Ginette Hemley

Wildlife Warrior

In a photograph she furnished to E, Ginette Hemley, vice president for species conservation at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), is casting a practiced eye on the goods for sale at an Asian market, undoubtedly on the lookout for products containing tiger bone, rhino horn or other endangered species ingredients.

From 1986 to 1994, Hemley was the director of TRAFFIC, an arm of the WWF devoted to stopping the persistent and hugely damaging worldwide trade in protected species. She was trained in field biology, but most of her time these days is spent in the wilds of Washington, where she coordinates WWF’s legislative lobbying with its on-the-ground programs. “My role here is to knit together initiatives for endangered species at the international level, so the policy side works with the field side,” she says.

Hemley, a 15-year veteran of WWF’s U.S. operations who has also worked for Defenders of Wildlife and the World Conservation Union, says that ironically, the word “wildlife” just doesn’t translate all that well in some of the more than 100 countries that WWF operates in. Fighting for endangered species has taken Hemley all over the world, where she has helped to document the heartbreaking loss of some of our bellwether plants and animals. She is a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service enforcement officer, and was one of the principal authors of WWF’s 1997 tiger report, which concluded that “tigers have disappeared or become severely depleted over large tracts of habitat across Asia.” Coming up with workable plans to reverse that trend, for tigers and many other species, is what Hemley and WWF are all about.

E Magazine: Elsewhere in this issue, we identify 10 species in deep trouble. It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that most of these animals are doomed by the policies that made them endangered in the first place, or be optimistic that we can turn the situation around. What is WWF’s position?

Hemley: People ask me all the time, ‘Don’t you get depressed in your job?’ and I have to say, especially now that I’ve been at it for quite a few years, that the progress you make allows you to retain a certain amount of optimism. I use the tiger as an example, a species that has been subjected to a crisis in conservation fairly recently.

Throughout this century, the tiger has been on a steep decline, but if you look broadly, you’ll see fluctuations in its populations that happened because of specific actions taken in this century.

One of those real dips in tiger numbers took place in the 1970s, when they were hit by a number of things at once. Habitat loss is one of the big problems, of course, and is the big backdrop issue for all of these species. But the trade threat became real back then, not so much for the traditional medicine trade, but because skins and trophies were being sought. There was at one time virtually no regulation of tiger hunting as a sport in India, and tiger skin coats were actually being sold.

But, largely because of the high-level support of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, tiger numbers that had dwindled to as few as 2,000 animals came back in 10 years—due to habitat protection and strict anti-hunting laws. Everyone thought the tiger was doing fine, but by the early 1990s, while we in the international community weren’t paying attention, tiger poaching started picking up again, because of a sudden increase in demand in tiger bone for traditional Chinese medicine.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union also resulted in a decline in support for conservation, and the Siberian tiger was hit hard by poaching pressures. We later learned that China had literally run out of tiger bone stock piles that had been accumulated in earlier decades, and was looking for new sources.

But now, several years later, despite the fact that we lost lots of tigers, the situation has stabilized, and we see the direct result of consistent and sustained international support over three or four years. So that shows me that when you are focused, when you are strategic in your response and the community comes together, you can make a difference, even for a species like the tiger, which obviously requires large habitat areas to survive and which has a high commercial value.

But it seems that you have to have eternal vigilance. You can’t assume at any one point that the tiger has been saved, because a new crisis is probably looming.

You’re absolutely right. Another lesson learned. If we want to see tigers left in the wild for future generations, we have a direct responsibility to try and secure that future, and we can’t let down our guard.

I agree it’s our responsibility, but do you think the average person feels like they have any power to affect events in Russia, India and places abroad? What is the best thing the average person can do to stop the loss of endangered species?

I have seen a growth in public awareness and sensitivity. We have tried to let people know not only when things are bad, but when they improve. Direct action, even if it seems like it’s not worthwhile, does turn out to be very significant. If you are an American citizen and you want to save endangered species, you can help by writing letters in support of specific legislation. A couple of actions that would otherwise have gone unnoticed in our Congress have paid big dividends for both tigers and rhinos. One was in 1994, when Congress passed the Rhino and Tiger Conservation Act, which set up a grants fund for these species. It’s only half a million dollars at this point, but small grants that go out into the field have been instrumental in helping countries that were facing major tiger poaching problems.

And we had a funny little law passed last September called the Tiger and Rhino Product Labeling Act, which bans the sale of products advertising themselves as containing tiger or rhino parts. There was a loophole in our Endangered Species Act that needed to be plugged, and now there’s no way these products can be legally sold.

This is even if they don’t actually contain the product?

