On Our Watch, Say Goodbye to Tigers

December 15, 2015

SEJ President’s Report

By JEFF BURNSIDE

This column normally examines an issue important to the future health of the Society of Environmental Journalists and what you as a member might do about it. Run for the SEJ board? “Yes.” Talk up the value of our annual conference? “Absolutely.” Help spread the word about our important work? “On it.” This time, instead, we examine a different set of responsibilities: whether journalism is asleep at the wheel in failing to sufficiently cover a looming, irreversible environmental issue. Our most iconic and beloved wild species are now on the precipice of extinction, functionally if not literally.

Most urgent, there are now roughly 3,200 tigers in the wild. That’s it. Polls call it the world’s most popular creature. The number of wild elephants is now dropping well below half a million. (SEJournal subscribers and SEJ members can access Christina Russo’s elephant story in this issue here.) There are fewer than 30,000 rhinos and dropping fast. Big cats, elephants, rhinos, mountain gorillas, orangutans, lions; they and others are careening closer than ever to extinction.

The plight of lions made headlines only when American dentist Walter Palmer was led by guides last summer to kill Cecil, the well-known lion near the Hwange National Park in Matabeleland North, Zimbabwe.

Coverage surrounding Cecil, with some notable exceptions, didn’t examine the bigger issue: Humanity’s efforts to save these magnificent species are failing. Unless something extraordinary happens, the end for them is now within sight. On our watch. If or when it happens, journalists will rush to find out how it was allowed to happen.

Yet will our readers, listeners and viewers say to journalists “Where were you?!” “Why didn’t we know more before it was too late?” Environmental journalists are in a unique position to look ahead and avert this disaster.

Will it be reminiscent of the withering criticism much of the U.S. press received over the rush to war in Iraq? Will journalism bear some of the blame? We’re not the poachers. We’re not the smugglers. We’re not the corrupt third world bureaucrats or the wealthy buyers. But did we write enough about them? It’s not normally our job as journalists to get people to take action or to think a certain way. But, in this case, if tigers go extinct, will people wish we had?

U.S. officials did not put tigers on the agenda during Chinese Premier Xi Jinping’s recent state visit. Why? “Blood of the Tiger” author J.A. Mills, who gave a riveting presentation at a recent SEJ conference, told me, “When I asked a State Department official recently why the U.S. government wasn’t talking to China about tigers, she said, ‘Because no one in the media is asking us about tigers’.”

It was a stunning acknowledgement of what journalists intrinsically know: The national dialogue may influence press coverage, but press coverage heavily influences the national dialogue.

Challenge of a slow-moving, distant story

Part of the challenge in covering the march toward extinction is incrementalism. Like covering climate change, the long, slow, steady march downward is not exactly breaking news. But unlike climate coverage, extinction is the ultimate end point. It will be a headline.

Individual journalists rely on editors to give the green light on most story assignments. So, let’s hope those gatekeepers are reading this column too.

The standard response is that there are more important issues demanding our collective attention: The recent terror attacks. Human misery. Economic challenges. War. Politics. Yes, they’re all important. This is not an either/or notion. All of them deserve coverage.

Yet there’s an increasingly uneasy feeling that the plight of our planet’s most iconic species is not getting the coverage it deserves. This is based not on emotions but on pure journalistic merit. The impending loss of these great species is big news and it reflects our guardianship of the planet. That’s why reporting the risk of extinction is environmental journalism.

One challenge is that, for most SEJ members, the critters live in faraway lands. We are compelled to write about stories closer to home. In truth, the story itself is everywhere: the halls of the United Nations, the negotiating rooms of international conferences, Customs inspection offices and consular offices in your city.

Outspoken freelance writer Melody Kemp, an SEJ member from Vientiane, Laos, has seen environmental devastation and wildlife plundering up close, and says she’s proud of being an advocacy journalist.

