The Tide Is Turning

June 26th, 2015

Sad news earlier this week concerning the last wild-caught Orca at Marineland Antibes, France, as my friend and colleague Samantha Goddard reports in this guest blog:

It has been very sad to hear the news that Freya, one of the six orca at Marineland Antibes in France, had died. Freya may not have been the first orca to have died in captivity but, being the only one to have died so far this year, it has caused me to think about not just the death of a captive animal but also the death of a captive life.

Freya was a wild-caught orca, captured from Icelandic waters in 1982 when she was just a year old. On Saturday the 20th June she died at the age of 32yrs having spent the rest of her life in a tank. In order to get an idea of what Freya may have endured during her captive life I asked one of her former trainers, John Hargrove, author of Beneath the Surface, how he felt about the news. He told me he sensed a feeling of relief that her suffering was over.

Freya gave birth to her son, Valentin, in 1996 after every one of her newborns had died. She was then locked in a tiny back pool with her son for two years after she allegedly became disruptive during shows. Freya was once badly burnt by a malfunctioning chlorine treatment system which meant all the orca could not even open their eyes and, John says,  shed ‘sheets’ of their skin.

John says these are just a couple of the countless experiences endured by Freya which is why I think he summarises the captive life of an orca so well – ‘ Regardless of whether these animals are loved by their trainers, they lead depressing lives of confinement. Freya will no longer have to suffer such exploitation. She is now free from those who took her freedom from her.’”

There are no captive orca or dolphins in the UK and the tide is slowly turning all around the world – the result of long-term campaigning by Born Free and many other dedicated groups and individuals, and, without doubt, the power of the Blackfish effect. Freya is no longer here to bear earthly witness to the end of this form of wild animal exploitation but, without doubt, it is coming.

Blogging off,


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Nowhere to hide

June 23rd, 2015

A new report, published by Professor Sam Wasser from the University of Washington in the USA, reveals that most of the ivory being smuggled out of Africa comes from just two areas! The findings are published in the Journal of Science and are the result of  Sam’s tenacious efforts to examine samples from seized ivory shipments and subject them to DNA analysis.

Originally, Sam (a long-term friend of Born Free) used elephant skin, teeth and hair samples but then he developed a method for extracting the DNA from ivory.  Using ivory pieces about the size of a 50 pence coin, taken from the base of the tusk, his University of Washington group has now analysed ivory from 28 large ivory seizures, each seizure being more than 500 kg (and all made between 1996 and 2014).  This represents 61% of seizures made worldwide between 2012 and 2014.

The results confirm that 27 of the 28 seizures were concentrated in just four areas and since 2006, most ivory came from just two locations.

A staggering 85% of forest elephant ivory came from the African Tridom Protected Eco-system spanning north-eastern Gabon, north-western Republic of Congo and south-eastern Cameroon together with south-western Central African Republic. More than 85% of the savannah ivory seized between 2006 and 2014 was traced to East Africa, namely the Selous Game Reserve in south-eastern Tanzania and Niassa Reserve in adjacent northern Mozambique.

In 2011, as poaching pressure intensified, the slaughter shifted from the Selous Reserve to Ruaha National Park and Rungwa Game Reserve in the centre of Tanzania, indicating the adaptability of poaching operations.

Born Free has assisted Sam in his work in the past and also facilitated, with our colleagues at Kenya Airways and Kenya Wildlife Service, the shipment of samples for DNA testing.

When you are losing a tenth of the population a year, you have to do something urgent and nail down where the major killing is happening and stop it at source” Sam said.

Sam’s right.  The work that he and his team have undertaken for so long, now points the finger exactly where anti-poaching efforts should be focussed.  Together with other measures, including demand elimination, the closing of domestic markets and disruption of supply lines, I still believe that it is a battle we can win.

Blogging off.


Will Travers | 1 Comment »

Ivory Crush in Times Square

June 22nd, 2015

Guest Blog from Adam Roberts CEO Born Free USA

I grew up in New York City and can attest to its vibrant and exciting atmosphere. But, never in my wildest dreams as a kid did I imagine being present while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service poured a ton of confiscated elephant ivory into a rock crusher in the middle of Times Square in its second significant public demonstration against the international ivory trade.

Today’s crush follows not long after the recent one in Denver, Colorado, where some 6.5 tons were pulverized in the same manner. Any destruction of seized wildlife contraband—whether here, or in Africa, or Asia, or Europe—should serve as a powerful reminder that only elephants should wear ivory and that there’s no room in the world for commercialization of these wildlife products.

