IFAW (International Fund For Animal Welfare) has announced that actor and activist Leonardo DiCaprio will lead its Animal Action campaign to save elephants and shut down the cruel international ivory trade.

The campaign launched this week as part of an annual international education program that reaches seven million teachers, students and their families in more than 15 countries worldwide.

DiCaprio serves as the global ambassador for the program, which highlights a different animal and conservation theme each year. This year’s theme is “Elephants, Never Forget,” and focuses on the crisis that elephants face 20 years after the international ivory trade ban was put in place.

While elephant populations started to recover following the ban, lax poaching oversight over the past several years has led to the prospect of extinction for the species in several African countries.

Over the course of the year, IFAW will collect one million signatures urging governments to oppose any further international trade in ivory and step up efforts to combat poaching.

“The ivory trade fuels conflict and strife,” said DiCaprio. “Elephants are killed by poachers so their tusks can be traded for weapons and drugs by international criminal organizations before becoming trinkets and jewelry for consumers. Authorities in 85 countries have seized almost 400 tons of ivory on the black market since the 1989 ivory trade ban.”

Poaching by international syndicates may be more intense now than ever before. In the past century, the number of elephants in the wild has declined by a staggering 50 percent.

Yet, recent public polling shows that many don’t understand the deathly implications of elephant poaching. The poll, conducted by TNS on behalf of IFAW, found that 31 percent of people in the UK, 27 percent in Germany, 23 percent in the U.S. and 38 percent in Australia think that an elephant doesn’t have to die for its tusks to be removed. And in China, the world’s largest market for illegal ivory, 70 percent of consumers were unaware that elephants are killed for their ivory, according to a 2007 IFAW study.

“Many people around the world still have no idea that elephants are killed for their ivory tusks, and that’s why public education is so important,” DiCaprio added. “There were 1.3 million elephants in 1979; rampant poaching and other factors have reduced that by more than half, to an estimated 500,000.”

“We are honored to have Leonardo’s support for our Animal Action campaign to stem the ivory trade,” said IFAW President and CEO Fred O’Regan. “With his help, we hope to create a groundswell for elephant protection that can’t be ignored.”
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