As part of the Collegiate Conservation Program, an annual Exxon Mobil-sponsored summer internship at the Houston Zoo, Taylor Burley, a marine biology major at Texas A&M in Galveston, educates visitors about the conservation of elephants and especially about the devastating effects of illegal ivory trade.
“At the Houston Zoo, we have the Asian elephants,” she said, “and the poaching crisis is more with African elephants because both male and females have tusks, but in the Asian elephants, only the males have tusks. So, a lot of the Asian elephants suffer from habitat loss as well as poaching and there’s only about 30,000 of them left in the wild.”
Houston is actually one of the country’s largest ports of entry for elephant ivory, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Anita Barron Frey, the zoo’s education programs manager, said ivory is brought to Houston by both traffickers and travelers who have bought pieces as souvenirs in Africa and Asia.
“This is happening here in our area, here in the Houston community, and, you know, let’s talk about it,” she said. “Ivory is not as valuable as everyone thinks it is. It’s not worth the life of an elephant.”
She said the ivory trade is lucrative for poachers because people are ready to pay good money for it. But as long as that trade continues, elephants will die senselessly.
“The animal does have to die in order to get the ivory from them,” Barron Frey said. “So that’s an entire animal and the only thing that’s getting use is those tusks, which people are using them, for the most part, ornamental and esoteric like jewelry and furniture and things like that.”
The hope is to convince as many people as possible that not only is buying ivory wrong, but the material is also not that unique. Barron Frey said there are alternatives to ivory.
“If you’re interested, if you really like the way ivory looks, look at these other alternatives that are actually plant-based that you could utilize and you can have instead of using actual ivory,” she said.
This year, the Houston Zoo is dedicating its annual wildlife conservation fundraiser to saving elephants from extinction. In addition, a portion of the zoo’s proceeds goes toward animal conservation all over the world.