Thursday, 27 March 2014

Elephants and their Ivory

Prior to 1970, Eastern Africa was home to the largest elephant populations on the African continent, but their numbers declined rapidly from 1970 through 1989 from poaching. CITES (The UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) reported a loss of 300,000 African elephants – almost one third of Africa’s total population – to poaching between 1986 and 1989 alone, and other sources say 700,000 to 1 million were killed during the 1980’s.

Then in 1989 an International Ban on Ivory went into effect, protecting elephants and causing their numbers to grow dramatically in Southern and Eastern Africa since that time (until the recent crisis). The 1989 ban on ivory (and the subsequent rebound in the African elephant population) was so effective it is considered one of conservation’s great success stories

During that ban we learned some things. First, we saw how effective the ban on ivory was in stopping the illegal trade. And secondly, we learned that when protected, elephants can recover quickly. Despite their long gestation period (22-months) female elephants remain reproductive into their 50’s, allowing populations to grow by as much as 7% per year

A new poaching crisis began in 2007 but the methods used now are very different than in the past. While much of the previous poaching in Africa may have been opportunistic, this new wave of poaching is the work of dedicated poaching ‘cartels’. These groups cross borders and involve non-state armed groups, particularly Somali gangs using expatriate Chinese residents in East Africa as the most important middlemen.

East Africa is home to most of the remaining African Elephants and based on rough estimates, there are currently around 140,000 elephants in Eastern Africa. And that is exactly where these ‘cartels’ are focusing their poaching efforts.

The UN report estimates between 5,600 and 15,400 elephants are now poached in Eastern Africa annually, producing between 56 and 154 metric tons of illicit ivory, about two-thirds (37 tons) of which is headed for Asia. At US$850 per kilogram, this flow was worth around US$30 million in 2011. This is a new, much more sophisticated blood ivory war, with high stakes.

Very large shipments, involving the ivory of hundreds of elephants, are regularly encountered. Recently, authorities in Malaysia made one of the largest ivory seizures ever – six tons in a single shipment, representing the ivory of about 600 elephants, equivalent to one-quarter of the known elephant population of Uganda.

Evidence suggests current poaching rates in Eastern Africa have exceeded natural population growth rates. (Most countries in Africa can claim fewer than 1000 elephants, so this demand will quickly destroy some countries populations of elephants altogether)

Global breakdown of ivory confiscated in very large seizures (>800 kg) by country or region of export, 2009-2011

–Central Africa 2%

–Uganda 3%

–West Africa 4%

–Southern Africa 10%

–Unknown 17%

–Kenya 27%

–Tanzania 37%

(Source: Elephant Trade Information System)

Both as source and transit areas, Kenya and Tanzania are key players. Since ivory comes from many places and is distributed to buyers across Asia, these ports represent vital chokepoints in the flow of blood ivory.
In 2012 one Elephant was killed every 15 minutes in Africa