That is correct. The enforcing agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, felt that they had to forensically prove that a product actually contained the ingredient, and that was a very expensive and time-consuming process. But now you simply can’t sell anything that is labeled as containing those products. We think this will help dissuade China from continuing to engage in this trade. So people can weigh in on these legislative issues easily through e-mail and fax machines, and it really does make a difference.

Am I right in assuming that the single biggest pressure on endangered species is loss of habitat?

Generally, yes. For the tiger, in particular, that is the biggest long-term threat. We try to distinguish between long-term and immediate. In the case of some of the species on your list, like the rhino and the tiger and the Kemp’s Ridley turtle to some extent, the pressures for the consumption of their products or trade are more immediate threats. You have to look at the two together. Long-term habitat protection is absolutely essential, and some of the big predators at the top of the food chain require hundreds of square miles of territory. But for species w

ith big price tags on their heads, trade has been overwhelmingly the biggest threat to them in the last 20 years.

One of things you have to deal with is that the more endangered animals or plants are, the more valuable they become to traders. The Giant panda, as beloved and as incredibly endangered as it is, is still occasionally seen in the skin trade, even though the penalty in China is death. The profit is so huge.

That is a cycle that is hard to break. We have heard and seen evidence in the past, not really recently, of panda skins selling in Hong Kong or Japan for $10,000, $20,000 or $30,000 each, and people buying them to put on their living room floor. Over time, we would hope that the severe penalties would create less of an incentive, for fear of being punished. In the case of medicinal products, it is a different type of consumption issue. The good news for tigers is that there appears to be viable substitutes within the Chinese pharmacopoeia that can replace tiger bone in any number of given treatments. Rhino horn appears to be a much more unique product.

How successful has the 1989 ivory trade ban been in actually killing the international market?

The trade ban worked in the sense that it helped to stop elephant poaching in Africa, but it didn’t stop it altogether. Ivory was essentially a jewelry item in the U.S. and Europe, and it became extremely unfashionable to wear it, so the prices dropped to the point where it was no longer being sold. The public response was bigger than we have ever seen on a consumer issue in endangered or threatened species, other than dolphin-safe tuna. The Japanese market, by contrast, did not change because ivory in Japan is used for traditional art forms and carvings and name seals that people buy to sign documents with. Long-standing traditions create new challenges for the conservationist.

A couple of the species that we wrote about, the Northern right whale, and the Florida panther, may have passed the point of no return. The remaining populations are either genetically weakened by inbreeding, as in the case of the panther, or scattered in the ocean, like the Northern right whale. There are supposedly only 350 of them left and they travel across huge areas. Do you think species like this can still be saved?

I think it is possible, and it brings up big, important questions for conservationists. When do you give up, if ever? And none of us have come to any conclusions on that. Where are you going to get the most conservation bang for your buck? WWF has been providing support for Northern right whale conservation work for the last couple of years. The Northern right is not unlike other large whales in that, for reasons we don’t know, it hasn’t recovered from the days of whaling. The Southern blue whale is similar; there is estimated to be about 200 in the Southern Ocean, and no one can figure out why they’re not recovering. Maybe the problem is, as you mentioned, they are so widely scattered that they’re not finding each other to breed.

It is surprising and amazing to me as a conservationist that we don’t know more about these large mammals. I think we should be putting money into research that will figure out where they are and where they go at certain times of the year. We need information to protect them during their migration, and to keep them away from shipping strikes.

The Florida panther issue is perhaps more clear cut in that once you reach the point of severe inbreeding, you’re stuck. I don’t know how to back out of that one. I don’t think we have the tools to be able to do that.

According to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, we lose, worldwide, 50,000 species a year. I guess most of those would probably be plants. Do we have to accept a certain level of extinction? Is extinction basically natural?

Extinction certainly is natural. It has been going on for as long as life has been on the planet. Current rates of extinction are not natural. Rates have accelerated in the last century in particular, and that’s our challenge as conservationists, to slow that rate down. I think we can accept that certain extinctions are a natural part of evolution, but the rate of 50,000 species a year is an inordinate loss. The big break from the past is that these extinctions today are largely man-induced.

How important do you think it is to reauthorize the Endangered Species Act?

The ESA has managed to survive and get funding without being reauthorized. It is sort of interesting in the internal dynamics inside the Washington Beltway. The ESA has been critically important for species in the U.S. because it limits the destruction of species and their habitat. It has helped some plants and animals recover, although rates of recovery have not been as quick as people thought they could’ve been. It’s also been a very important model for countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia, and helped in the drafting of international agreements like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).