Ivory Trade: Has CITES inadvertently doomed Africa’s elephants?

Cites agreeing to allow Southern African nations Namibia, South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe to sell off their ivory in once-off auctions to Japan in 1999, and again to Japan and China in 2008, may have been the catalyst in the recent spike in ivory poaching and seizures of illegal ivory.

This auction broke the zero tolerance trade embargo on ivory that Cites had put in place in 1990, leaving ivory traders and buyers “unaware” of the legality surrounding the trade. Unscrupulous traders, with the help of corrupt officials, can blur the lines of legal and illegal ivory. National Geographic’s article in 2012 claims that at least 25000 elephants were illegally killed last year. This id based on the reported number of elephants killed that have been found by officials, as well as being calculated on the amount of ivory that has been confiscated. The figure thus does not take into account the un-confiscated ivory or elephant corpses that were never recovered. In effect the number of dead elephants could be much higher. Also worrying is the manner in which the elephants have been killed.

Last year, Chadian and Sudanese poachers slaughtered around 650 elephants in a matter of weeks in Cameroon’s Bouba Ndjida National Park. This year another 89 were killed in Garamba National Park in Chad. These single large-scale killings made headlines because of their enormous size. Particularly victims of this recent jump are the forest elephants in central Africa, because ivory carvers in the Far East prefer their harder tusks for creating sculptures. The sculptures are stunningly intricate and are sold as works of art. In China, where the popular conception is that tusks, which translate into Chinese as “teeth”, grow back. In effect, harvesting the teeth of live elephants is not actually cruel, and an IFAW study has claimed that many Chinese and Buddhists, where ivory is a recognisable symbol of religious following, do not know that the acquisition of ivory entails the killing of the animal.

Because of ivory’s high value, it must be asked what African states’ policy is with regard to losing the ivory. Essentially the ivory trade can be compared to the trade in blood diamonds. Like diamonds, the ivory resources are forming integral parts of non-African economies. The ivory, like diamonds is often gained illegally. It is difficult to trace ivory and diamonds once it has been successfully smuggled and cut.

But at the end of the day Africa is losing wealth. The wealth it loses takes the form of poached ivory that flows out of the continent. Additionally, every set of tusks involves another dead elephant – which constitutes a loss in tourism money, biodiversity and jobs. The key to African states protecting the elephants or ivory wealth lies in its recognition that it is not just losing many expendable animals, but is seeing potential millions of dollars flowing off the continent. If this loss could be measured, perhaps Namibia, South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe would think twice about opening the door for extermination of the African elephants.


Unknown Pangolins: Danger not just from the Far East, study finds

Last December, Chinese customs officials confiscated 9 tons of pangolin pieces, comprising 2, 032 frozen individuals and 325 kg of pangolin scales. In comparison, the size of the single seizure dwarfed South African rhino poaching statistics of the last 20 years combined.

While this enormous haul of mostly Asian pangolins received little media attention, alarm bells were sounding among conservationists in Southern Africa. They feared the increasing demand for pangolin scales and meat would spread to the yet relatively unaffected African continent fuels pangolin-poaching. Additional, blame for the growth in illegal wildlife trade in ivory and rhino horn has been linked to increasing East Asian economic and physical presence in Southern Africa. Some have argued that this presence makes facilitating the trade of illegal animal product to East Asian countries where the demand for ivory, rhino horn and pangolin is already high and increasing.

Yet a recent study on pangolins in Namibia, a country always believed to have had a viable population, has revealed that the species faces as great a danger from local people. According to University of Pennsylvania wildlife researcher Michael Drake says East Asians represent only small fraction of Namibia’s pangolin demand.


Above: A young pangolin, or scaly anteater on Mundulea Nature Reserve. Pangolins face extinction due to high demand in the Far East and Africa for its meat and scales. These are assigned high cultural values by many societies.

Drake conducted the first ever survey of pangolin numbers in Namibia. The two-month survey took him from the peopled north to the arid central regions as well as rural and urban areas of the southwestern African nation.

“This is the first figure that assesses the level of pangolin poaching in Namibia and tells us a lot about how acceptable pangolin poaching is in the country,” he added.

Drake said: “People assign a high cultural value to pangolins and feel fortunate to be able to catch and use one”.

He warned: ““I do not believe that pangolins are being exported in large numbers from Namibia to Asia yet, but as numbers of Asian pangolins decline, it will eventually become economically viable for smugglers to import African pangolins into the Asian market.”

Bruno Nebe, who heads up Pangolin Research Mundulea (PRM), a nature reserve based in northern Namibia that hosts an array of endangered animals including black rhino, said pangolins would struggle to supply an ever increasing human population with more financial muscle in Namibia and the Far East.

“This is a similar problem that threatens elephants and rhinos – more people are able to pay high prices for illicit animal goods and they don’t worry how they get it,” he said.

Drake also believes Namibian pangolins would not be able to survive the levels of poaching that have been found in Asia for long.

