Ivory Wars

In response to BBC’s Panorama on the Ivory Trade:

Despite more than a 20 year ban (1989), the ivory trade is still at large. If demand continues to boom, and action is not taken, the African Elephant will meet a bloody end.

International pressure has led to a step up in the number and size of seizures over the last 2 years. However, the rate of killing in hotspots in Kenya and the Congo are higher than ever. Even in the thriving Samburu park (the base for Save the Elephants), huge numbers are being slaughtered. These poachers are no longer armed with spears and bows, they now have snares, AK47s and rocket launchers.

Not only does the emotional impact of the hunting haunt surviving family members –especially calves – but the removal of experienced role models disrupts family groups. Elephants live in a matriarchal, complex family. A given female may know at least another 100 females by voice alone. A death in a group is a major event, and elephants are known to mourn. Heartbreakingly the calf of a killed mother under the age of 2 or 3 is very unlikely to survive, unless rescued. But it is the breakdown of hierarchy’s, and the loss of influential adults, that lead to rogue social groups, and severely impacts the survival rates of the future herd.

The understaffed, under-equipped park rangers try their best to stay one step ahead, but unfortunately, it seems a constant catch up game.

Furthermore, China’s dynamic economy is changing Africa’s landscape forever. Large numbers of Chinese businessmen and workers are now living in and building the new Africa. A minority, but an influential minority are stockpiling ivory, and then shipping it back home. Kenya’s International Airport is a hub for smuggling, and unsurprisingly 90% of those caught are Chinese.

DNA analysis on seized ivory has shown how most seizures come from the same core locations. Meaning poachers are hitting the same areas over and over. In central Africa elephant numbers are plummeting. Poaching thrives where government insecurities are widespread. In the Congo, a failed state, blighted by bitter civil war, the elephant population is being hammered. Ivory, from the forests, is sold only in markets in the capital (ivory from up to 200 elephant is visible a day), and in plain sight of the authorities. A single large tusk can be worth up to 10,000 US dollars.

The animals targeted, are the smaller, forest elephants. The have smaller, straighter tusks, and genetically they appear to be a separate species to the savannah equivalent. They are more widespread and harder to track in the dense forest cover. Subsequently they are offered minimal protection, and are at the mercy of the poachers.

The poachers then sell on to local traders, or bigger players. It is these players which have stepped up in recent years. They are collaborating internationally, and fund the sophisticated poaching parties that move between boarders. These kingpins sell on directly to domestic Chinese buyers, or through bigger networks they smuggle the ivory towards South East Asia.

Royal Malaysian Customs in Kuala Lumpur manages an import of 9 million containers every year. They do routine stop and searches, but they cannot possibly inspect every cargo. The can only examine a maximum of 5% of containers, and without any intelligence, it is almost impossible to locate the ivory upon inspection.

The 1989 ban illegalised international trade. However, four years ago, CITES allowed four southern African countries a one-off sale of stockpiled ivory to Chinese and international buyers. Subsequently the price of Ivory has dramatically increased, yet CITES claims to have found no direct link between the two events. Moreover, some supporters argue that the countries which have effectively managed their wildlife should be allowed to benefit financially – by selling their stockpiles.

Contrastingly, the opposition believe that future sales will only fuel demand, and lead to the killing of more elephants. They ask what will happen when the Congo is finally drained of elephants. Surely the poachers will move on. If there is a market, and money to fuel it, the killing will not stop.

Why does China have this veracious demand for Ivory. What is it they like so much?

Apparently it is their traditional culture. They even trade mammoth ivory, dug up from the frozen wastelands in Siberia, and they have been carving ivory for hundreds of years.

There is more disposable income in China now, than there has ever been in history and ivory is considered a luxury commodity. Carvings sell in licensed shops for hundreds of thousands of pounds, but not all the items on sale come with all the certificates to show that they are legal.

Shockingly, a survey of Chinese public shows that 7 out of 10 people even know that the ivory they buy in the shops comes from killed elephants. In Chinese ‘elephant ivory’ translates literally to ‘elephant teeth’. Many people are under the impression that it can simply fall off or grow back.

As part of the CITES agreement to sell stockpiles to China, every ivory shop has to be registered with the authorities, and every piece is tagged with an identification mark, so that it can be tracked.

However, 75% of consumers, who have the chance to buy cheaper ivory with no ID card, will by the ivory, as opposed to the more expensive certified items. It is almost impossible to tell what is legal or illegal in high street shop – China’s domestic market is riddles with holes. Every 1 legal activity comes with 6 illegal sales, confirming that the black market is more than extensive.

With hindsight, the sale of stockpiles into china has probably heightened demand. If more countries are allowed to empty their stockpiles in the future, the death warrant of Africa’s surviving wild elephants will effectively be signed.

However, we CAN stop the trend. Firstly, education in China is of paramount importance, but unfortunately, we cannot do much about that currently. But we can support the organisations that are working desperately to save the elephants. Money is what drives the killing. If we, in the western world, valued the survival of the elephant, as much as a Chinese businesswoman likes her ivory necklace, than the elephant would be saved. Financial incentives are key. We cannot, from our moral high-horse, condemn those local poachers who are trying desperately to feed their own families. But what we can do is reward those who work to protect wildlife instead of slaughter it. We can fund the equipment needed to track and monitor the elephants.

Internationally we have security and intelligence systems in place that can track down extensive criminal networks. The technology implemented to tackle the drug trade is astonishing. GPS is commonplace and used for the most trivial of purposes here in Britain – yet the radio tracking devices still commonplace in national parks are unreliable and outdated. If the Malaysian government was given real incentive to make sure no ivory crossed its boarders, then it is certain that the illegal trade to China could be subdued.

We have the technology to tackle the ivory trade, but whilst the poachers and smugglers are utilising new strategies, those that are tackling the problem are still in the dark ages.

It’s not that they are not trying – of course they are. Instead it’s a simple mathematical equation – if the cost of an elephant life is valued to be less (by the international community) than the financial benefits gained by hacking away its tusks, then the elephants do not stand a chance.

If for instance we cared just as much about the elephant as we do cool ‘retro’ looking mobile photographs, than maybe Facebook would have invested $1bn dollars into saving the world’s most majestic mammal instead.

Just a thought                                                                                                                                                                .


About theNatSci

Cambridge Natural Scientist.
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