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The African elephant has long endured a struggle to maintain its population, which fell dangerously in the 1980s. With the commercial poaching of elephants seemingly out of control, trade in ivory was regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), and in 1998 a complete ban on the commercial trade in ivory was implemented.(2) As a result, the market for ivory products reduced substantially. Kenya demonstrated its commitment to the ban when then President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi set fire to twelve tonnes of stockpiled ivory.(3) The ban succeeded in stemming the decline of elephant populations, and changed the perception of the population about the value of ivory and elephants. But now elephant poaching is at its worst level for a decade and documented ivory seizures are at their highest level since 1989. China's economic boom has led to increasing concern about the country becoming a large and growing end-market destination for illegal ivory. This CAI paper explores the significant increase in levels of elephant poaching across the African continent and how these illegal elephant killings are linked to increasing demand for ivory in Asia, specifically China.
The scale of the problem
Evidence is steadily mounting that African elephants are facing their most significant crisis since the commercial trade in ivory was prohibited. This claim is based on reports by the CITES programme on Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE), data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) managed by the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC. These reports show the number of illegal killings is at the highest level for a decade.(4) There has also been a major increase in large-scale illegal ivory consignments, a pattern that has been steadily rising since 2004.(5) This reflects an increase in demand, specifically from China, and also illustrates the growing involvement of organised crime groups.(6) More than half of all large scale illicit ivory seizures (800 kg or above) since the year 2000 have occurred in the last three years.(7) In 2011 alone, there were 14 large-scale ivory seizures, the first double digits figure of seizures in 23 years, yielding an estimated 24.3 tonnes of ivory.(8) However, too many illegal ivory consignments are still reaching their destinations.
Commercial elephant poaching is on the increase in all African sub regions, but the highest levels of poaching have been in Central Africa. For example, Cameroon's Bouba N’Djida National Park faced the slaughter of 450 elephants in February 2012 alone.(9) While areas with better law enforcement capability tend to see lower levels of poaching, data analysis of the MIKE programme has also shown that areas with better research and monitoring practices tend to report a higher proportion of illegally killed elephants.(10) As a result, it can be inferred that many elephant killings have gone without detection or the appropriate recording and reporting, which leads to the scale of the problem being understated.
Influential factors at a country level
Poor governance is the most important national-level correlate of elephant poaching,(11) because it impacts the entire illegal ivory supply chain. Weak law enforcement capabilities and corruption enable the transportation of illegal ivory from elephant sites to points of export, which are increasingly found to be on the Indian Ocean seaports in East Africa, primarily in Kenya and Tanzania. Significantly, analysis of ETIS data based on 28 large scale ivory seizures since 2009 has shown Asian law enforcement authorities are three times more likely to make large scale ivory seizures than their African counterparts.(12) Some observers also draw attention to the issue of poverty, pointing out that infant mortality rates, which are used as a proxy for poverty, are the single strongest site-level predictor of the proportion of elephants killed. In other words, sites with higher levels of poverty tend to experience higher levels of poaching,(13) causing belief in the existence of a relationship. Overall, there is thus a believed relationship between governance, food security issues and poverty.
Large scale ivory seizures indicate the growing involvement of organised crime. Commercial poachers have been known to be very well equipped and are often heavily armed. One extreme example of this is when helicopter-borne poachers armed with assault rifles killed 22 elephants in the Congo in April 2012.(14) Organised groups have also shown themselves to be ruthless and adaptable, with new trade routes emerging, such as one between Kenya and Malaysia discovered in 2011. In this case it is believed the end-market was either Thailand or China.(15) As well the emergence of new trade routes, making policing more difficult, and too few large scale ivory seizures result in follow-up law enforcement activity and penalties. Forensic examinations are rarely conducted as a matter of government policy and if they do occur it is usually as a result of non-governmental organisation intervention.(16)
Demand for ivory in East Asia and China
The demand for illegal ivory is the driving force behind the illegal killing of elephants. The most significant destinations or import points for illegal ivory are China, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam.(17) China and Thailand are the principal end-market destinations for large-scale illegal ivory shipments from Africa, with the others generally being transit countries. Indeed, 54% of large seizures of raw ivory since 2000 have been bound for (including Hong Kong Special Administrative Region),(18) a state with a booming demand for ivory. For example, in the Guangzhou province in southern China, the number of ivory items available on display for retail has seen an increase of as much as 50% since 2004.(19) This contrasts significantly with Japan, where consumer demand has fallen, believed to have been caused by the economic recession and changes in consumer tastes.(20)
Increased levels of consumer demand in China is matched by a steady increase in the wholesale price paid by carvers and ivory processors for illegal raw ivory, which has doubled in only six years between 2004 and 2010 to approximately US$ 750 per kilogram. CITES say there is a correlation between trends in Chinese household consumption expenditure and the proportion of illegally killed elephants.(21) The CITES Secretariat also claims China’s domestic ivory control system has failed considerably since becoming a CITES-approved member in a once-off legal ivory sale held in four southern African countries in 2008 (Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe).(22) This once-off legal sale of 105,000 tonnes of ivory to the Far East was permitted for two reasons. Firstly on the basis of guarantees by China that it would strengthen its domestic ivory control systems, and secondly on the understanding that the proceeds of the sale could be put towards conservation efforts. Critics have commented that the once-off legal sale stimulated demand and the scheme was mistaken from the outset.(23)
In response to the accusation that China was the largest importer by weight of illegal ivory in the world; the Chinese Government introduced an official identification card for items sold by registered ivory retailers. The law required that ivory could only be sold in specific outlets, each of which must provide information on how much is sold to the authorities.(24) Conservationists have repeatedly found Chinese Government-accredited retailers trading ivory products without the required product identification certificates.(25) A report by the Elephant Family charity found that of the 6,437 ivory objects on display for retail in the Guangzhou province, 61% were being sold without the required identification cards, and were, therefore, illegal.(26) In addition to this, some traders freely admitted to selling illegal ivory. The CITES Secretariat is deeply concerned about the control of ivory stocks in the Chinese domestic market. They recommend China should formally reassess its internal ivory trade system to stop the laundering of and sale of illegal ivory.(27)
Unless it is stemmed, the growing number of illegal elephant killings will pose a threat to the long-term survival of elephant populations across the continent. It is believed the number of elephants being killed is likely to run into the tens of thousands. This increase threatens an already small and fragmented elephant population that could face extirpation (local extinction), as well threatening larger previously secure populations. Stopping poaching on the frontline can be an extremely dangerous occupation and the number of commercial poachers armed with high-calibre weapons is increasing. We are also seeing the increased militarisation of anti-poaching tactics on the frontline, with mercenary groups in southern Africa training park rangers to be better prepared in the event of skirmishes with the poachers. The case of poachers using military grade helicopters in Congo illustrates the concern of many that there is too often a disparity in equipment between park rangers and organised commercial poachers.
