An end to elephants in Africa? Species at crisis point as illegal ivory trade grows rapidly

Report coincides with international summit to discuss the plight of elephant numbers

The illegal ivory trade is growing rapidly with double the number of elephants killed and triple the amount of ivory seized over the past decade, the UN has warned.

In a new report to coincide with key discussions on the plight of the elephant at an international wildlife summit in Bangkok, Thailand, the UN and wildlife groups said elephant numbers were again falling in Africa as poachers and environmental damage take their toll.

“The surge in the killing of elephants and the illegal taking of other listed species globally threatens not only wildlife populations but the livelihoods of millions,” said John Scanlon, secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), organizer of the Bangkok summit.

A key concern is that elephants may be eradicated locally across parts of Central and West Africa by 2050 if the current level of poaching and environmental degradation continues, the report warns.

Amid what is considered the most sustained downward spiral for elephant populations since a worldwide ban on the ivory trade came into effect in 1990, country representatives and wildlife groups were due to meet in Bangkok to discuss the crisis facing the species.

In tomorrow's key discussion over the future of the elephant, participants will be presented with the latest data on ivory seizures with Thailand and China considered among the worst offenders in recent years.

“Urgent action is needed to address the growing challenges elephant populations are facing, but it will only happen if there is adequate political will to do so,” said Holly Dublin, chair of the African Elephant Specialist Group.

CITES, the body responsible for initiating the ivory ban, has indicated it is ready to sanction countries unless they impose stricter measures to curb the illegal trade in elephant tusks.

“There seems to be a widespread feeling at this meeting that we are seeing a crisis unfolding here,” said Tom Milliken, an elephant expert at TRAFFIC.

While the scene of the crime is in Africa, the destination for the resulting illegal ivory is almost always Asia, say wildlife groups. In January, two tonnes of ivory worth £800,000 en route to Asia was seized in Kenya, and in July last year Thai customs agents discovered half a tonne of ivory which had arrived on a flight from Nairobi. In April, 2011, Thai officials made yet another bust from Kenya when ivory was discovered hidden under a shipment of mackerel.

China though is considered the key to defeating the poachers, say conservation groups. As the final destination of the vast majority of the world’s illegal ivory, China has seen demand explode in recent years as the country’s rising number of rich residents have grown ever fonder of trinkets and carvings made from illegal ivory.

Part of the problem, say wildlife experts, is that this appetite for ivory was fueled in part by a controlled sale of illegally seized ivory from Africa in 2008 to China and Japan.

Beijing has implemented strict laws on ivory carving, selling and ownership, says Milliken, but it is not doing enough to go after the poachers and smugglers, nor the many ivory carving workshops in Beijing in particular.

“China is making lots of seizures but strict implementation has faltered,” he said.

While China has at least implemented a legal framework to tackle the growing illegal ivory trade, Thailand is yet to do so, which has triggered fierce criticism directed at the host of the ongoing CITES meeting.

At the opening on Sunday, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra promised that Thailand would impose a ban on ivory in a country where elephants are commonplace and revered even while ivory remains readily available to buy in markets, particularly in the capital Bangkok.

While delegates will discuss these key end-user countries along with Vietnam and the Philippines, a key market for ivory where it is turned into Christian images of Jesus, the focus will also be on Africa, the source.

Although the exact number of elephants being killed in these countries remains unclear, the Born Free Foundation estimated that at least 32,000 elephants were killed last year.

Between January and March, 2012, heavily armed foreign poachers killed over 300 elephants in Cameroon which left tuskless carcasses scattered across Bouba N’Djida National Park. Although the park responded with more guards, they have sometimes come under attack by poachers.

Among the measures Milliken says will be presented to the ongoing conference in Bangkok is a recommendation that the Chinese government install its own officials in countries which rank among the biggest suppliers of illegal ivory in Africa.

When countries like Tanzania do arrest those involved in global smuggling operations, these are often China nationals, he said, and African law enforcement agencies were usually unable to understand information seized on laptops or given to them by suspects.

“A Chinese officer breathing down your neck in Chinese would be much more effective,” said Milliken.

The Bangkok meeting is also set to be a showcase for other measures which wildlife groups say they hope will help to beat the poachers who have gained the upper hand in recent years.

The German CITES management team is tomorrow due to present a system which uses isotopes to more accurately measure the age of ivory, a key concern in the fight against illegal smuggling given the ivory ban came into effect in 1990. Anything from before that period is legal, while anything from afterwards – except from limited auctions of seized ivory – is illegal.

Following about four hours of discussions scheduled for tomorrow in Bangkok on how to curb this illegal trade, delegates are due to enshrine recommendations into action at a plenary session due to be held at the start of next week.

Although it remains unclear just how far countries are prepared to go, wildlife experts in Bangkok have said this week they are cautiously optimistic after Thailand’s pledge to enact a ban kicked off proceedings.

“For the first time, we’re seeing the fortitude to take action,” said Milliken.

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