Pangolins populations occur in very low densities, and only produce one offspring per mating couple every year.  Thus, Drake suggests, their population is likely to be very sensitive to “aggressive poaching”.

“It is very possible for humans to poach pangolins to such critically low levels that pangolins will no longer be able to find mates and the population will collapse all together,” he says.

Part of the problem Drake says is the lack of any scientific data available on pangolins in Namibia or beyond.

“The biggest take home message is how little we know about pangolins in Africa,” he says.

Working with pangolins is a difficult proposition. Timoteus Andreas is the head pangolin wrangler at PRM and has worked with the animals for four years. He said while pangolins are harmless, tracking them is difficult because they are nocturnal, secretive and hard to find in the bush.

“We always fear rhino or cheetah ambushes while pangolin tracking,” he added.

Across Namibia, Drake found people “that saw lots of pangolins when they were young, but now see very few”.

Andreas concurred: “Growing up in rural Namibia, old people talked about catching or eating them, I never saw pangolins until I came to Mundulea.”

Nebe said many Namibians saw pangolins as pests that ruined roads and crops and killed the animals whenever they came across them. While pangolins face few natural predators, the species is extremely vulnerable to man. Hunting a pangolin is as easy as poking a stick into the animals belly and letting it curl up around the stick.  After that, one simply put the stick and the pangolin over your shoulder and walk away.


Above: “As easy as picking up and walking away”. A researcher from Pangolin Research Mundulea demonstrates the simplicity of capturing a live pangolin.

In the face of a global decline in biodiversity, Drake said it is important for a species to have a tangible value in order to make it worthwhile to protect.

In contrast to elephant and rhino, which governments have a vested interest in protecting because they provide valuable foreign income due to tourism, Drake said: “Pangolins only real value at the moment is as a commodity on the black market. It’s important to eliminate the belief that catching pangolins can be financially rewarding.”

Translocations – animals as “wild” card natural resources

Last year Namibia made headlines when it initiated a project to capture and transfer approximately 146 wild animals from its national parks to its long-time political ally Cuba. The project was christened “Noah’s Ark 2” and is currently in its second phase – the first batch of animals already living in a Cuban zoo. Among the animals trans-located were Big Five game, as well as animals more common in Namibia such as ostrich and oryx.

The project is reported to have cost the Namibian government at least N$ 25 million and the Cuban government a further U$ 15 million to accommodate the animals when they arrive in Cuba. The translocation, according to the Namibian government, complies with wildlife trade watchdog CITES’s regulations. The enormous cost of this venture left me perplexed as to who was actually benefitting from this whole deal.

Namibia – Cuba relations strengthened by massive wildlife transfer?

Cuban zookeepers said the introduction of “African animals” is necessary to restock the stagnant gene pool of Cuban zoo animals. The government also hopes to boost the local tourism market and bring in much needed cash by having exotic animals in its zoos. On a micro-level, this may seem plausible. But looking at the bigger picture of Noah’s Ark 2, I cannot see how the sudden transfer of so many wild animals from Africa to a tropical Caribbean island can benefit the animals. Considering the stress and hardships the animals suffer during their capture, passage and translocation to an unfamiliar environment, the language of this consignment seems to echo terms used during trans-Atlantic slave trading.

The distance, both physical and psychological, between Cub and Namibia will be a stressful factor for the transferred animals

The distance, both physical and psychological, between Cub and Namibia will be a stressful factor for the transferred animals

The precise details of the deal between the countries are unclear. The Namibian government referred to the project as a “gift” after an envoy to Cuba in 2010 allegedly promised a donation of wild animals to Cuba. These allegations prompted conservationists in Namibia and abroad to suspect the Noah’s Ark 2 scheme was a “favour” from the SWAPO-dominated Namibian government to Cuba, in recognition of Cuba’s military and political support during the pre-independence liberation movement.

It appears once again that animals are being used as expendable “wild” cards to foster long lasting diplomatic between the Cuban and Namibian governments.

Other translocation types include moving animals for commercial hunting purposes, where game is transferred for the purpose of being shot on different hunting ranches. Though this concept may be hard to stomach, trophy hunting benefits conservation efforts in other areas with the enormous financial gains it attracts. Also translocations seek to eliminate human vs. nature conflict, where animals are relocated to safer, less populated locations.

Translocations are sometimes necessary – especially when the alternative is for the animal to die in its current location. But transferring 146 free-living wild animals, from national parks where the animals are theoretically best protected, without any immediate threat to a zoo is unnecessary. Surely there were less public and expensive options available for Namibia to “thank” the Cuba?

As it was, Namibia received negative publicity for its role in Noah’s Ark 2. Cuba will continue in its struggling economic state with the expenses of a few more depressed lions and elephants. Admittedly, none of the game sent to Cuba was transferred illegally, nor is the translocation likely to damage existing game numbers in Namibia permanently.

