By Sakke Teerikoski
African elephants are on the decline. Large-scale illegal hunting is threatening populations across the continent to answer the global demand for ivory. This trade fuels militant groups that poach elephants and smuggle ivory for income. Lack of control causes illegal ivory to enter the legal market with relative ease, for example in South-Asian countries to which illegal ivory is shipped from Africa. While some countries have banned the domestic trade of ivory completely, many are yet to take this step. However, urgent action is needed to prevent the number of African elephants from dropping critically low.
This year marks 30 years since the African elephant became classified as an endangered species by the international community. In 1989, it had become clear that illegal hunting of elephants, mainly in pursuit of their ivory, had severely reduced the population. It had been estimated that two centuries of large-scale Western ivory demand and leisure hunting had caused the number of African elephants to drop from 26 million in 1800 to less than a million in the 1980s. The classification of the African elephant as endangered was an effort to bring the poaching to a halt. This led to a worldwide ban on ivory sales.
Subsequently, African elephant populations increased from around 0.6 million to roughly one million. However, after a short period of recovering elephant populations in the 1990s, the ivory trade regained life after the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) allowed the sales of stockpiled ivory in exceptional one-off cases in 1999 and 2008 due to increasing market pressure from Asia and parts of Africa -– regions that are now at the core of the global ivory trade. This was detrimental to the African elephant populations that have been on the decline again ever since. As a result of poor control schemes, it is hard to distinguish the legal stockpiled ivory pieces from newer tusks obtained through poaching, thus making it hard to draw a line between legal and illegal trade. CITES has listed Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, China, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines, as countries of primary concern in international illegal ivory trade.
Notably, nearly all the ivory obtained from poached African elephants ends up in China or China’s southern neighbors, where tusks are bought and turned into precious ivory artwork by skilled (but not necessarily well-paid) artists. Until the end of 2017, ivory trade was legal in China, provided the traders followed certain regulations. Thanks to the ban, China is no longer the major ivory market it used to be. There is, however, a widespread black market for ivory in China. BBC journalists reported in 2012 about “laundering” of illegal ivory, taking place between the legal market and the black market.
Vietnam and Laos have recently seen an increase in ivory trade. This is partly a result of the Chinese ban. The countries have also served as intermediate stops for smuggled ivory shipments to China, as smuggled ivory is usually shipped back and forth between different Asian ports before arriving at the final destination. This is done to make it harder to trace illegal shipments to any specific African point of origin. It is assumed that Chinese consumers who can no longer buy ivory artwork in their own country go to the neighboring countries to buy it there, and the southern neighbors have proven worthy destinations.
The shipments to Asia from Africa usually originate in Kenya or Tanzania. Tusks are transported to these places from other African countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic, Mozambique and Chad. In the DRC, illegal elephant hunting goes on for example in Garamba National Park. On the west coast, extensive poaching is believed to take place in the border region between Gabon and Cameroon.
It has been estimated that up to 30,000 African elephants are killed every year in the shadow of the ivory trade. There is a global demand to satisfy, and the business is very lucrative.
Not only ordinary criminals partake in elephant poaching. The zones where the illegal ivory hunt takes place are also homes to some of the most brutal militias in Africa, and these groups systematically hunt the elephants for their tusks. The Ugandan rebel group Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has been known to occupy areas where elephants live, for the sake of access to ivory. The Garamba National Park is one of these areas. Trading ivory for weapons and ammunition has helped groups such as the LRA to hold their positions in conflict-filled regions. There are other groups practicing the same trade too, such as Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and the Janjaweed militia. Rogue warriors from army entities from different countries are suspected to carry out illegal poaching and ivory trade as a side business.
The fight against the illegal ivory trade is thus just one part of a very complex political situation in the region. To protect the elephants and to hunt down violent poachers, park rangers patrol the national parks in central Africa. Sometimes they are backed by soldiers from national armies or African Union task forces. Sometimes they face the ivory warzone on their own. Awareness of the problem and more resources to help those who protect the elephants are key to tackle the problem of poaching. Meanwhile, however, the international community needs to step up for the planet’s wildlife. More countries should impose bans on domestic ivory trade. The EU still hasn’t done it. The US introduced a ban in 2016
To save the elephants in Africa, the world must learn from past mistakes. The first global ban of ivory in the 1990s resulted in a recovery of critically reduced populations. This victory was later lost, but it could be achieved again to stop the ongoing rapid decrease. If nothing is done and the trend of illegal hunting continues as it is, then we might yet see the extinction of the African elephant in our lifetime.
Sakke Teerikoski is a long-time member of UF and is currently the vice president of the UFS. When he’s not busy writing for Uttryck, he dwells in the realms of space satellites and, previously, EU affairs. Sakke is an engineer, currently based in Uppsala.
Illustration: Ellen Storgård