Growing demand for ivory in the Far East is fuelling a surge in illegal smuggling and elephant poaching, a report claimed yesterday.
China, Singapore and Hong Kong have this year recorded their biggest seizures of illegal ivory since the international trade was banned in 1989, according to the report, Back in Business, by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). Ivory is becoming so popular in China that there are ivory accessories for mobile phones, EIA researchers say.
The situation could worsen if several African countries succeed in having the ban relaxed at an international wildlife trade conference beginning next week, say the EIA.
The EIA was instrumental in exposing the illegal trade of the 1980s, which drove ivory poaching in Africa to new heights. African elephant populations crashed from 1.3 million in 1979 to 625,000 in 1988, by which time it was estimated that 70,000 elephants were slaughtered annually.
The 1989 ban, agreed by the United Nation's Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), was regarded as a success as it slowed down poaching rates considerably. A 1996 survey put the African elephant population at about 450,000, but this did not include figures from several elephant "range states" such as the Congo, where war has made accurate counting impossible.
The threats of illegal trading and poaching, and a relaxation of the ban on the legal trade present Africa's elephants with fresh danger, the EIA says.
There is a renewed demand for ivory in the Far East partly due to China's booming economy. And a one-off legal sale in 1999 of 50 tons of ivory to Japan from a group of African states created a fresh taste for ivory objects, the report says.
The EIA carried out undercover investigations in southern Africa, China and Japan and found the ivory trade is flourishing, selling stock which can only have been acquired illegally, the report says.
It focuses on one particular syndicate which it says is smuggling ivory poached in Zambia to Durban in South Africa, where it is shipped to the Asian markets.
In June a shipment bound for China was intercepted in Singapore. Customs officers found 535 elephant tusks and more than 40,000 blank ivory hankos, or Japanese name-seals, in a container labelled "stone sculptures".
The ivory, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars at Asian retail prices, was the largest single seizure of illegal ivory since the ban in 1989.
"That there was so much in a single shipment shows how brazen the smugglers are becoming," said Julian Newman of the EIA.
Another worry is the bid by five African countries to ease ivory trade restrictions at the two-week Cites conference in Santiago, Chile, which begins next week. Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe are seeking permission for legal sales of ivory and elephant products. They claim that verification procedures exist to prevent illegal ivory getting into the system, something the EIA refutes.
"EIA has compiled evidence of a renewed threat to elephant populations through increasing market demand in the Far East," said Allan Thornton, the chairman. "To allow further legal sales will cause demand to rise and the deaths of thousands of elephants."
More than 150 nations will be voting on the African countries' proposals and the way the European Union votes is likely to swing the decision. Britain will be an observer at a meeting of the elephant range states in Santiago next week. "Our position will be clearer after that," a spokeswoman for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said yesterday. "But we would not back anything that threatened the conservation of elephants."