As Elephant Extinction Looms, What Happens to the Ortenberg Foundation?

Out-of-control poaching is driving African elephants rapidly toward extinction, and it's only getting worse, with a huge spike in recent years. In fact, after record-breaking ivory seizures, 2012 appears to be the worst year on record for elephant poaching.

With political turmoil and the rising value of ivory driving the illegal trade in Africa, saving the animals from extinction will take a huge international effort. While protection of African elephants has been a priority for the Liz Claiborne Art Ortenberg Foundation since its start in 1987, this resurgence has driven large recent investments, and expansion of the program from East Africa into other countries in the region. (See Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation: Grants for Animals and Wildlife).

Fashion designer Claiborne and husband Ortenberg created their foundation in 1987 during their first trip to Africa, after they were both deeply affected by their first encounter with elephants. Since then it has grown to take on eight global regions, focusing on animals ranging from the tiger to the grizzly. But the elephant remains the heart of the program, and its protection has become more necessary than ever.

Not long after the couple started the foundation and began publicly and financially supporting efforts to stop the ivory trade, especially in Kenya and Tanzania, an international ban passed in 1989. This curbed killing of elephants drastically during the 1990s.

But killing of elephants for ivory has been worse in recent years than it has since the 1980s. A combination of political turmoil, regulation changes, and the rise of China, which has driven the demand and value of ivory through the roof, has led to record slaughter of the animals. A 2013 study showed a staggering 62% of all forest elephants have been killed for ivory over the past decade.

This resurgence has inspired major conservation groups to direct resources to the problem, and Ortenberg’s foundation (Claiborne passed away in 2007) has been one of the movement's big funders. In recent years, the foundation has expanded into the Republic of Congo, Gabon and Mozambique, in addition to its original focus in Kenya and Tanzania.

The largest recipient of the foundation’s support has been the Wildlife Conservation Society, one of the world’s largest wildlife nonprofits. They fund the WCS for multiple programs, but for elephant-related work alone they granted $1.4 million in 2011.

Another large grantee for the program has been TRAFFIC, the international trade-monitoring network, which recently received $330,000 to analyze ivory trade routes and seizures. And Flora & Fauna International was granted $293,000 to improve training and personnel enforcing the ivory ban. 

Read more about the foundation's work and other grantees here.