What has been damaged is the wild animal’s status in the eyes of the Namibian government. In one deal, Namibia essentially put its entire wildlife population up for sale by way of paying for Cuba’s support in military aid and other expertise in wild animals.

Still, this is better than killing the animals and selling off the meat and trophies to some other buyer that Namibia owes a thank you to – a scary proposition, considering the number of donor countries Namibia has had in its past. But in principal, the line is getting blurry – dead or living wild animals have a price on their heads. And this is in Namibia, a country with a relatively good reputation when it comes to conservation issues.

If states are serious about protecting their wildlife, or as they’d have it “natural resources”, they must remove any notion that animals living within state-protected national parks are (or could be) for sale.

I’m almost extinct, do I deserve some attention now?

DSC_0614Ever heard of a pangolin? A scaly anteater perhaps? Or a creature whose ancestors have walked this Earth for 40 million years, one of the Earth’s earliest modern mammals?

Doesn’t ring a bell? You’d be forgiven. Hardly anyone sees them in Southern Africa. They are nocturnal or crepuscular mammals that survive off eating ants. They have no teeth; their tail, body and head seem to merge into one; they can’t run and they roll themselves up into a ball when they feel the situations is getting dodgy. It is also an animal can be compared quite comprehensively to the rhinoceros.

National Geographic Footage of a pangolin

Follow the Spoor wildlife YouTube blog on pangolins

So why has no one heard about the pangolin? And what is so remarkable about this little mammal weighing a maximum of just 12 kilogrammes to be compared to the fierce and majestic rhino?

Pangolin rolled up

Pangolin rolled up

Pangolins exist in Africa and Asia, much like rhinos. Tree dwelling pangolins are more prominent in Indonesia, China and South East Asia, while ground pangolins live in Africa. Pangolins and rhinos have few natural predators – not much can penetrated their thick outer layers. The most telling comparison however is what can kill them and why they are being killed.

For the rhinos it is their horn. For pangolins it is their scales. Both scales and horns are illegally poached and traded as traditional medicines and aphrodisiacs. The main market for these commodities is South-East Asia, and the business is growing significantly.

The rhinos and the pangolins share one more common characteristic – their only defence mechanism is also their one-way ticket to extinction. What separates the pangolins from the rhinos is that the pangolins are going that way without as much fanfare – and thus much faster.

This pangolin's armour was severely damaged after a poacher kept the animal alive and clipped the scales

This pangolin’s armour was severely damaged after a poacher kept the animal alive and clipped the scales

In December 2012, Chinese customs officials seized 9 tons of pangolin pieces, comprising 2, 032 frozen individual animals and 325 kg of pangolin scales. This one seizure comprises of more poached individual animals than the number of rhinos poached in South Africa during the last 20 years!

What makes this seizure even more worrying is that while conservationists in Asia and Africa have a fairly accurate idea of how many rhinos exist, there are no such available data for pangolins. A recent survey conduct by an Ivy League researcher conducted in rural Namibia, once though to hold viable populations of pangolins, found that while many farmers knew what a pangolin was, they could not recall seeing one in the last 15 years, giving an indication that pangolin population are dropping drastically.

There is no telling how detrimental the pangolin trade is to the species. The lack of scientific data is due to two factors: the difficulty in observing the pangolins; and the lack of interest in the creatures beyond their commercial value.

A female pangolin

A female pangolin

The pangolins drew the short straw when it came to society deciding which animals it would idolize. This brings the question of what society deems is “worth saving”. The main problem I have here is not that the pangolins are being poached – rhinos, tigers and elephants share my sympathies. It is the fact that they are being killed in outrageously high quantities without the attention they deserve.

Are the pangolins just not newsworthy? A possibility. Cape vultures, Wild dogs, Riverine rabbits and Geometric tortoises also fall into this bracket. While rhinos face extinction in a storm of news coverage, these animals are disappearing very quietly.

Am I not pretty enough to save?

Am I not pretty enough to save?

The danger lies in deciding which creatures society will make an effort to conserve. If pangolins and rhinos are poached to extinction for almost identical reason, and society chooses to focus on one but not the other, we must ask ourselves to consider the real reasons for us supporting an anti-poaching initiative. Is it because we like the animal being poached? Is it because we don’t like the people behind the poaching? Or is it all a bit fuzzy, but it just happens to be easier to be anti-rhino poaching because there’s already a bandwagon waiting?

If this is the prevailing attitude, we’ve already lost the entire conservation cause. Taking a stand for something is not easy. It takes consistency, commitment and discipline. Society cannot, without a cloudy conscious,  choose to defend one and not the other  if the same injustices are being suffered by both.

Some of Africa’s most critically endangered animals are not getting enough media and conservation attention.


Cape vulture – perceived threat to livestock


Riverine rabbit – severe habitat loss


Geometric tortoise – habitat loss


Wild dogs (the painted dog) –  perceived threat to livestock.