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article imageAfrica's elephants have a champion on their side Special

By Karen Graham     Jun 15, 2015 in Environment
In the ongoing battle to save Africa's two species of elephants, many organizations have combined forces. But Tara Easter, with the Center for Biological Diversity is at the forefront of this strategy in combating the illegal wildlife trade.
Last week, Digital Journal had the opportunity to talk with Tara Easter, a scientist in the Center for Biological Diversity's (CBD) Endangered Species Program.
Digital Journal asked Tara how she had become interested in the conservation and protection of endangered species. She told me she had started out as an intern with CBD, and then had the opportunity to go to Kenya and intern with Save The Elephants.
Tara said: " When I returned I was hired full time!" When asked what the main focus of her work with CBD involved, Tara answered: "Being a scientist in the Endangered Species Program, I monitor the recovery of ESA-listed species, write petitions for species imperiled to have them protected, and manage some of our massive species databases to put together reports on the success of the Endangered Species Act or how many species have been listed as a result of petitions, etc."
When asked what her favorite species might be, and I already had an idea what she would say, Easter promptly replied: "Actually mine is the African Savannah elephant, so I feel so lucky to have been able to work beside them in Africa and for them in the US."
Scene from an elephant documentary  BBC National Geographic 2015.
Scene from an elephant documentary, BBC National Geographic 2015.
"These animals represent everything that is wild to me, and some of those “big tuskers” (elephants which are thought to have tusks that EACH weigh over 100 pounds!), like Satao, who was tragically poached for his tusks last year, look practically prehistoric. Combining their striking appearance with their unbelievable intelligence, deeply rooted bonds among family members, and their incredible importance to the ecosystem leaves me in awe," she added.
When Digital Journal first approached Tara about the petition to raise the status of the two species of African elephants to "endangered," she explained that scientists had been hypothesizing that African elephants may comprise two species for quite awhile based on their different morphologies and ecological niches, but they lacked the genetic evidence, in part because of the fact that the only close living relative of African elephants is the Asian elephant, and the other members of the order Proboscidea were extinct.
Easter said that "Dr. Alfred Roca was one of the first to investigate this issue in 2001, and he published a series of genetic studies supporting this hypothesis. Debates on the two species classification flourished because of the detection of a potential hybrid zone, and because of how mixed the genotypes of West Africa’s elephants are, which is why IUCN concluded that questions still remained on the two species classification in 2008."
She added, "But additional studies from 2010 on comparing the DNA of the American mastodon, woolly mammoth, Asian elephant, African savanna elephant, and African forest elephant have revealed that forest and savannah elephants diverged from each other as long ago as Asian elephants diverged from mammoths, and showed that even in West Africa and the other potential hybrid zones, elephants still partitioned almost completely within their respective forest or savannah genotypes."
"Then, just a few months ago, Roca conducted a literature review of all the genetic studies, concluding that there is no question that forest and savannah elephants are two species."
Dr. Roca's studies and comparison of all the literature gives a lot of weight to the petition because CBD is not "drawing any conclusions based on a series of studies that debate the taxonomy, but instead we are highlighting new research that concludes that debate," Easter said.
Digital Journal asked Easter about the "exception" called "Director's Order 210," as reported in Digital Journal on June 11. I told Tara I was concerned because, as a government agency, the USDFW will want to keep special-interest groups happy. I asked for her thoughts on this.
Easter answered, "It’s true that Fish and Wildlife has already taken positive steps to diminish the ivory trade in the United States, but the fact of the matter is that populations have declined to a level which now warrants an endangered listing and endangered listings come with certain prohibitions meant to safeguard species."
"I think it will be a battle for sure, and if all populations were, in fact up-listed, there will certainly be some backlash, but we have to do everything we can to stop the trade in ivory which is driving the mass killing of elephants throughout Africa. Hopefully, the Service will only consider the science and implement the ESA the way it’s meant to be."
Digital Journal then asked, How will uplisting the two species of African elephants from "threatened' to "endangered' affect the "exemption" rule? And how does one go about getting the taxonomy changed to make it official that we have two distinct species of African elephants?
Tara answered: "If all elephants were uplisted to endangered, then the current ivory import/export exemptions would be eliminated, and imports/exports of any ivory product would only be considered on a case-by-case permitting basis. All Fish and Wildlife has to do to reclassify elephants as two species is to publish in their proposed and final rule that “based on the best available science,” African elephants are two species and are re-listed as so under the Endangered Species Act."
She also pointed out, "The Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS), which FWS often uses as an authoritative source for current taxonomic classifications, already lists savannah and forest elephants as two species."
Without a doubt, Africa's elephants do have people on their side in the fight to save this magnificent species from extinction, and one of those special people is Tara Easter.
More about two species, Elephants, Center for biological diversity, Endangered, Ivory
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