I listened to his voice, searching for a hint of emotion. He was relaxed, speaking freely and calmly. He betrayed nothing; I could hear no frustration and urgency in his tone, a stark contrast to his message. He was perhaps the calmest advocate I've ever spoken with, but beneath that tranquility is a dedicated fighter in the battle against ivory.
His name is Dustin Thibideau, and he is Ivory Free Indiana.
Thibideau, a political science major at Purdue University Calumet, could be considered a rookie advocate for elephants; in fact, he told me that one year ago he knew nothing of the ivory trade and the poaching crisis in Africa. "Back in April of 2015 I really didn't know much about it," he said. "But then I read an article."
That article led Thibideau on a search that would change his perception of ivory forever. "Just seeing the photos really got to me. pushed me to really do this," he said. "Honestly, just seeing...their faces cut off. Just seeing what it's actually doing to [elephants], that they're being killed by miscellaneous stuff that we don't really need."
From there Thibideau decided to act. "I started calling, emailing, contacting legislators to see if any of them would be willing to draft legislation," he said. One legislator, Rep. B. Patrick Bauer (D), joined Thibideau's fight. He drafted an ivory bill, HB 1052, which prohibits the sale and transfer of ivory and rhino horn products, with exceptions.
While the bill was drafted and assigned to a House committee, it died before it could be discussed on the floor. "The speaker of the house assigned it [to the calendar] last minute," said Thibideau. "To my understanding he didn't really want to assign it."
While Democrats are generally open to ivory legislation, it is hard to convince Indiana's Republican-dominated House to pass such laws, said Thibideau. "It's hard to get Republicans to support ivory legislation because they see it as anti-gun," he explained. Because of this, Thibideau said he will push for a redrafting of the bill and said he hopes to gain more support from Republicans.
"I think it's kind of selfish for us to think that we need ivory. Honestly, we don't need it...it's not going to affect our lives in any way if we don't have it."
"[I'd like to] make it stronger in terms of protection but to the point where it can get more support at the same time." Thibideau explained. "Once the bill gets refiled again, we're definitely going to hit the media harder and see if anyone will be willing to write stuff on it."
In the meantime, Thibideau is working to raise awareness and support for ivory legislation among Indiana residents. "I know it might be questionable if Indiana really needs [an ivory law]; currently it's a state-by-state effort," he said. "But I read the crisis report and what they found is that there is ivory being sold online, and one of the places was in Bloomington."
Because of Indiana's proximity to Chicago, whose airport is a known entry for illegal ivory, Thibideau suspects illegal ivory crosses into the state on its way to a market. "There's ivory that's coming into Chicago every day," he said. "[that's] a fact.
"We have all these major highways that go through Indiana," Thibideau added. "It just kind of seems logical that there has to be something here." By educating residents about the ivory trade, Thibideau hopes to discourage ivory sales in Indiana. "I think if people see, when they're buying ivory, what it's doing...I think it may make a difference in their attitude toward it," he said.
"Elephants could be extinct in, some are saying 10 to 20 years," he added. "I don't think that's something that can be put off last-minute."
Kerry Skiff is a conservation advocate and recent journalism graduate of Northern Kentucky University. She follows the ivory trade around the world, and uses her voice to educate Americans about their role in animal conservation.