Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ivory Trade Flourishes

World Wildlife Fund reports that the trade in elephant ivory is escalating worldwide. More accurate statistics are available about the trade due to increased law enforcement efforts and the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS), a part of the CITIES trade treaty (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna & Flora). Both the Asian and African Elephants are listed on Appendix I which prohibits all commercial trade. Elephants living in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia are listed on Appendix II that permits international trade under a system of permits. These countries received permission from the CITIES Standing Committee to sell stockpiled ivory and hides under limited circumstances, so called "one-off" sales. Since the ban from commercial trade of African elephants in 1990, combined exports have averaged 670 metric tons of ivory--much more than elephants can reproduce. Elephants died at disastrous rates in the 1970s and 1980s. In Uganda's civil war, entire elephant herds were machine-gunned so their ivory could be sold for armaments. Estimated elephant population in Africa was 1.2 million in the late 1970's. Fewer than 500,000 remain today. Elephants require large amounts of land to forage and migrate long distances, making them keen competitors with humans for available resources. Today, habitat loss and human conflicts pose the greatest threat to elephants' survival in Africa, but poaching for ivory still remains a serous threat.

credit: TRAFFIC
Tanzania is the main source of ivory from the continent and Malaysia has emerged as the main transshipment point. Demand for ivory products is mostly from Chinese consumers, but a black market in the United States is reemerging after the ivory market was nearly shut down. Before the ban on commercial trade in 1988, more than $20 million worth of ivory products, mostly jewelry, entered the U.S. Several large seizures of elephant ivory have recently made news. In August 1,041 tusks equivalent to a minimum of 500 dead elephants were seized on the Tanzania island of Zanzibar headed for Malaysia [photo]. The tusks were hidden in a shipment of anchovies to discourage investigation. Also, in Hong Kong, 794 pieces of ivory tusks weighing two tons were seized. The contraband was hidden under stones labeled "non-ferrous products for factory use". And on September 5, 2011 Malaysian customs seized two containers filled with 695 elephant tusks weighing over 4500 pounds, labeled "recycled craft plastic". In Asia the most pressing problem is rapidly disappearing habitat for elephants that increases violent human-elephant conflict. One-fifth of the world's human population live in or near the forest habitat of elephants.   If elephants are to survive outside of zoos--which are essentially prisons for the highly intelligent, social creature that naturally migrates-- the poaching trade must be suppressed through a combination of aggressive, lethal law enforcement and elimination of demand for ivory products. Official corruption, weak governments, and lack of funds for wildlife management programs all contribute to a dark future for the elephant.