Crime rings boost ivory smuggling
The last year has seen a major increase in the illegal ivory trade, with more involvement from organised crime. Figures compiled by Traffic, the agency charged with monitoring the trade, show a doubling in the volume of illegal ivory seized from 2008 to 2009.
Researchers believe most of it is poached in West and Central Africa, while China is the main destination. Traffic says there is no evidence that last year’s one-off legal sale of ivory in southern Africa boosted smuggling.
The volume of ivory seized is not a complete indication of the size of the illegal trade, because the effectiveness of police and customs authorities can vary from year to year and only a fraction of illegal consignments are discovered.
Nevertheless, Traffic believes a significant increase lies behind the seizure figures, especially because the final numbers for 2009 could rise even higher. “Our analysis cuts off in August, and our figures are already showing the increase,” said the agency’s director Steven Broad.
“So it’s a serious concern. And the increase is based on a relatively small number of big seizures, which tend to indicate more organised operations behind the trade,” he told BBC News. A year ago, an operation by Interpol and Kenyan authorities netted a tonne of ivory in a single consignment – the biggest on record – and led to the arrest of 57 people in five African countries.
Reports indicate that prices of $1,000 per kilo can now be commanded. Traffic believes that poaching and exporting is currently concentrated in West Africa. Nigeria emerges as a country implicated in many seizures made elsewhere, but whose authorities have not themselves made a single seizure in 18 years. As sources of ivory, Traffic also picks out Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo as countries of concern, while Thailand stands accused as a major trans-shipment point.
More than half of the consignments involving these countries are large ones, indicating the involvement of organised crime, Traffic says. Tanzania emerges as a nation effective at controlling poaching in its own elephant herd, but which gangs are increasingly using to export ivory. Traffic concludes that most of the illegal ivory ends up in China, although Vietnam is developing as a market.
In recent years, China has stepped up monitoring and enforcement on ivory carvers and sellers, and its efforts were rewarded in July last year when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) voted to allow Chinese buyers into the legal sale of stockpiled ivory that was about to begin in southern Africa. The sale permitted Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to sell more than 100 tonnes of ivory from government stockpiles.
Most of it came from animals that had died naturally, and the money raised was designated for elephant conservation. Although not opposing the sale, Traffic believes Chinese authorities have further to go.
“The [Chinese] approach is to have very tightly controlled outlets selling the legal ivory, and there is a lot of detail – you can even check the legality on a public database when you go to buy something,” said Mr Broad.
“But what effort has been put into suppressing the black market trade outside those controlled outlets? Based on what we have at the moment, we can’t say they’re failing; but it’s a big question.” The Traffic report also highlights the increasing presence of Chinese citizens in African countries as a factor facilitating trade.
“Chinese nationals have been arrested within or coming from Africa in at least 134 ivory seizure cases, totalling over 16 tonnes of ivory; and another 487 cases representing almost 25 tonnes of ivory originating from Africa was seized en route to China,” says the report. “As ever, more than any other country, China seemingly holds the key for reversing the upward trend in illicit trade in ivory.”
It would be logical to suppose that if the volume of the ivory trade is increasing, that must be fed by a rise in the rate of poaching. Although Kenya has documented a rise, information from other countries is scanty, and it is not clear whether the smuggling increase is affecting the viability of elephant populations.
On a pan-African basis, elephant numbers are increasing. But behind that overall trend lies a pattern of effective conservation and population increase in southern and eastern Africa, while numbers are low and believed to be falling in the centre and west of the continent. Last year’s legal ivory sale, authorised by CITES in 2007, remains controversial.
The previous one-off sale in 1999 was followed by four years of a decline in smuggling, apparently disproving the assertion made by some animal welfare organisations that a legal trade forms an opening into which black market ivory can pour.
This time, the data is unclear. Traffic is analysing evidence of elephant kills in Central Africa that might provide an answer; and until then, “We really can’t tell – the jury is out,” said Steven Broad. Tanzania and Zambia are requesting the right to make a similar sale, again of more than 100 tonnes. The request is due to be decided at the next CITES meeting in March.
Traffic is supported jointly by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and WWF, and is charged by CITES with monitoring the ivory trade through the Elephant Trade Information System (Etis). Etis contains a 20-year record of 14,364 elephant product seizure records from 85 states.