Barbarians at Ivory’s Gate
“Africa’s human and natural resources have been pillaged and plundered for generations by people from far off lands. Our elephant ivory and rhino horn are going to countries where they are used for God knows what! Only to satisfy ridiculous outdated beliefs whilst we remain with carcasses, as proof we once owned these magnificent animals.” – President Ian Khama; African Elephant Summit December 2013
Over the last 100 years, African elephant populations have declined from 3-5 million to less than 420 000 today. Besides habitat loss and conflict with people, caused by human encroachment on vast amounts of territory, elephants face their biggest nemesis all over again; international demand for ivory. Ivory usage has moved towards mass production of souvenirs and jewellery in the last 30 years. In Japan, the obsessive consumption of name seals (hanko stamps) made of solid ivory were partly instrumental for the massive elephant population decline in the 1980’s when numbers were reduced from about 1.3 million to less than 600 000 in ten years. In 1997 the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) approved the sale of 49 tons of ivory from Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana to Japan and a further 102 tons were sold to China and Japan in 2008. This last sale raised a contemptible $15 million. The price of ivory then skyrocketed from $153/kg to about $2000/kg when illegal ivory traders capitalised on the situation when it became extremely difficult to differentiate legally held ivory from illegal smuggling.
It is no secret that China has emerged as the world’s leading driver of illegal trade in ivory ever since CITES approved the once off sale of ivory in 2008. China has already overtaken Japan as the second largest consumer nation of luxury products after the USA of luxury goods. There is more disposable income in China today than ever before and predictions are that China will boast a larger economy than the USA by 2025. Ivory has symbolized luxury for millennia and been revered by both the Greek and Roman civilizations who practiced ivory carving in making large quantities of high value works of art and precious religious objects. The Syrian and North African elephant populations were reduced to extinction probably due to the demand for ivory in the Classical World. The Chinese have always valued ivory for both art and utilitarian objects. As early as the first century BC, ivory was moved along the Northern Silk Road for consumption by western nations. In the Philippines, ivory was and still is used to craft the images of Catholic icons and saints.
For the first time in Africa’s history, large numbers of Chinese are living in Africa, collecting ivory and shipping it out to Asia. According to the Kenya Wildlife Service, 90 percent of seized ivory involves Chinese and since 2007 the amount of illegal ivory seized has gone up by 800 percent. Estimates suggest that an African elephant is killed for its ivory every 15 minutes, roughly 35 000 to 50 000 per year.
Historically, the West slaughtered millions of elephants in Africa to sustain demand for piano keys, billiard balls, combs and buttons. The village of Deep River, Connecticut grew throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century because of the ivory industry, where this trade contributed to the slaughter of as much as 100 000 elephants each year, which went on for decades. The Pratt, Read & Co. in Deep River and the Comstock, Cheney & Co. in Ivoryton dominated the manufacture of ivory products in the United States.
Kenya’s President Daniel Arab Moi was the first leader to set fire to 13 tons of ivory in 1989, which the world recognised as an act of defiance against elephant slaughtering and ivory trafficking (in the same year CITES passed a global ban on the international trade in ivory). In November 2013, the US Fish and Wildlife Service destroyed nearly 6 tons of ivory confiscated since the 1980’s. This high profile act in Denver was staged to send a global message against the use of ivory. China, the world’s biggest consumer of illegal ivory, followed suit by destroying 6 tons of its own illegal ivory in January 2014, although the Philippines were the first ivory consuming nation to destroy its national stockpile in June 2013. Lately international conservationists and social media have succeeded in applying pressure when a unanimous decision was made on 23 January 2014 by the Hong Kong members of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department’s Endangered Species Advisory Committee to destroy 30 tons of confiscated ivory. France and Chad also made a decision recently to destroy all its confiscated ivory.
In January 2014, the European parliament adopted a groundbreaking resolution on wildlife trafficking that calls for a moratorium on ivory trade and to curtail its serious economic and environmental threats. At the end of 2013, President Ian Khama hosted the African Elephant Summit in Botswana, when African states agreed to take urgent measures to contain the illegal ivory epidemic. Ivory transit states Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, and ivory destination states China and Thailand were included in the agreement. At the time of the summit, US philanthropist Paul Allen donated $8 million for a pan-Africa aerial survey, which will be undertaken this year by ecologist Dr Michael Chase from Elephants Without Borders (EWB), a non-profit conservation group based in the Okavango Delta. The aim of the survey is to accurately determine the number, trends, sizes and challenges of key elephant populations of Africa. EWB provides groundbreaking research on African elephants and will survey 18 countries, aiming to count 90 percent of Africa’s savanna elephants.
Tanzania conducted an aerial census last year and found that the World Heritage Site Selous ecosystem, which holds East Africa’s greatest elephant population, have had numbers dwindle from over 100 000 in the early 1970’s to 13083. This latest census indicates a decline of nearly 80 percent over the last 6 years alone when there were 55 000. Tanzania earns 17 percent of its GDP from wildlife tourism, but losing 30 elephants daily to poaching.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, Prince Charles and his son William, the Duke of Cambridge and Foreign Secretary William Hague hosted an international conference on wildlife crime in London in February this year. More than 40 countries, including 4 Presidents from Africa attended (sadly South Africa and Zimbabwe did not attend). Participants, including end-user countries China, Laos, Vietnam and Nepal signed the London Declaration, aimed at eradicating illegal trade in wildlife crime. The London Declaration provided practical steps to end the illegal trade in ivory, rhino horn, tiger parts and that of other wildlife. South Africa’s absence at the conference and non-participation in signing of the London Declaration raised serious concerns regarding its commitment to end the onslaught and killing of its rhinos. Seventeen African states were signatories to the London Declaration. At the conference, the governments of Botswana, Chad, Ethiopia, Gabon and Tanzania also signed an Elephant Protection Initiative – to destroy their ivory stockpiles beyond economic use and to observe a moratorium on any future trade for at least 10 years.
Strong law enforcement at international and local levels must be directed at the international crime syndicates. Domestic ivory markets in Africa must be closed down and consumers must be educated to stem the demand for ivory. Never before have we needed it more than now, that all politicians and lawmakers, all judges and jurors, initiate and fulfil a comprehensive global education manifesto, accompanied by extreme global punishment for offenders of wildlife crime to eradicate the scourge of the barbarians at ivory’s gate.
By Dex Kotze, February 2014