinese could play a key role in arresting Africa’s poaching crisis. But China needs to step up and help harness the power of markets to promote the sustainable use of biodiversity. So far the Chinese government has been following the lead of animal rights extremists and adopting counter-productive policies like imposing a temporary ban on the importation of elephant hunting trophies. Chinese hunters are a valuable part of the hunting market in Africa so this policy is only helping to further devalue healthy elephant populations and continuing to place the entire species at risk.
Chinese affinity for ivory goes back at least 2,000 years, so we are dealing with a market that has a long standing cultural basis. Gifts of ivory – figurines, jewelry, chopsticks – are traditionally held in very high regard. In the 1970s the Chinese Government even presented a carving made from 8 elephant tusks, celebrating the opening of the Chengtu-Kunming Railway, as a gift to the United Nations. The real question is, how can this affinity work in a way that discourages crime and encourages elephant conservation?
One place where the Chinese can lead is in developing an internationally accepted certification system for ivory, like the ones in place for timber, that can help suppliers, retailers and consumers differentiate between ivory that is legally harvested under the laws of African nations and ivory that has its origins in poaching. This will not be easy, but it is also not impossible and can go a long way to helping to isolate illicit wildlife trafficking networks and taking them out of the supply chain while continuing to give healthy elephant populations economic value and in turn deliver the species an increased chance of survival.
Another area where the Chinese can be helpful is for Chinese businesses involved in the legal ivory trade to formally come together into a body that directs some of the profits from the trade back into elephant conservation programs.
There are already models for this in the West, like the hunting industry’s 2% for Conservation initiative.
John Crump: What is H.O.P.E’s stance on trophy hunting?
Steve Brignoli: From our perspective, hunting is an essential partner of photo tourism and other commercial activities in efforts to conserve Africa's wildlife. In a world with 7 billion people, most of whom are struggling just to survive, wildlife conservation requires a holistic approach. As part of that approach H.O.P.E. supports the legal, sustainable use of biodiversity as per national laws and international agreements like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Addis Ababa Principles of the Convention on Migratory Species.
We agree with bodies like CITES, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Bank and the US Fish and Wildlife Service that hunting has been shown to deliver positive benefits for wildlife conservation, including the conservation of African elephants, as well as for people.
We have witnessed these benefits first hand in places where we work. For example, in Mozambique’s Coutada 11, a regulated hunting program under Zambeze Delta Safaris has succeeded in restoring abundant herds of big game following years of civil war. Cape buffalo numbers have increased from 1200 to over 20,000 and the number of sable has grown from 44 to over 3000. The revenues from this hunting program have created 150 jobs for people in local communities, including anti-poaching guards whose presence has helped to make the area one of the only in the country to see a net increase in elephants according to the most recent national elephant census.
John Crump: Where do you see H.O.P.E going?
Steve Brignoli: We will always be working to be the world’s leading provider of diversified support services to African counter-poaching and counter-wildlife trafficking programs. To do that we will continue to monitor trends nationally, continentally and globally so that we can stay ahead of our partner needs and be ready to provide them when our assistance is requested. Over the next year we will be focusing on deepening our engagements in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia in order to enable our partners to stop the expansion of poaching and trafficking networks in those countries, while continuing to actively build key relationships elsewhere in Africa.
We’ll also be working to globally promote smarter, people-centered and market driven approaches to the poaching problem. These will ultimately be more effective than leading with the barrel of a gun or jumping on the latest technology trend for the sake of social media content. These latter approaches are often either unsustainable from an operational standpoint, or worse, alienate the rural communities who will decide whether or not elephants go extinct.
John Crump: How can people get involved?
Steve Brignoli: Our ability to deliver the support to counter-poaching and counter-wildlife trafficking efforts in Africa depends on donations from the private sector. Contributions are used to fund costs associated with sending advisors to help train teams in Africa and purchase equipment to make those teams more effective. People interested in helping can make a tax deductible gift by visiting our website at www.saveivory.org.
This holiday season, and throughout the year, people can also support H.O.P.E. by making online purchases at Bass Pro, Gander Mountain, Sierra Trading Post, Amazon and other retailers by shopping through Cause Network by visiting https://hope.causenetwork.com/. Thanks to this great program a percentage of all purchases made through this site will go to help fund our counter-poaching work.
H.O.P.E. can be found at http://www.saveivory.org
About John Crump
John is a NRA instructor and a constitutional activist. He is the former CEO of Veritas Firearms, LLC and is the co-host of The Patriot News Podcast which can be found at www.blogtalkradio.com/patriotnews. John has written extensively on the patriot movement including 3%’ers, Oath Keepers, and Militias. In addition to the Patriot movement, John has written about firearms, interviewed people of all walks of life, and The Constitution. John lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and sons and is currently working on a book on the history of the patriot movement and can be followed on Twitter at @crumpyss or at www.crumpy.com.