Andreas Späth

Who is exterminating Africa’s elephants?

2014-11-10 12:35

Andreas Wilson-Späth

Rampant poaching threatens African elephants with wholesale extinction within the next decade.
 
A hard-hitting new report released by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) last week, exposes corrupt individuals in the government of Tanzania, the country most severely affected by the slaughter, as enabling the burgeoning illegal ivory trade orchestrated largely by Chinese crime syndicates.

The scale of the crisis is depressing:

 - Africa’s total elephant population has plummeted from about 1.3 million in 1979 to around 419 000 today.

 - Since 2006, official monitoring systems have documented an alarming rise in elephant poaching with a major surge from 2011 onward.

 - Every year, between 20 000 and 40 000 elephants are butchered by poachers.

 - East Africa, especially Tanzania, has been identified as the biggest source of illegal ivory.

 - The number of elephants in Tanzania has declined from 316 000 in 1979 to only 50 500 last year. Between 2009 and 2013, the country has lost more elephants than any of its African counterparts.

 - Tanzania’s famous Selous Reserve is the continent’s elephant poaching hotspot, with numbers having dwindled from 70 406 in 2006 to 13 084 in 2013.

 - The illegal trade in elephant ivory is reported to have tripled since 1998.

 - Between 2011 and 2013 a total of 116 tonnes of smuggled elephant ivory was seized by authorities, China being the predominant destination.

The situation is complex, involving many more people than just a few rotten apples in high places, but the EIA report emphasises that the crisis has its root causes in "a toxic blend of government failures, corruption and criminality" and that ultimate responsibility lies with “the highest levels of the Tanzanian government”.

The main problems include under-resourced and poorly protected wildlife reserves, mismanagement of the hunting industry, a failure to enforce wildlife laws, low conviction rates when cases are brought to court, and collusion between officials and ivory traffickers.

Corruption is singled out as a key enabling factor in every stage of the illegal ivory trade, involving local game rangers and police officers, Tanzanian Revenue Authority officers in the Indian Ocean ports through which elephant tusks are smuggled, ruling party politicians and well-connected business people.

Many of the implicated individuals are well known – their names have been published in the press, mentioned in parliament, listed in intelligence reports and uncovered during EIA investigations, which also document details of the trade routes from the African bush all the way to the Asian ivory markets. Yet very few of those involved have faced the legal consequences of their criminal activities.

In recent times, there have been some suggestions that the Tanzanian government is making increased efforts to stem the tide, including anti-poaching operations as well as seizures of illegal ivory, but much more action is needed to avert an irreversible disaster.

The situation may be dire, but it isn’t hopeless. Faced with a comparable poaching epidemic that wiped out over half of its elephant population in the 1980s, Tanzania was instrumental in getting the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to implement a ban on the international ivory trade which brought the situation under control and allowed its elephant population to recover and stabilise.

The ban has since been undermined by CITES-sanctioned sales of ivory drawn from the stockpiles of Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa – a concession which critics claim has contributed to the resurgent demand for ivory and hence the increase in poaching.

To reverse the current crisis, the EIA report recommends, among other measures, that the Tanzanian government destroys its ivory stockpile and creates an effective investigative task force to bring implicated officials and traffickers to book, and that China adopts and enforces a complete domestic ban on trading in ivory.

But why should South Africans even care about elephant poaching in Tanzania? Simple: a growth in the illicit ivory trade is very likely to encourage increased poaching elsewhere, including our own nature reserves and national parks.

Why all the fuss about elephants – shouldn’t we be equally concerned about other, less glamorous, endangered animal and plant species? Of course. But if we can’t save Africa’s elephants, what chance do we have of saving anything else?

Why bother with elephant conservation at all – shouldn’t the continent’s impoverished masses be allowed to exploit them as a natural resource? Most of the profits from the illegal ivory trade go into the pockets of a small number of rich people. Living elephants are major tourist attractions that are significantly more valuable to local communities than dead ones.


- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
 
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