The overall increase in poaching is threatening to the national assets that are the backbone tourism-based economies such as those in states like Kenya. Poaching has been shown to be at its highest levels where food security, governance and law enforcement are at their weakest. Observers recommend increasing intelligence led enforcement activity, and the use of DNA forensics which has been extremely effective in cases of wildlife trafficking in the past. Tanzania has considered the use of aerial monitoring drones in a scheme developed by the global wildlife organisation the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).(28) In incidents of illegal ivory trafficking from airports, Africa has relatively few major international airport hubs, so improving control systems at these, such as in Nairobi, will pay dividends. At the international level there is a need to enhance collective efforts across transit and consumer states to stem this alarming trend. This is intended to bring about greater collaboration across the whole “enforcement chain”. CITES itself is weakened by the fact that it is incredibly reliant on national-level law enforcement and monitoring.
While China continues to be the paramount destination for illegal ivory, observers note that what is urgently needed is the enforcement of laws that already exist. Regular inspections are needed and older ivory products should be given identification cards, as required by Chinese law. While regulatory controls by officials and traders can reduce the scale of the illegal ivory trade, an awareness campaign aimed at Chinese consumers should also be instituted.
Written by Andrew Day (1)
(1) Contact Andrew Day through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Asia Dimension Unit (firstname.lastname@example.org).
(2) ‘Background on CITES and the international trade in ivory’, Humane Society International, 17 April 2007, www.hsi.org.
(3) Perlez, J., ‘Kenya, in gesture, burns ivory tusks’, New York Times, 19 July 1989, www.nytimes.com.
(4) ‘Experts report highest elephant poaching and ivory smuggling rates in a decade’, CITES, 21 June 2012, www.cites.org.
(5) ‘Elephant conservation, illegal killing and ivory trade’, Sixty-second meeting of the CITES Standing Committee, Geneva, Switzerland, 23-27 July 2012, www.cites.org.
(8) ‘Experts report highest elephant poaching and ivory smuggling rates in decade’, United Nations Environment Programme, 21 June 2012, www.unep.org.
(9) ‘Elephant conservation, illegal killing and ivory trade’, Sixty-second meeting of the CITES Standing Committee, Geneva, Switzerland, 23-27 July 2012, www.cites.org.
(14) Sinha, S., ‘Africa witnesses worst poaching in DR Congo: 22 elephants massacred in helicopter attack’, International Business Times, 25 April 2012, www.ibtimes.co.uk.
(15) ‘Elephant conservation, illegal killing and ivory trade’, Sixty-second meeting of the CITES Standing Committee, Geneva, Switzerland, 23-27 July 2012, www.cites.org.
(19) Martin, E. and Vigne, L., 2001. The Ivory Dynasty: A report on the soaring demand for elephant and mammoth ivory in southern China. Elephant Family, the Aspinall Foundation and Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, London, www.elephantfamily.org.
(20) Martin, E. and Vigne, L., 2010. Consumer demand for ivory in Japan decline. Pachyderm, 47(January – June), pp. 45-54.
(21) ‘Elephant conservation, illegal killing and ivory trade’, Sixty-second meeting of the CITES Standing Committee, Geneva, Switzerland, 23-27 July 2012, www.cites.org.
(23) Brahic, C., ‘Why should Zimbabwe’s government profit from ivory?’, New Scientist, 16 July 2008, www.newscientist.com.
(24) Martin, E. and Vigne, L., 2001. The Ivory Dynasty: A report on the soaring demand for elephant and mammoth ivory in southern China. Elephant Family, the Aspinall Foundation and Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, London, www.elephantfamily.org.
(27) ‘Elephant conservation, illegal killing and ivory trade’, Sixty-second meeting of the CITES Standing Committee, Geneva, Switzerland, 23-27 July 2012, www.cites.org.
(28) Gray, D.D., ‘Conservation Drones Protect Wildlife, Spot Poachers and Track Forrest Loss’, Huffington Post, 19 August 2012, www.huffingtonpost.com.
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