Elephant Slaughter Escalates as Illegal Ivory Market Thrives

African elephants live in highly cohesive, multi-generational, matriarchal groups. Poachers may ruthlessly obliterate entire families, or kill matriarchs, leaving descendants bereft. Photo from Kenya Wildlife Services.The siege is getting worse. African elephants are being killed at a greater rate than at any time since the worldwide ban on the ivory trade was adopted in 1989. Every 15 minutes, on average, an elephant is killed illegally in Africa to feed an insatiable demand for ivory, principally from Asia. This kill rate exceeds the birth rate—a trend that, if not reversed, inevitably leads to extinction.

More ivory is being smuggled than at any time since the 1989 trade ban, as well. A record-breaking 24 metric tons of contraband ivory were seized in 2011. The totals for 2012 are not yet available, but almost certainly will exceed the 2011 levels.

Customs officers in industrialized countries candidly acknowledge that a seizure rate of 10 percent is considered good for “general goods” contraband—which includes ivory. (Higher success rates are recorded in intercepting targeted contraband, such as drugs and weapons, which have dedicated teams with specialized training and high-tech detection equipment.) Thus, the seizure of 24 tons of ivory would indicate 240 tons actually in trade. That’s the ivory of 24,000 elephants. It is likely, however, that even more illegal ivory is traded, because 10 percent seizure is optimum for a developed country that is serious about intercepting contraband. Much ivory today is going to countries that are not very serious about intercepting it.

Fallen family: carcasses from a dozen elephants massacred in early January within Kenya’s Tsavo National Park. In other assaults within protected areas, park rangers have also been gunned down. Photo from Kenya Wildlife Service.More African park rangers are being killed in the line of duty than ever before, most often via ambush. Five Chadian rangers were massacred during their early morning prayers near Zakouma National Park a few months ago. Kenya Wildlife Service suffered eight recent fatalities. More than 100 rangers are killed each year because they stand between the elephants and the poachers. Nearly every African country with elephant populations has been hit.

INTERPOL has acknowledged the involvement of organized crime syndicates in the ivory trade. U.S. officials have cited “credible reports” of the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) being involved in both poaching and trafficking. There is also very substantial evidence implicating various other genocidal militias and terror groups, such as the Somali Al Shabaab and Sudan’s Janjaweed and Abu Tira organizations. They are enriching and arming themselves with the profits of contraband ivory.

The motive behind all the carnage, of course, is money. An African poacher can get $80 for a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of ivory. That’s $800 for the 10 kilograms of ivory carried by a typical elephant. That’s a lot of money in most African countries. But the big profit is made in Asia. Thai Customs recently evaluated smuggled ivory as being worth $1,800 per kilogram—$18,000 per elephant—wholesale. The “street value” retail price of 10 kilograms of carved ivory now runs about $60,000. In fact, the price of ivory is increasing so rapidly that some people apparently are buying it as an investment commodity.

For contraband ivory to have any value, however, it needs to be laundered—made “clean” and slipped into a legal system. This is not particularly difficult because there is a lot of legal ivory in marketplaces around the world. All a trafficker needs to do is to smuggle the ivory through customs, and a 10 percent loss to customs seizures is clearly acceptable to most traffickers. (In fact, it’s cheaper than sales tax in many countries.) Once past customs, the ivory needs to enter a clandestine industrial process of being inventoried, graded, processed in factories, marketed, distributed, and then mixed with existing legal ivory that can be found openly on sale from Zhonghua Road in Shanghai to Fifth Avenue in New York.

This already volatile situation was thrown into crisis this past October when Tanzania announced its proposal to legalize 101 tons of stockpiled ivory and sell it to Asian buyers—a move that would further stimulate the fashion for ivory and provide an even larger legal umbrella under which an expanding volume of poached contraband ivory could be laundered. Clearly, such an outcome would result in more killing of elephants and park rangers. The Tanzanian proposal was made to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the United Nations-administered endangered species treaty which has the authority to make decisions regarding the legalization of ivory and other wildlife products.

The proposal drew a storm of criticism, with vocal protests from conservation and animal welfare advocates both inside Tanzania and abroad. Tanzanian government officers had acknowledged that the country was suffering the loss of at least 10,000 elephants annually to commercial poaching gangs. How could Tanzania, a country which suffers more elephant poaching than any other country on earth, a country which has exported more illegal ivory than any other country on earth, make a proposal that was certain to fuel even greater poaching and trafficking? At the end of December, after 10 weeks of furious uproar, the Government of Tanzania tactfully withdrew its proposal.

The fight behind closed doors within the Tanzanian government certainly was intense. But ultimately, the voices who opposed the sale—which likely could have brought Tanzania more than 50 million dollars—prevailed. Local newspapers report that the decision to withdraw the proposal was announced by Professor Alexander Songorwa, Tanzania’s Director of Wildlife, who simply said that the country was unable to meet some of the 24 conditions for legalized sale required by CITES. But the Tanzanians knew they could never meet the CITES conditions long before they made their proposal. And they also knew that such specific conditions had never before been a determining factor at CITES, where hard and fast politics have long run roughshod over the most flawless of scientific arguments. The only things that really count at CITES are the votes.