In some respects, today’s crush was awesome. It was awe-inspiring to see so many people come together for this single message of wildlife conservation. But, I was also awestruck at each piece of ivory loaded on the conveyor belt for its final demise. Each of those pieces represented a strong bull elephant roaming alone in the savannah of Africa. It represented mothers, grandmothers, daughters, granddaughters, aunts, and cousins, all living together in their matriarchal society for decade after decade. Each of those pieces represented the loss of one of those animal’s lives, unceremoniously, and for little more than commercial greed: the desire for an ivory bracelet, a piano key, or chopsticks.

While international trade in elephant ivory is undoubtedly despicable and Born Free is supportive of every attempt to raise awareness of these precious animals’ plight, we must remain equally aware of the other wild animals slaughtered where they live to supply this nefarious trade.

Black and white rhinos across Africa number fewer than 25,000. They are killed for their horns, used in folk remedies and false cures in countries like Vietnam.

Lions numbering perhaps 30,000 are slaughtered as trophies for their bones or their skins.

Tigers—fewer than 4,000 left in all of Asia—continue to be slaughtered in the wild in India, poached for their bones, teeth, skins, and internal organs, while wealthy businessmen in China continue to breed these majestic animals in the hopes of the international market for tiger parts opening again.

Today’s message is a sound one: no commercial trade in ivory; destroy all seized ivory and keep it out of the marketplace forever. But, the message must reverberate beyond New York City, beyond the United States, and beyond elephants. We must all come together—no matter what species we fight for or where we do the fighting—to keep wildlife in the wild.

Keep Wildlife in the Wild,


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Innocent Victims of Tbilisi

June 16th, 2015

Dear Friends,

The latest, according to Associated Press, following the devastating floods in Tbilisi, Georgia, over the weekend of the 13/14 June, reads as follows:

All of the lions and tigers that were missing after severe flooding swamped Tbilisi’s zoo have been found dead. One jaguar remained unaccounted for, but zoo staff said they have little hope that it survived.

The discovery of the last of the missing lions and tigers on Tuesday as the waters receded eased fears in the capital of Georgia, an ex-Soviet republic, that some of the big cats were still wandering the hills of the city.

The human death toll rose to 16 on Tuesday when the body of a missing woman was found in a children’s park, the police said. Seven people are still missing after an intense downpour that began late Saturday turned a stream that runs through the city into a raging torrent that destroyed houses and tore up roads. About 40 families lost their homes.

Zoo spokeswoman Mziya Sharashidze said eight lions, all seven of the zoo’s tigers and at least two of its three jaguars were killed. Only two of the zoo’s 14 bears survived, while nine of its 17 penguins died, she said.”

It seems that at least three of the people who have died were Tbilisi Zoo employees, killed while reportedly trying to save some of the animals at the Zoo where the damage has been catastrophic.

My thoughts and sincere condolences are with all the families affected but my heart also goes out to the poor, unfortunate animals – locked up for life, finding traumatic, momentary freedom but then dying or being killed in significant numbers – innocent victims, like so many of the people of Tbilisi.

Can it be right that we maintain menageries of wild animals for our so-called education and entertainment, not only inflicting on them a lifetime of captivity but exposing them to avoidable and potentially fatal risks associated with their captive incarceration?

Of course, wild animals in the wild are also faced with numerous risks and dangers. But there they take their chances, and that is no more or less than what they deserve – a chance.

Blogging off


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Our Responsibility to Chimpanzees Everywhere

June 16th, 2015

More than a decade ago I helped craft legislation in the United States Congress to establish a mechanism to provide a federal ‘retirement’ program for chimpanzees no longer needed in biomedical research. We shepherded this bill through the legislative process, it was signed into law, and now, chimpanzees languishing in American research laboratories can have a peaceful home for the remainder of their natural lives.

The path of moving legislation such as this through Congress is torturous, with many considerations to be taken and amendments to be made along the way. One of the most vital decisions we had to take was this: when is an individual chimpanzee retirement-ready? There was no way to succeed if we suggested that a third party would make the determination. We had to leave it up to the individual researcher. When the protocol is complete and the work with that animal concluded, retire the chimpanzee forever. And researchers are doing this.

But not all facilities and the people who run them have this sense of duty. I was shocked to learn recently from Born Free Foundation’s programmes manager for field conservation projects, Dr. Liz Greengrass, that the New York Blood Center (NYBC) has effectively abandoned 66 chimpanzees in Liberia, literally leaving them to starve to death.