“I have often said that we need to publish in the ‘Two Thirds World’ press,” she said, hoping to boost coverage in middle category nations, which she courageously does. “This is a human and a detective story,” Kemp told me via email. “It needs interviews with Interpol, customs dudes who look the other way, making the occasional find to mollify the world, the immune diplomatic bag system which is used to get stuff out of the country….It’s not that reporters have to grab a visa and jump on a plane but they can investigate U.S. companies involved, and they are.”

There are multitudes of extraordinary stories on this issue:

  • How the legal trade (especially within China) encourages the illegal trade.
  • Have some of the largest, most respected NGOs gone silent in the face of threats from China?
  • The rising sentiment against exotic trophy hunting and in favor of a U.S. import ban.
  • The environmental resource implications surrounding diminishing wild populations.
  • Why political leaders fail to leverage trade compacts to motivate other countries.
  • The rise of drug kingpins and organized crime in the poaching world.
  • Who are the wealthy businesspeople in China, South Africa and elsewhere earning fortunes from exotics?
  • Campaigns to change social views in Asia where the big markets exist, and in the developing world where poaching occurs.

At risk are icons of the wild, like tigers

A decades-old photo of a tiger reportedly being auctioned for its gallbladder bile in Taiwan.
                                     Photo: Courtesy of The Realm of India’s
                                      Wild & Endangered Royal Bengal Tiger

The issue is not limited to terrestrial charismatic megafauna. Sea turtles, certain shark species, rays and many more marine species also face supreme threats after thriving since the time of the dinosaurs. Yet after tens of millions of years, their decline has come, in geologic terms, in the blink of an eye and largely coincident with human industrialism and globalization.

Some have declared this the Century of Restoration. And there are many cases of domestic wildlife comebacks, thanks to a lot of hard work and dedicated people. But the global icons of wild nature are not so lucky.

“This illegal trade is so out of control right now that we need to do something,” the University of Washington’s Sam Wasser recently told Seattle Times science reporter Sandi Doughton. The renowned head of the University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology said, “We’ve got to fight this at every level we can.”

So Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen successfully funded a November ballot initiative in Washington State to ban the sale or trade of tiger bones, elephant ivory and other body parts of imperiled species at the state level — getting rid of intrastate micro markets. California and other states have already done so.

Critics say it does little to stop poaching overseas and only punishes those who legally possess these animal parts already. Others, though, say legal markets for certain animal parts — no matter how long that ivory carving has been in the family — serve to create a market for poaching because it’s easy to smuggle illegal body parts into the legal trade. How can U.S. Fish and Wildlife inspectors know the difference between a captive-bred Asian Arawana fish and one snatched from the wild? They can’t. So the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species bans them both.

The most notable example of this may be tigers. Wealthy Chinese businesspeople have created tiger “farms” where more than 6,000 tigers are held in cages awaiting use of their fur and other body parts before their carcasses are soaked in vats for tiger bone wine, despite complete rejection by the traditional Chinese medicine community, chronicled in Mills’ book.

So, China hoodwinked the U.N. treaty on endangered species that sought to stop “all” trade in tiger parts, agreeing only to stop the “illegal” trade. It was a stunning rebuke for leading NGOs. The problem with “farming” tigers is that it stimulates poaching of wild tigers because it creates a market. Worse, the parts and products of wild tigers are considered superior, more prestigious and exponentially more valuable.

The same scenario is playing out with rhino farming, which is now under way in China, while Chinese officials use their country’s newfound international clout to push for legal trade in rhino horn at the U.N. Again, these are gripping stories that most of our audiences know nothing about.

My hunch is there would be vastly more outrage in the United States and around the world if only these stories got more of the coverage they deserve. What’s the SEJ community’s answer to this challenge? How about this: “Yes. Absolutely. On it!”

Jeff Burnside is a senior investigative reporter with KOMO television, Seattle’s ABC station, and has served on the SEJ Board for eight years. He’s been awarded several working fellowships and is the recipient of more than 20 journalism awards. A Seattle native, he has reported on coral reef decline, overfishing, killer whales and biomedical research, from locales like Berlin, Bali, the Arctic Circle, Panamanian jungles, and throughout the Caribbean, Hawaii and the Everglades.


* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2015/2016. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.