Many observers think Ambassador Khamis Kagasheki, recently appointed as Tanzania’s Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, is the principal architect of Tanzania’s about-face. Within days of announcing the withdrawal of Tanzania’s proposal to sell its ivory stockpile, Kagasheki’s ministry announced a series of commendable new initiatives targeting ivory poachers and dealers in Tanzania and abroad:

A national law enforcement campaign to crack down on poaching gangs and smuggling syndicates; A readiness to participate in a UN effort to act against the LRA; The dismissal of several senior officers from the ministry’s Wildlife Department for poor performance; An offer to host an international conference on elephant poaching and ivory trafficking in 2013, with the intention of creating a new plan of cooperative action against the ivory syndicates.

That’s surely an ambitious agenda, and a major turn-about for Tanzania. But how should it be received by the rest of the world? That should depend upon how long Tanzania might be expected to hold out an olive branch.

Tanzania has a checkered history with elephant politics. In 1989, the country was a very conspicuous leader in the campaign to abolish all trade in elephant ivory. Domestic actions, such as Operation Uhai, established very high standards for other countries to emulate. But later shifts within ministries and departments resulted in Tanzania becoming a champion of renewed trade in elephant ivory, persistently seeking to overturn the CITES ban. Much, of course, depends upon the person appointed as minister responsible for wildlife conservation.

Nevertheless, decisions made today will influence the security of elephants tomorrow. Thus, people who want to protect the great pachyderms should applaud Ambassador Kagasheki’s initiatives and extend enthusiastic support. Tanzania needs to understand that its recent decisions are very much welcomed and admired.

Applause for Tanzania, however, will not fundamentally alter the existing dynamics of the ivory trade. If something is to be done, the markets in Asia ultimately must be addressed. These markets provide the financial incentives for all of the shooting and tragedy.

The United States has recently been very conspicuous in expressing concern over the ivory issue. Outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited African countries to assess the situation, and promised a new surge of American support. During his time in the Senate, incoming Secretary of State John Kerry led Foreign Relations Committee hearings on elephant poaching and trafficking in ivory. And other activity in Washington indicates new resolve to address the ivory issue.

But the conspicuous part of the U.S. effort appears focused on Africa. Certainly, Africans do need help. Modestly trained and equipped African rangers are facing very sophisticated poaching gangs that are armed to the teeth with assault rifles and equipped with aircraft, satellite telephones, GPS units, and other sophisticated gadgets. It is unfair, and absolutely unreasonable, to expect developing countries in Africa to have the resources needed to contend with criminal abuses that are fueled by very dynamic and wealthy markets of Asia.

Someone needs to start talking to the Asian nations. The media has been flooded with articles reporting ivory seizures in Asia over the past couple of years. Tons of ivory have been seized in the ports of Bangkok and Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere. But there have been no reports of any kingpins being arrested, or any syndicates broken. Nor have there been reports of stockpiles being seized or factories being shut down.

Yet these stockpiles and factories must exist. With hundreds of tons of ivory being smuggled into Asia annually, the stuff must be somewhere. With carved ivory available in retail shops in virtually every Asian city, there must be ample carving factories working hard to produce a flood of contraband finished products.

Let’s do the financial math, using the signature seal—also known as a “chop” or a “hanko”—as our example. We could use other products in our exercise—anything from bracelets to fancy carvings. And those expensive items certainly would drive our price estimates higher. But the signature seal business is a fairly typical example and serves as a good baseline estimate.

The signature seal is a very common product that many Asians use in their daily lives. They are used in place of a handwritten signature on a check, and on all sorts of other documents, from bank loans to taxi receipts. Any place an American would write a signature, many Asians would use their personal signature seals. Certainly, most Asians use signature seals made of plastic, or wood, or carved stone, or some other material. But some see ivory as being more fashionable or prestigious.

A typical ivory signature seal weighs about 30 grams, (a bit more than one ounce) and retails for about $200. About 30 signature seals (with total weight 900 grams) can be fashioned from one kilogram of raw ivory (estimating about 10 percent wastage during the carving process). Thirty signature seals at $200 each indicates that one kilogram of worked ivory retails for about $6,000.

There are at least 240 metric tons in annual trade. At $200 an ounce, a conservative evaluation of the trade in illegal ivory comes in around $1.44 billion a year—enough to motivate some people to kill. And they do.

All of this money finances the most horrific crimes. It is the money that purchases the AK-47s and G3s and even M16s used to kill elephants and any rangers who get in the way. It is the money used to pay smugglers and middlemen. It is the money used to corrupt officials and bribe freight forwarding agents. It is the money used to pay the LRA, Janjaweed and others in exchange for ivory so they can continue with their genocides and child soldier recruitments and abductions.

It is “dirty money”—the proceeds of crime—and subject to seizure by law enforcement authorities anywhere. The United States needs to talk with Asian nations about matters such as targeting the big dealers, their factories, and distribution systems. They need to discuss money laundering. They need to discuss criminal asset recovery and other tools that can be used to break the syndicates and arrest the godfathers.

But while doing this, America needs also to look inward. There is an illegal ivory business in the United States, and there is a legal ivory business. As it is so easy to disguise the illegal as being legal, isn’t it time to simplify matters and make all sale of ivory illegal?