Dr. Greengrass told me she first heard about the Marshall Island chimpanzees while working in Liberia in 2009: I visited the abandoned Vilab II facility on the outskirts of Monrovia on the old Firestone rubber plantation. The chimpanzees had by then been retired onto five islands off the mainland and I remember passing the rows of rusted cage doors, eerily empty and overgrown with vegetation through lack of use. I knew that the islands – covered primarily in mangrove forest – were unsuitable chimpanzee habitat and that the animals were completely reliant on daily provisioning for food. Upgrading the islands into a proper sanctuary had been discussed but a dispute between the New York Blood Centre (NYBC) and the government of Liberia over unpaid royalties had to be resolved first and therefore any preliminary efforts had always stalled. My own visit amounted to nothing, although I ended up with a rescued chimpanzee in my own back yard.

Many of these chimpanzees had been caught as infants from the wild – a procedure that invariably leads to the death of many other individuals, as they try to defend their young.  In the 1990s about half of the 165 individuals died in the brutal civil war – either directly at the hands of militia groups or through starvation and dehydration.

Now, for those who have survived, the New York Blood Center appears to simply be walking away.

Born Free has joined a coalition spearheaded by our friends at The Humane Society of the United States urging international pressure on the NYBC to reinstate funding and discuss a long-term solution with animal protection and chimpanzee experts. A public fundraising appeal to help care for these chimpanzees in the long-term has raised nearly $90,000 USD in just one week and an online petition has over 80,000 signatures. Of course raising funds is just part of the solution but it is a start.

While it is clear that negotiations with the government of Liberia have irrevocably broken down, we expect more from a company with hundreds of millions of dollars of assets and major corporate partners and that is why the NYBC cannot be allowed to dump a ‘problem’ such as the long-term care of chimpanzees. It is clear from the outpouring of support that the public agrees.

Dr. Greengrass added: I have been privileged to study chimpanzees in the wild and to work towards protecting their habitat. What I have concluded is that chimpanzees –adept climbers with super-human strength – are superbly adapted to their environment. The lion was never the king of the jungle; the egotistical chimpanzee – often banding together like a gang of marauding thugs – rules, but robbed of their natural world and the contrast couldn’t be more marked. In our world, they are unable to contribute to the health of the forest or to their own society. They become strangely redundant, chained by the neck to that tree. We are easily flattered by the way they emanate us, so we dress them up and make them perform and laugh at the results. And after we’ve tired of laughing and the novelty’s worn off, they evolve into a problem we whimsically wish would go away.

In this case, the problem does not simply go away – there is a human responsibility to fix it. The New York Blood Center has a responsibility to these chimpanzees and we will do all we can to hold them to account.

Keep Wildlife in the Wild,


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China’s ivory trade: The beginning of the end or the end of the beginning?

June 3rd, 2015

The announcement by the State Forestry Administration of China (29th May 2015) that  “We will strictly control ivory processing and trade until the commercial processing and sale of ivory and its products are eventually halted” has captured international attention and raised public expectations that a major policy shift may be underway.

This potentially dramatic news follows hard on the heels of latest data coming out of various parts of Africa indicating that elephant poaching continues to be prosecuted at crisis levels.  Mozambique has now declared that its elephant population has fallen by 50% (20,000 to 10,000) in the last five years.  Meanwhile, Tanzania has revealed that the Rungwa-Ruaha ecosystem has seen elephant numbers fall from 20,000 in 2013 to just over 8,000 in 2014.  Some say that Tanzania may be losing  1,000 elephants a month!  Clearly the need for China to move from a statement of intent to confirmed and enforced action on the ground has never been greater.

What would the impact be were  China to close its currently legal domestic ivory markets?  Firstly, it would remove any doubt in the minds of enforcement entities such as Customs and Border Agencies that anyone selling ivory would be selling illegal ivory.   Secondly, it would remove the opportunity for poached ivory to be laundered into the legal, parallel market.

It may well have the same impact as when the international ivory trade ban came into force in January 1990, driving down prices, increasing risk of detection, and consequently dramatically decreasing the level of poaching.  It would also mean that the world, as in 1989, would be broadly unified on the ivory issue sending a clear, unequivocal message to criminal syndicates that, in spite of wildlife crime being a high-yield/low risk operation, that the game was up.

So, whether this is the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning, it is essential that China makes the ultimate move and calls time on the ivory trade.

Blogging off


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Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime

May 29th, 2015

Dear All,

I recently returned from South Africa where I took part in a fantastic series of evening debates and presentations at the University of Cape Town under the auspices of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime, the Centre of Criminology and in association with the Wildlife Action Trust.

