Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Ivory Trade Makes Elephants, Rhinos Disappear  

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, February 24 / 14

Zack Gross

A major conference of representatives from 50 nations worldwide took place earlier this month in London. Prince Charles and his sons the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry hosted them and established a new initiative focusing on curbing ivory consumption, and therefore poaching, which is endangering elephants and rhinos in Africa and Asia. 

Animal poaching is the illegal killing of animals, usually in order to source their valuable ivory or fur.  In South Africa in 2013, as an example, 750 rhino were poached.  The total global herd stands at 18,000 and at a certain point, the herd will not be sustainable. Rhino horn is thought in many countries to be an important medicinal ingredient.  In actuality, the horn is medicinally as valuable as a fingernail or toenail because that’s what it is.

Elephants and rhinos share the same fate.  A hundred years ago, three million elephants lived in Africa and today there are just half a million.  Poachers target the most successful elephants as they have the largest tusks, thus creating even greater risk for the herd.  Other animals at risk worldwide include bear for their gall bladders, big-horned sheep for their antlers, and tigers and gorillas for their pelts, organs and bones.  All of these are highly attractive and greatly consumed, especially by Asian markets, with their effect as medicines and herbal remedies much more myth than reality.

The desire of people to consume these products leads to poaching.  There is huge demand.  Selling to Asian markets brings in money to armed gangs, with the motive being personal gain, no different than the arms, drug or human trafficking trade.  While poaching was once seen as a more “innocent” but misguided way for poor people in developing countries to earn some money, it is now understood to be part of big-time international crime.

Back in the 1980s, the focus was on direct confrontation with the poachers and that was successful until the past five years, as Chinese demand and poaching have noticeably increased again. Thus, governments today are looking at how to curb demand.  As well, East African governments continue to ask for financial and technical assistance in order to hire game rangers and track perpetrators in their vast wildlife parks.  Tanzania recently hired 900 more staff in its wildlife division and dismissed ineffective, if not corrupt, ministers in charge of conservation.  Its capital, Dar es Salaam has become one of the biggest ivory smuggling ports on the African continent.

 An effective campaign was established to work with Chinese authorities to convince their consumers not to use or eat endangered species.  A specific target product in the past was shark fin soup!  This led to an 80 to 85 per cent reduction in this practice by urban Chinese consumers. In the United States, officials are targeting the purchase of ivory.  For example, a person selling a hundred year old antique ivory chess set is not in trouble, but someone with a new one is!  The Tanzanian government meanwhile reports that between 2010 and 2013, it confiscated 20 tonnes of ivory.

The great fear of high profile campaigners is the loss of bio-diversity as species become endangered by Western and Asian consumption.  It is not just the loss of any specific “noble” animal, but rather the cumulative impact on the environment when natural patterns change.  For instance, when elephant herds disappear, the germination of new trees stops – no elephants, no forests!  That affects bird life – no forest, no birds.  This, then, will affect insect counts and, therefore, the instance of disease.  With a broken natural life cycle, we face many problems – they may seem specific to that local area, but they do have global consequences.

This anti-consumption campaign, along with the Royals, has also attracted the support of celebrities such as soccer star David Beckham, basketball’s Yao Ming and actor Jackie Chan.  The Clinton Global Initiative, with Hillary Rodham Clinton as a long-time champion of wildlife conservation, recently outlined plans for their own multimillion dollar initiative to curb poaching and trafficking. They are focusing on the two main ivory markets, China and the US, where one can get $1000 for a pound of ivory. 

Although we tend to want to “Save the (whatever animal)” because they are cute, the fact is that the environmental consequences are not always considered by law-makers or evil-doers.  To keep our natural environment in balance, we should be concerned about the loss of animal species.


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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