"I need answers."
The fire in her voice showed an inflamed passion. In my mind's eye I could almost see sparks shooting from her eyes. Christina LaMonica has spent the last two years fighting the ivory trade in Ohio, with relative success, so when she discovered a new roadblock, she started lighting her matches.
LaMonica, the founder and voice of Ivory Free Ohio (IFOH), started her fight against the ivory trade in 2013. While on social media, she discovered pictures posted by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust of faceless elephant and rhino corpses, whose tusks and horns had been cut out of their skulls. "When I started seeing these images coming out of Nairobi, Kenya, I couldn’t just look at these images and shut down my computer and completely ignore that these things were happening," she said. "And I knew I had to do something to make a change.”
Her change came in the form of an online petition, to encourage ivory legislation in her state. "I was on a mission to educate everybody and anybody I could," she explained. "I created an online petition and in less than a month it garnered more than 100,000 signatures.”
While LaMonica's mission is for conservation, her strategy is through education. "It’s all about education. People don’t realize that these species are keystone species," LaMonica explained. “They’re almost like the cornerstone of the environment and everything that takes place in the ecosystem.
"Ninety percent of the ivory that is funneled into the United States is illegal," she added. "These smugglers are banking on the naiveness of the consumer obsolescence.”
While educating her community, LaMonica began teaching Ohio legislators about the ivory trade. She met with her district senator, Frank LaRose (R), who already recognized her. "When I met with my district senator, he knew who I was. I asked him if he knew the truth about where ivory comes from," she said. "He was open to what I had to share with him."
With the help of LaMonica, LaRose has been working toward drafting ivory legislation in Ohio. While no draft has yet been introduced, the discussion about ivory has spread around the state, thanks to LaMonica's petition. "The online petition has nothing to do with legislation...but what it did is it woke people up to what is happening,” she said proudly. "That was my intention and I succeeded.”
"If we save the elephants, we save the human species. If we don’t save the elephants, the rhinos and other keystone species, we might as well dig our own graves.”
An Ivory Free Ohio
"Ohio is a key state in creating change, like in the national spotlight," said LaMonica. "It’s a swing state, everybody looks to see what we’re going to do in legislation...Getting that many signatures on the petition so quickly, I realized I have the power to be the change, and to create the change, not only in my community but in my state as well.”
Ohio has already been the scene for illegal ivory trafficking, according to LaMonica. "Most recently there was...a gentleman who was arrested in Ohio for trafficking ivory from here into China," she told me. "What he was doing was he was taking the blood ivory, packing it up and on the customs form he was labeling it as something else."
While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service handle ivory arrests across the nation, LaMonica believes Ohio needs its own anti-ivory force. "This isn’t a African issue. It’s a human issue that requires participation on all levels," she said. "Ivory Free Ohio, together with the zoos across Ohio, we want a complete ban of ivory and rhino horn in our state."
But during her push for a complete ivory ban, LaMonica met her latest roadblock: the Cleveland Orchestra.
"Once they’re gone, they’re gone. These elephants, rhinos, giraffes, tigers, these things are more important than a violin bow.”
The Cleveland Orchestra
"The Cleveland Orchestra would like to be protected because they have instruments that contain ivory," she said. "But we have to ask ourselves which is more important."
According to LaMonica, the Cleveland Orchestra has been lobbying against a complete ivory ban, out of concern for instruments they use that are partially made of ivory. LaMonica said she contacted the orchestra to encourage collaboration in fighting ivory, but that they instead commandeered the draft of Ohio's ivory bill and added loopholes, "without inviting Ivory Free Ohio to the discussion."
"I find that to be unacceptable and inappropriate," she said. "I don’t know what to believe from them anymore. They say that they stand for the protection of wildlife but they hijack the bill and add loopholes to it, protecting their interests."
Earlier this month, LaMonica wrote a letter to the orchestra, urging them to go ivory free and support a complete ban in Ohio. "I'm not trying to hurt the orchestra, I'm trying to help them," she said, adding that if they chose to go ivory free the impact would be immense. "They would probably quadruple their profits," she predicted. "I know they would."
After the orchestra made their alterations, LaMonica met with Senator LaRose to discuss the latest version of the bill, with the orchestra's changes. "The meeting was a success," she said. "I believe that Senator LaRose wants the same thing that I want, which is a complete ban."
Even though the bill has yet to be introduced, voted on and passed, LaMonica has committed to achieving a full ban of ivory in Ohio. "This isn’t about politics," she said. It’s not about the orchestra. It’s not about the [National Rifle Association]. This is about saving a species from extinction.”
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.