Far, far too much for me to try and put into a blog but, thankfully, each evening presentation and debate was filmed by the brilliant Julian Rademeyer and they are all available here.

Just to help you a bit, the first session on Monday 18th May was entitled ‘People and Wildlife; Status report’.  The second session on 19th May was entitled ‘Towards a Solution’. I am the last speaker, coming on at about 1 hour, 5 minutes into the film.   I would also draw your attention to the excellent presentation from Professor Alejandro Nadal, Professor of Economics, who simply dismembers the pseudo-economics that are currently driving the process by which South Africa may try to legalise rhino horn trade.   The third session on 20th May is entitled ‘Enforcement and Justice’ featuring John Sellar, the former CITES Law Enforcement Chief, Dr Paula Kahumbu from Wildlife Direct and a most interesting series of additional presentations.  It really is an incredibly important series of discussions.

I hope that the decision-makers in South Africa take time to listen to and watch these presentations and to understand that the course they are currently embarked upon – to legalise rhino horn trade – may well turn a disaster into a crisis and increase not decrease levels of rhino poaching.

Anyway, enough from me.  Pour yourself a lemonade, plump up the cushions and see what you think.

Blogging off,


Will Travers | 1 Comment »

Working for Change

May 28th, 2015

Dear Friends,

As the summer approaches here in the UK, many people prepare for a well-deserved break, a holiday, time to recharge the batteries and reconnect with friends and family.

My colleague, Daniel Turner, reflects on these themes in his Guest Blog which follows.

He is right – it is a struggle but we are making progress.

So over to Daniel.

Blogging off


Working for Change

Let’s face it, working for an international animal protection NGO is hard. Working long hours striving to achieve what is often regarded as an impossible task: to improve the lives of individual animals. At the Born Free Foundation one of our short and medium term objectives is to improve the conditions for wild animals housed in captivity and our focus is the millions of wild animals in zoos, circuses and the individual animals kept as private ‘pets’ – all exploited in one way or another to provide entertainment. Ultimately, we believe wild animals should not be kept in captivity, but whilst we continue to challenge the concept, much of our work focuses on the welfare of the individual animal and the laws that should be providing for their protection.

Fueling our onward momentum are the momentary successes which have recently included an end to the purchasing of wild-caught dolphins from the notorious Japanese Taiji dolphin hunt by the 1000 members of the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquaria (JAZA), a successful campaign to end the production of ‘Dolphins with the Stars’, a reality TV show exploiting dolphins in a Portuguese zoo, and the agreement by individual travel companies to stop offering holiday activities that may involve any cruel treatment of animals. Successes that make all the hard work worth it.

Our struggle to bring positive change for animals and to develop compassionate policy continues, but what is obvious is we are not alone. Millions of people support our work, thousands of people send us reports of animal cruelty and neglect seeking our support and help, and those that can, send us donations so we can continue our work. As I enter my 15th year working for the Born Free Foundation, it is clear to me that despite the hard work, there is change, life for animals in captivity is improving, better laws now exist to protect animals and increasingly more people support our belief that wild animals belong in the wild.

Thank you for believing in Born Free.


Daniel Turner

Programmes Manager, Captivity Policy.

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Can we save the rhino?

May 11th, 2015

Just when you thought it could not get any worse…

In just over a week’s time, on 18th- 20st May, I shall be in Cape Town taking part in a meeting at the University of Cape Town on wildlife trade-related issues.  How sadly prescient that the latest figures for rhino poached in South Africa were released today, Monday 11th.  They make shocking reading.

Despite all efforts, so far the number for the first four months of this year exceeds the number for the same period last year – by a massive 18%! – In the first four months of 2015, 393 rhino have been poached compared to 331 last year. Does this foretell yet another record year for rhino poaching, following on from last year’s abysmal total of 1,215 slaughtered?

It is worth remembering that in 2007, just 13 rhinos were poached in South Africa.

For some this will reinforce their assertion that legalising rhino horn trade could be the answer:  Flood the market, secure massive levels of income, create a fortress conservation model so that rhino are better protected and poachers deterred.  For others, including myself, it means that we need to take this to a far higher level politically, including  in consumer countries.  We cannot ask more African citizens to lay down their lives to protect rhino while consumer markets do not take full and effective measures to end demand. Nor should we ask rangers to put themselves in harm’s way when their own government seems willing to risk an escalation in poaching by seeking to legalise rhino horn trade, against all logical advice.

