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Poachers and Piano Keys: Cristian Samper on Elephants and the Ivory Trade

Evening Program

Inside Science program

Thursday, September 14, 2017 - 6:45 p.m.
Code: 1A0030

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Elephants in Serengeti National Park

Ninety-six elephants are killed across Africa every day for their ivory, more than 35,000 a year. The population of Savannah elephants is down to 400,000 from more than 1 million a decade ago, driven by the demand for ivory in Asia.

As president and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society, Cristian Samper is on the front lines of elephant conservation and the efforts to stop poaching and trafficking in the ivory trade. But as a scientist and former director of the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum, Samper is aware of another perspective on the issue.

Ivory is a part of many of the Smithsonian’s collections—from clock faces to piano keys, jewelry to antique carvings—and these objects provide clues to learning about the cultures they are from. Simultaneously, the Smithsonian is dedicated to conserving the elephant and other wildlife thousands of miles away.

Elephants in Africa also have both economic and moral value, as their iconic presence fuels the tourist industry and is steeped in cultural connections. Elephant poaching is impacting lives of local people and is linked organized criminal networks, generating insecurity and instability across the African continent.

In response to these problems, Samper and the coalition of conservation groups lead by the Wildlife Conservation Society have launched strategies to stop the killing, trafficking, and the demand for ivory. Samper explains the nuanced issues of elephant poaching, the ivory trade, and the role museums and conservationists play in the protection of the species.

Inside Science

Smithsonian Connections

How do cultural institutions strike a moral and professional balance between educating the public about the historical importance of ivory artifacts and supporting efforts to being the contemporary ivory trade to an end? Cristian Samper is among those who weigh in on the issue in this report on


S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Dr SW
Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)