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.