Meanwhile in Vietnam, it has just been reported that police in the north-central Province of Nghe An have seized 31 rhino horns worth millions of dollars and arrested two men.  This is further evidence that efforts to re-educate consumers have yet to make the difference we all seek. Apparently a recent survey found that 75% of those interviewed in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City believe that rhino horn has health benefits and that one-third of people surveyed think that rhino horn cures cancer.

Vietnam has begun to take measures to try and address the situation.  For example, the commercial use of rhino horn is outlawed but rumour and superstition still persist. They are driving the illegal trade and the poaching.  Apparently there are also those who see the ownership of rhino horn as a status symbol.  The only status owning rhino horn should confer on anyone is an extremely long custodial sentence and the loss of all their assets!

I do not know what next week’s conference will deliver.  I hope, at the very least, that there will be a better understanding by more South Africans that promoting the sale of rhino horn is almost certainly going to lead to the death of more rhino but we shall see.

I will let you know how it goes.

Blogging off.


Will Travers | 9 Comments »

What do Zoos do for Conservation?

May 8th, 2015

A guest Blog from Born Free Foundation and Born Free USA CEO Adam M Roberts.

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was established to conserve the world’s biological resources and is supported by 194 States who have signed a legally-binding treaty. The CBD introduced the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, made up of 20 “Aichi Biodiversity Targets” under five Strategic Goals. Aichi Target 1 is that by 2020 at the latest, “people are aware of the values of biodiversity and the steps they can take to conserve and use it sustainably”.

A recent paper published in the journal Conservation Biology claims to evaluate the contribution of zoos and aquariums in relation to Aichi Biodiversity Target 1. The study evaluated whether zoo visitors gained an increased understanding of biodiversity and knowledge of actions to help protect biodiversity during their visit, using data from 26 zoos and aquariums across 19 countries. According to the accompanying press release, “the study found that visiting a zoo or aquarium has a measurable positive impact on people’s biodiversity knowledge”.

But before we accept this conclusion, let’s look more closely at the evidence. What do visitors to a small number of zoos and aquariums have to do with whether countries can fulfil their obligations to Aichi Biodiversity Target 1?

Firstly, the authors appear to overlook the fact that at least 1 of the 19 countries included in their study – the United States – is not a signatory to the CBD and are therefore under no legal obligation to uphold the strategies or action plans.

Secondly, the study reveals that just over half the respondents (56.5%) reportedly saw or heard biodiversity information during their visit. But what about the 43.5% of zoo visitors who apparently did not see or hear biodiversity information during their visit? Let’s stop and think about that for a minute: Almost half of zoo visitors in this study did not acknowledge being exposed to biodiversity information. This makes the educational and conservation claims of zoos start to look rather shaky.

Furthermore, the study indicates that the most noticeable effect on changing biodiversity understanding was on visitors with a formal education and/or who were already a member of an environmental group. Hardly surprising that respondents with a higher level of education and those who were already interested in environmental issues are more likely to spend time looking at and digesting biodiversity information in zoos is it?

Finally, all the zoos and aquariums included in the study were members of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). While there are over 300 WAZA members worldwide, these zoos represent a tiny proportion of the many thousands of zoos that exist globally. WAZA member organisations simply cannot be considered representative of zoos and aquaria worldwide.

So, overall, much more evidence is needed before we leap to the conclusion that zoos are integral to fulfilling our commitments to increasing biodiversity awareness.

But what of captive breeding, that apparently key activity that zoos undertake in the name of conservation? Another paper published in the same journal in November 2014 looked at the captive breeding of mammals in zoos. The main aim of this paper was to assess whether coordinated breeding programmes in zoos have succeeded in increasing captive populations.

The study suggests that too much effort is expended on species that are not threatened in the wild, or are otherwise poor candidates for eventual release to the wild. These species are often larger mammals such as primates and carnivores; species which may encourage visitors to the zoo but are very expensive to maintain in captivity.

The author concludes that “there is literally not enough space in the world’s zoos right now to substantially increase the number of truly successful captive breeding programs”.

So, if the success of captive breeding programmes in zoos is likely to be limited, and zoos are not effectively making the public aware of biodiversity, it begs the question: just what ARE zoos doing for conservation? Are their claims to be contributing to conservation just smoke and mirrors? The Born Free Foundation is convinced that the time has come for the zoo industry to come clean, and to be transparent with their visitors and the wider public about just what exactly zoos do – and don’t do.

Will Travers | 1 Comment »