World & Nation

Thriving illicit ivory trade decimating African elephant herds

Thriving illicit ivory trade decimating African elephant herds
Polished elephant tusks are on display at a Bangkok antiques shop as the Thai capital hosts a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Thailand’s legal domestic ivory industry has come under fire as a gateway for tusks from elephants slaughtered illegally in Africa by crime syndicates.
(Rungroj Yongrit / European Pressphoto Agency)

Conservationists battling illicit global trade in endangered species say at least 25,000 African elephants were slaughtered last year by criminal gangs eager to market the lucrative ivory from their tusks.

The poachers’ take has risen to alarming levels over the last six years, with about one in 17 wild elephants being felled in 2012, by some estimates. That is a pace that confronts some herds with extinction as elephant births are again being outpaced by the illegal kills.


Protecting Africa’s majestic mammals from the scourge of tusk hunters was a task conservationists thought they had mastered two decades ago after the 178 nations of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, banned crossborder ivory trade in 1989.

But legal ivory-carving industries in Thailand and China have provided convenient cover for rogue traders, and the Internet’s anonymity and 24/7 availability allow buyers and sellers to conduct business in banned species parts without fear of detection or social reproach.


Even worse, say wildlife defenders, is the false confidence the international trade ban has engendered among consumers everywhere that any statues or baubles openly for sale must have been made from legally available tusks of domesticated elephants that died of natural causes.

Thailand Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra welcomed more than 2,000 conservation and wildlife advocates to a global meeting of CITES in Bangkok last week with a pledge to close the legal gaps that have made Thailand one of the biggest markets for “blood ivory.” The other flourishing market, China, has brought its laws up to international standards, but they are often ignored by unscrupulous dealers who substitute smuggled ivory items for documented domestic works.

“So many consumers just proceed on the assumption that no animal was killed for this product. The bloody killing fields are continents away from the Chinese consuming market, and there is very little consideration for what is going on there,” Tom Milliken, head of the elephant and rhinoceros program at the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic,  said in a telephone interview from the Bangkok conference.

Thailand provides a convenient fig leaf to cover the illicit trade with laws that allow marketing of tusks taken from elephants that die after service in the logging and tourist industries. Even calculating a more accelerated natural death rate among the 1,000 or so captive tusk-growing males, a fully legal ivory trade would provide Thailand’s registered carvers with less than 2,000 pounds of ivory per year, or about 25 pounds apiece.


“There is no way an ivory carver could have a livelihood with that volume,” Milliken said.

Thai border authorities seize at least 10 tons of illicit ivory from smugglers each year, he noted, more than 10 times the amount legally available and probably only a fraction of what evades interception.

Robert Hepworth, head of the British delegation to CITES, urged fellow delegates to give up the fiction that any legal trade in ivory can coexist with the higher aim of protecting elephants from extinction.

“Now is the time to say enough is enough and decide to implement an urgent, indefinite and comprehensive ban on ivory trade, including domestic markets,” Hepworth said, lamenting that many thousands of elephants have paid with their lives for the “experiment” of exempting artisanal ivory works in countries that claim to use only tusks from the naturally deceased.


The global conservation confab also put eight countries on a watch list -- Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and China -- and called for sanctions against those that continue to blatantly violate the convention’s species protection goals. But as the Bangkok meeting wound up Tuesday, the member states decided to put off any punitive actions until at least the summer of 2014.

“We’re disappointed by the lack of urgency from governments to speed up the sanctions process against countries that have failed to act for years to curb the illegal ivory trade in their countries, while the slaughter of thousands of elephants continues in Africa,” said Carlos Drews, head of World Wildlife Fund’s CITES delegation. “However, we will be watching to see that CITES holds these governments to account in the coming year.”

That threat could have leverage with some of the targeted offenders. Thailand, for instance, has a multibillion-dollar trade in orchids that would be devastated by a boycott, should one be called to punish its lax efforts to exclude illegal ivory.

China is the bigger problem to tackle, though, as wildlife defenders estimate its illegal ivory industry is at least three times the size of Thailand’s. They blame, in part, the decision by CITES six years ago to allow China to revive its domestic carving industry after Beijing provided assurances that it had effective controls against illegal imports.

China accounts for at least half of global ivory sales, CITES officials reported in documents prepared for the Bangkok meeting. The Middle Kingdom’s voracious appetite for ivory has driven the price per pound to nearly $500, a more than sixfold increase since the domestic carving industry was revived in 2007.

Environmentalists say that CITES’ condoning of domestic industries using legally acquired ivory sent the wrong signal to Chinese consumers and stimulated interest in ivory jewelry and implements that had become rare after the international trade ban.

“No one would have guessed that the Chinese demand would explode the way it did,” said Ginette Hemley, senior vice president for conservation strategy and science at the World Wildlife Fund. “The illegal trade has dwarfed the legal trade that China was trying to regulate, and you can’t easily distinguish legal from illegal ivory once it gets to the marketplace.”

The Bangkok gathering also shone a light on the role Internet-based traders and advertisers have played in providing a clandestine arena for “blood ivory” sales. The Washington-based Environmental Investigation Agency complained that Google advertising on Japanese shopping websites promoted the sale of about 10,000 items made from ivory of suspect origin. Google issued a statement claiming it doesn’t allow marketing of endangered or threatened species and asserting that, “as we detect ads that violate our advertising policies, we remove them.”

To dissuade consumers from unwittingly rewarding illegal trade, celebrities have been enlisted to urge fans not buy ivory: Britain’s Prince William greeted the convention in a video linkup with a call for nations to halt the “shocking levels” of elephant and rhino poaching. Some of China’s most famous figures, like actress Li Bingbing and NBA star Yao Ming, are appearing in public service announcements sounding an alarm about  elephants’ extinction.

“The campaign aims to educate Chinese buyers that the origin of most items on the market comes from poaching and elephants being killed illegally,” Hemley said.

“Are the celebrities having an impact? We don’t know at this point,” she said, but noted that Yao’s fame and respect in his homeland could be more effective than sanctions in raising awareness about elephants, whose numbers have fallen from about 5 million less than a century ago to as few as 420,000 today.


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A foreign correspondent for 25 years, Carol J. Williams traveled to and reported from more than 80 countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.


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