Elephant Poaching Major Topic of Discussion at CITES Meeting

Afircan elephant, South Africa

African elephant in South Africa. (© Megan Seman)

Here in Bangkok, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) conference kicked off with some encouraging news: Thailand Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra announced that the Thai government will ban its domestic ivory trade. If this ban goes into effect in the near future, it will be a big step toward preventing the laundering of poached African ivory in Asian markets, as well as a sign of hope for wild elephants.

However, this positive step does not mask the dire position of the African elephant in the world today. On the second day of the CITES meeting, I attended a film screening of “White Gold,” a documentary produced by the African Environmental Film Foundation in Kenya telling sad stories of the terrible poaching for ivory in Africa and the unregulated ivory market in Asia. This film is truly heartbreaking.

Narrated by my friend Iain Douglas-Hamilton, one of world’s most famous scientists and African elephant conservationists, the film emphasizes that the new wave of elephant killings across Africa is in many ways far graver than the crisis of the 1970s and 1980s. Firstly, there are fewer elephants in existence these days, and secondly the demand for ivory is far higher.

There is no shortage of examples of the brutality of poaching. In January 2012, Janjaweed militia gunned down more than 300 elephants in Cameroon’s Bouba N’Djida National Park. Two months later, 22 elephants in Garamba National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo, were slaughtered in a single attack — many with shots to the head. And last December, an illegal shipment of six tons of poached ivory was seized in Malaysia — one of the largest such hauls in recent history. Over the last decade, Chad’s Zakouma National Park has lost 90% of its elephants.

As a member of the technical advisory group of CITES’ Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) Programme, I also learned from the monitoring data from the field that nine out of 10 major East African protected areas showed record levels of illegal killing in 2011, with an estimated more than 17,000 African elephants killed, and it looks as though 2012 may have been even worse in northern Kenya.

Most of the illegal ivory seized in large-scale shipments in the past three years originated in Kenya and Tanzania; their major destinations are Southeast Asia and China. Even if Thailand ends its domestic ivory trade, domestic trading is still legal and booming in countries like China.

The international trade in ivory has been banned since 1989, when elephants were added to CITES Appendix I, a list that includes species threatened with extinction. A single once-off sale of legal stockpiles (from elephants who died of natural causes) from southern African countries to Japan and China was authorized in 2007. I believe this sort of sale is a mistake, as it contributes to the rising demand for ivory and also can stimulate illegal trade masked as legal transactions in some countries.

Around the world, a key driver of the illegal wildlife trade is the lack of alternative economic opportunities available to many impoverished people — conditions that must be changed in order to truly halt poaching of wildlife. But reducing demand for products like ivory is also crucial.

After witnessing how illegal ivory was obtained in the field in Kenya in August 2012,
Chinese NBA star Yao Ming said, “It was a harrowing experience I never want to repeat, but something that everyone thinking of buying ivory should see.”

I would ask my Chinese compatriots, and all those who purchase ivory as jewelry or as an investment, to stop buying this bloody “white gold” immediately. Otherwise, we will lose the largest terrestrial mammal species on Earth in the next couple of decades.

Li (Aster) Zhang is a field biologist on Asian elephants and a consultant with CI-China. To learn more about the current status of Africa’s elephant populations, check out this recent study about forest elephants, which was funded by CI and numerous partners.


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