It has been a disastrous year for elephants, perhaps the worst since ivory sales were banned in 1989 to save the world’s largest land animals from extinction.
According to the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, a record number of seizures of elephant tusks from at least 2,500 dead animals shows that organised crime networks, in particular Asian syndicates, are increasingly involved in the illegal ivory trade and the poaching that feeds it.
Some of the seized tusks came from old stockpiles, the elephants having been killed years ago. It is not clear how many elephants were recently killed in Africa for their tusks, but experts are alarmed.
TRAFFIC’s elephant and rhino expert Tom Milliken thinks criminals may have the upper hand in the war to save rare and endangered animals: “The escalation in ivory trade and elephant and rhino killing is being driven by the Asian syndicates that are now firmly enmeshed within African societies.”
Miliken said: “There are more Asians than ever before in the history of the continent, and this is one of the repercussions.”
Most cases involve ivory being smuggled from Africa into Asia, where growing wealth has fed the desire for ivory ornaments and for rhino horn that is used in traditional medicine, though scientists have proved it has no medicinal value.
All statistics are not yet in, and no one can say how much ivory is getting through undetected, but “what is clear is the dramatic increase in the number of large-scale seizures, over 800kg in weight, that have taken place in 2011,” TRAFFIC said in a statement.
In the most recent case, Malaysian authorities seized hundreds of African elephant tusks on December 21 worth $1.3m that were being shipped to Cambodia, hidden in containers of handicrafts from Kenya.
Most large seizures have originated from Kenyan or Tanzanian ports, TRAFFIC said.
Fifty elephants a month are being killed, their tusks hacked off, in Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve, according to the Washington-based Environmental Investigation Agency.
With shipments so large, criminals have taken to shipping them by sea instead of by air, and falsifying documents with the help of corrupt officials, monitors said.
Milliken said some of the seized ivory has been identified as coming from government-owned stockpiles, made up of confiscated tusks and those of dead elephants, in another sign of corruption.
“In 23 years of compiling ivory seizure data … this is the worst year ever for large ivory seizures,” said Milliken.
Africa’s elephant population was estimated at between 5 million and 10 million before the European colonisation era.
Massive poaching for the ivory trade in the 1980s halved the remaining number of African elephants to about 600,000.