Canadian Eco-Warrior Allan Thornton and His Enduring Battle to Protect the World’s Whales and Elephants
Canadian environmentalist Allan Thornton has dedicated his life to saving endangered species. Here, he recounts the enduring battle he’s undertaken to protect the world’s whales and elephants.
On March 9, 2009, a special meeting of the International Whaling Commission (iwc) was held in Rome. The IWC is the body recognized by the United Nations as responsible for the conservation of the great whales. Dr. William Hogarth, the U.S. Commissioner, a political appointee of former President George W. Bush, addressed U.S. environmental and conservation groups in a soft southern voice.
“I just want to be open and fair to everyone,” he said. I wasn’t going to let that pass. As chairman of the IWC, Hogarth, over the past 18 months, had instigated a behind-closed-door process in which he produced “options” — endorsed by not a single IWC nation — that legalized Japan’s whale hunts without requiring any concessions from Tokyo. For 21 years, Japan ignored the IWC’s whaling ban and continued commercial hunting, claiming it was “scientific research,” though the whale meat was all sold by Japan’s three largest whaling companies.
“Dr. Hogarth,” I said, “The week after President Obama took office, he issued a directive to all government departments to ensure transparency and accountability. The process you have led excluded input, comment or review by every environmental and wildlife group in the U.S. and the rest of the world, before you proposed options that are highly favourable to Japan’s whale hunting.”
Hogarth frowned. “Our goal is to reduce the number of whales being killed,” he said.
The Obama representatives from the White House Council on Environmental Quality and State Department listened carefully as Hogarth sought support from his deputy, Doug DeMaster, a scientist. “But, Dr. DeMaster,” I continued, “isn’t it a fact that under the options put forward by Dr. Hogarth, the number of whales killed by Japan and other countries may go up?”
“That is true,” Deputy Commissioner DeMaster admitted.
President Obama has expressed support for continuation of the ban on commercial whaling and supports measures to end Japan’s unilateral hunts. But in the next year, the fate of the world’s great whales and the African elephants will once again be up for discussion. Undercover investigators for the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) — an organization I had set up, first in London and, then, in Washington, to investigate environmental crime — have already been gathering evidence in Africa of illegal ivory trade. We have also successfully persuaded more than 2,500 supermarkets in Japan to stop selling whale meat.
In the mid-1970s, while living in Vancouver, I teamed up with the fledgling operation of what would become the world’s best-known environmental group, Greenpeace. In late 1976, I was sent to London, U.K., with a few black and white photos of our campaigns to protect whales and seals in my pocket. There, I set up an office that would become the base for Greenpeace’s European work. Within a few months, my life savings were running out fast when Spike Milligan, the famous British comedian, offered his help and asked George Harrison and the other former Beatles for much-needed funding. Harrison sent the first in a series of grants that enabled me to finance the London office, and cheques from Lennon, McCartney and Starr arrived. Twiggy, supermodel-turned-singer, donated the proceeds of a concert.
By then, 50,000 great whales were being killed legally and illegally annually.
In Africa, a devastating slaughter of the African elephant was sweeping south across the continent, wiping out hundreds of thousands of elephants to feed the global ivory trade.
In January 1978, Greenpeace UK purchased an old fishing trawler. A complete refurbishment ensued, and the rusting boat was transformed into the Rainbow Warrior, named after a Hopi Indian legend that prophesied that warriors of the rainbow would come to heal the earth.
We sailed first to Iceland and later Spain, positioning our inflatable boats between whales and the whalers’ harpoons to disrupt their hunts and publicize the need for a ban on killing the over-hunted animals.
Eighty miles off the coast of Iceland, we saved our first whale. A whaling boat started chasing its prey — two huge fin whales — and we raced our little inflatable boats across the choppy ocean into their firing line. As the two huge creatures breached the surface, everything went into slow motion. I could see the beautiful pinkish skin of the whales and the fine mist shooting from their spouts against a perfect blue sky. Then the harpoonist slammed the safety catch back onto the harpoon. We had prevented the kill and saved our first whale. It was the first of many such confrontations. In 1986, a ban on commercial whale hunting passed by the International Whaling Commission came into effect, and Iceland ended its whale killing.
It should be noted that the Rainbow Warrior would become the most famous boat in the world after a series of highly publicized international campaigns against killing whales and seals, dumping radioactive waste in the oceans and continued testing of nuclear weapons. In 1985, France’s President Mitterrand ordered the boat to be bombed for its planned protest against France’s nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific.
Whales were safe for now, but in Africa the elephants weren’t as lucky. By the time I went on my first investigation into illegal ivory trade, at least 70,000 were being poached each year to feed the demand for ivory trinkets and carvings in Japan, Europe and North America. By this time, I’d left Greenpeace and, in 1984, set up the EIA.
After the ban on commercial whaling came into effect, I followed up leads I’d obtained about poached ivory being smuggled on boats from East Africa to the Middle East and then on to Asia. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) is the international agreement intended to prevent destruction of populations of wild animals and plants through
excessive international trade. However, CITES was far from a protector of elephant herds. In fact, the organization had legalized more than 450 tons of ivory, which became interchangeable on the open market with illegal stocks. In other words, ivory smugglers could sell illegal tusks with legal paperwork obtained, in some cases, with bribes. Buyers could not tell the difference. This would accelerate the killing.