As world leaders and conservationists descended on London last week for the Illegal Wildlife Trafficking Conference, the burning question in their minds was: How can trade in ivory, especially in Asian countries be contained?
The fear is that Africa’s elephants could go the way of dinosaurs. Some 20,000 jumbos are killed each year — 55 every single day — mostly for the illegal ivory trade.
The war on the illicit trade was dealt a blow on February 4, when ivory researcher Esmond Martin, who had authored several investigative reports on rhino and ivory smuggling in Kenya and the trade in China, Vietnam, and Laos, was found murdered in his Karen home in Nairobi.
Speaking at the conference, First Lady Margaret Kenyatta said Kenya has recorded a significant decline in poaching due to its enhanced wildlife law enforcement efforts and the government’s proactive anti-poaching measures.
“We have revamped and improved training and equipped Kenya Wildlife Service ranger forces that continuously evict poacher elements from the parks,” she said.
The statistics make for gloomy reading, though. The overall number of elephants has declined by about one third over the last decade. Many elephants now live in small and isolated populations. And should the current trends persist, elephants will be wiped out in the next decade.
Data from World Wide Fund for Nature shows that African elephants numbered three to five million in the last century. However, WWF says, their populations were severely reduced to its current levels because of hunting.
In the 1980s, WWF estimates that 100,000 elephants were killed each year, and up to 80 per cent of herds were lost in some regions. In recent years, growing demand for ivory, particularly from Asia, has led to a surge in poaching.
Elephant populations — especially in southern and eastern Africa, which once showed promising signs of recovery — could be at risk due to the recent surge in poaching for the illegal ivory trade. Habitat loss and fragmentation and human-elephant conflict have also been blamed for the decline by WWF.
LEADING TRANSIT ROUTE
Kenya has been identified in various researches as one of the leading transit routes for smuggling ivory out of Africa, with several incidents of ivory seizures and recovery of wildlife carcasses in recent times.
According to KWS, elephant population in early 1970s was about 167,000, but in five decades, it has plummeted to slightly more than 35,000. The Central Africa Republic is the hardest-hit part of the continent, with regional elephant population declining by 64 per cent in a decade, according to the report.
In July 2016, a report showed that Vietnam had emerged as one of the world’s biggest markets for the illegal ivory trade.
The report, titled ‘Vietnam’s illegal ivory trade threatens African elephants’, said no other country in the world is known to be as active in both illegal imports of new raw tusks and illegal exports of the final ivory products.
Ivory researchers Lucy Vigne and Esmond Martin found that the overwhelming majority of raw tusks sold in wholesale in Vietnam are smuggled from Africa, with Mombasa port popping up as the major transit point in the region.
The two researchers who had set out for the study found out the number of items up for sale had risen by over six times from 2008 to 2015.
In total, Vigne and Martin found a whopping 242 open outlets, with 16,099 ivory items on display available for retail sales in Ho Chi Minh city, Buon Ma Thuot town, Hanoi and surrounding villages.
Of these items, 9,893 (61 per cent) were in one of the Northern villages that had not been counted before, with most objects being pendants and small items like jewelry.
This was in contrast to 2,444 items counted in a report published in 2008 by another ivory researcher, Dan Stiles, who also found out that most tusks had originated from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
The research was carried out between November 23 and December 14, 2015. It showed that two thirds of ivory were leaving through the ports of Mombasa, Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar, going to China and Vietnam.
CHINA JOINS WAR
The Chinese government announced in 2015 that it would phase out the legal ivory trade. This was followed by the reduction of the number of licensed ivory factories from 37 in 2014 to 34 in 2015, and the number of licensed retail outlets from 145 to 130.
Public awareness on the plight of the elephant has been steadily increasing in China, with bloody pictures on the internet and WeChat of poached elephants with tusks hacked out.
And since the ban was looming large, ivory dealers who spoke with researchers thought that their president was being pressurised to close down the country’s legal ivory trade.
They hoped there would not be a sudden ban but a gradual phasing out of ivory. Some hoped the government would buy tusks from private people as a way of compensation, including from Hong Kong traders, to help stop the trade.
Researchers Vigne and Martin would later shift their attention to South East Asian country Laos. They found that the town was becoming one of the fastest growing ivory markets in the world.
There, Chinese were now buying over 80 per cent of ivory in Laos, but the retail prices were lower than in China. They later drafted a report called, ‘The ivory trade of Laos: Now the fastest growing in the world’.
The report also noted most of the raw ivory comes from Africa by ship, in containers destined for Vientiane, the capital of Laos.
“Until recently, 90 per cent of large consignments would be moved directly to China. But nowadays much of the ivory is being diverted to Vientiane,” the 88-page report says.
Vigne and Martin did a survey in mid-November to December 2016. They collected data on the origin of ivory and trade routes into Laos.
According to them, the average wholesale price of raw ivory in Laos in 2013 had peaked to about $2,000 per kg (Sh201,896). But by late 2016, the average price had declined to $714 (Sh72,077) per kg.
The researchers found 81 retail outlets with ivory on sale, 40 of which were in the capital Vientiane. The least expensive item was $ 3 (Sh302) and the most expensive was a pair of polished tusks for $ 25,000 (Sh2,523,707).
In Vientiane and Luang Prabang, Chinese-owned shops had increased from three in 2013 to 35 in 2016.
In another report they released on October 2, this year, Vigne and Martin said the increased ivory in China from Myanmar could soon deal African elephants a major blow.
They compiled the report in late 2017 and titled it, ‘Myanmar’s Growing Illegal Ivory Trade with China’. In it, they found that the number of new ivory items for sale had grown exponentially.
“The number of new ivory items for sale in towns grew by 63 per cent in three years, and now accounts for over a third of the ivory seen in the country,” ivory trade specialist Lucy Vigne said.
She said Chinese visitors smuggled worked ivory from Mong La back home, with little concern about getting caught.
“This ivory has often come up the Mekong River into the lawless eastern periphery of Myanmar, where it is sold in retail and in bulk. The wholesale price for African raw ivory in late 2017 in the Golden Triangle region has remained stable at about $770 to $800 per kg since late 2015,” Vigne said.
Recent and previous studies are now what baffle governments, NGOs and decision-makers who gathered in London for the Illegal Wildlife Trafficking Conference between October 11-12.
Conservationists are now banking their hopes on the outcomes of the meeting to save elephants.