“The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it.” — Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness
Elephants in Tanzania are being illegally killed for their ivory tusks at an alarming rate. In fact, a government census revealed the nation had lost a “catastrophic” 60% of its elephants in just five years.
According to research by Great Elephant Census, funded by Microsoft founder Paul Allen, half the elephants in Ruaha National Park have been killed by poachers in a single year. Elephant population in that park, one of Tanzania’s largest, has dropped from 8,500 in 2014 to just over 4,200 now. The wider population in neighboring game reserves has plummeted from 20,000 last year to only 8,200 today. Even worse, the population of bulls older than 40, which are sought after by poachers for their enormous tusks, has declined by a staggering 72%.
Research shows that for slow-growing, long-living species like the elephant, when mortality rate reaches 6%, the population risks extinction. In many regions of Tanzania, elephant populations are declining at a rate of 12%.
Why is elephant ivory so valuable?
Other animals produce ivory, including walruses, rhinoceros, narwhals and warthogs, but elephant ivory is particularly sought after because its texture, softness and lack of tough enamel outer coating make it easy for craftsmen to carve into intricate designs.
Fun Fact: All African elephants, male and female, have tusks, whereas only some Asian males have tusks.
The price of ivory per kilogram has skyrocketed on the black market since The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) secured an agreement in 1989 among its member states to ban the international trade.
When the ban took effect, China seized more than 40 tons and held a stockpile it releases to licensed carving factories. These products are then sold legally throughout the country. The intent was to allow the population to have continued access to ivory in a controlled manner, but conservation groups believe this action supports black market ivory trading and elephant poaching. Today, China is destroying stockpiles in public support of banning the ivory trade, even though some conservationists believe that destroying the stockpiles only drives the prices of the ivory still available up and could potentially encourage more poaching. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Who are the poachers?
Poachers range from highly organized gangs operating with support from the Asian mafia to local rural Tanzanians. Poachers with ties to organized crime are often suspected of funneling profits from ivory sales to rebel groups operating elsewhere in Africa, tying black market ivory directly to the black market for weapons.
For local rural Tanzanians, the motivation is much simpler: money. Tanzania boasts a booming tourist trade — mostly safari-goers — that contributes about 16% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In 2013 the country welcomed more than a million tourists, adding nearly US$2 billion to the economy and supporting close to 500,000 jobs. Among these travel industry workers there is a clear and palpable respect and appreciation for the abundant wildlife found in the country.
But the majority of Tanzanians live in remote, rural areas and never see any tourism dollars. In fact, most rural Tanzanians live on the equivalent of about US$1 per day and view elephants as a threat to their crops.
According to ITV.com, local poachers are paid approximately US$5 per pound of ivory. With tusks averaging 150 pounds each, just one killed elephant with both tusks intact could net the shooter as much as US$1,500 – a veritable fortune. It’s no surprise with that kind of income potential — and punishment that can be as little as a $13 fine if convicted — that there is a long line of locals willing to engage in poaching activities.
The real profit, though, lies with the exporters and middlemen, who can collect as much as US$1,000 per pound by the time the ivory makes its way to China.
Partners in crime
As much as 40% of Tanzania is covered by protected parks, and the country has anti-poaching laws and a network of watchdog government agencies, including Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA). However, conservation efforts are stymied by low budgets, large areas of ground to cover, and allegations of rampant corruption that goes all the way to the top of government.
From 2009 to 2011, 45 tons — 37% of all elephant tusks seized worldwide came from Tanzania.
“Vanishing Point—Criminality, Corruption and the Devastation of Tanzania’s Elephants”, a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency released in 2014, claims that Tanzania lost more elephants to poaching between 2009 and 2013 than any other country in Africa—with about 10,000 slaughtered there in 2013 alone. In the Selous Game Reserve, two-thirds of the elephants have been killed.
The report accuses not only Tanzanian officials at every level of being complicit in ivory trafficking, but also claims that Chinese diplomats transported illegal ivory out of Tanzania in diplomatic pouches after a 2013 visit by the Chinese president to their country. The report also cites allegations that the Chinese Navy helped smuggle thousands of kilos out of Tanzania in 2013. Overall, the report finds that that less than 10% of the ivory is actually being seized when it leaves Tanzania, leaving 90% to the world’s black market buyers.
Who buys ivory?
Asians, and in particular the Chinese, are well known to be avid lovers of ivory. A booming middle class in China has boosted ivory’s value and owning a piece is considered to be a status-defining luxury. High profits have fueled a strong underground market for the product.
But before we go pointing fingers at the Chinese, we have to acknowledge with some embarrassment that the US is the world’s second largest market for ivory. Even though the US Fish and Wildlife Service regulates import and trade of ivory, complicated regulations under the Endangered Species Act make that a tough task – especially since the US has such a robust secondary market.
In 2015, Motherboard reported that the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Wildlife Conservation Society released a joint study investigating ivory trade on Craigslist over a 30-day period. During that period there were 456 ivory items, valued at about $1.5 million dollars, posted for sale in the 28 US cities examined. According to the study, the San Francisco Bay had the highest number of items for sale (84), followed by LA (79) and South Florida (60).
While many of these items were listed as antiques—which could make them acceptable under international regulations that went into effect in the 1970’s—only 3% of the sale items came with any authenticating documentation.
Surely the average American clearing out Aunt Ethel’s jewelry box when she dies won’t know the details of what’s legal and what’s not, but awareness of the bigger picture of illegal ivory trade and the desperate plight of African elephants should keep Americans from engaging in any form of ivory trade.
What are your thoughts on elephant poaching and the ivory trade? Post your comments below.