Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Ivory Poaching Endangers African Elephants

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Saturday,  February 20 / 10

Zack Gross

This just in from the “So you thought the nightmare was over” department! 

The endangered species issues, which doesn’t seem to make the news anymore, is still alive and well – or maybe the issue is that endangered species aren’t as alive as they should be!

A meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) is set for March 13th to 25th in Doha, Qatar and the sale of elephant ivory will be front and centre for debate.

In the 1980s, a terrible slaughter of elephants brought the population of this beast crashing down from 1.3 million to a mere 600,000. 

A global ban on the international trade in ivory was imposed in 1989 and remains in place to date. 

The only opportunities to buy ivory over the ensuing 20-year period have been two sales, in 1997 and 2008, for limited periods of time of non-poached ivory from dead elephants stockpiled by national governments. 

Zambia and Tanzania propose another sale right away, but all other nations oppose this.

The market demand for ivory, contraband or not, seems mostly to originate in Asia.  Chinese people, in particular, want ivory for traditional medicines, carvings, and other decorative and ceremonial purposes. 

Many instances exist in recent times of poaching and smuggling operations in Africa that direct illegal ivory to the Far East.  The United States has also become a destination for ivory, for knife and gun handles, and jewelry. 

Greed is one motivator as a kilo of elephant ivory can sell in China for as much as $5,000 while the same from rhinos would fetch $3,000 per kilo.  With the recent influx of Chinese nationals to Africa working in construction, the timber industry, restaurants and retail, the trade has picked up considerably, whether through shipping or people taking ivory with them when they return home to sell at a tidy profit.

Poverty is what motivates some Africans to involve themselves in the underground elephant trade. 

Along with a cut from the ivory profits, one assumes, a poor village would get to eat the meat.  As well, elephants are much more popular in the Western world as cartoon characters and circus performers than they are in Africa where they are seen as rogue animals out to destroy people gardens and homes.

The on-going level of poaching and smuggling which has existed in recent years is showing signs of increasing. 

Observers have documented a 7 to 10% kill rate and one country, Sierra Leone, recently announced that its last elephant was gone.  Fear is growing that, in the long run, elephants will only be safe in zoos and other enclosures and none will any longer run free.

Over the past year, authorities report that a quantity of ivory equal to the destruction of 1500 elephants has been seized en route to Asia.  One must assume that much more has been poached and not caught! 

CITES’ fear is that another sale of legal ivory will just fuel the international market’s desire for ivory and lead to further illegal and species endangering activity. 

Many African countries, from the West to the East to the South, are calling for an additional twenty year ban of even legal sales. 

A 23-government African Elephant Coalition (AEC) is working to persuade the European Parliament and its member states to oppose any sales, with Great Britain seen as a key to this happening.

While Kenya is a leader in tracking and documenting the illegal elephant trade, recognizing that elephants are a boon to both the country’s ecology and tourist trade, many African countries, facing difficult poverty and conflict issues, are not as able to stem the tide of illegal activity. 

Kenyan authorities have a good record of arresting law-breakers in this regard, and have found, through DNA testing, that the ivory being taken off the continent through its ports are not all Kenyan.  Contraband originates from across the continent and is often a part of the larger trafficking of illegal goods, including big cats and rhinos, firearms and ammunition, and vehicles.

The regulation of trade in endangered species is not just an esoteric concern of animal-lovers.  It is connected to broader issues of trade, tourism, poverty, smuggling and violence and is part of the global effort to bring the rule of law into effect. 

The elephant is a very big animal but may seem small in comparison to the issues that face us in the news every day. 

However, when we connect the dots, we see that the welfare of animals is part of an ethic in the world that supports us all.


Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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