IVORY & THE TRAFFICKING PROBLEM

2014-02-04 20:18

African elephant, common pangolin, ploughshare tortoise, lowland gorillas. All these species are poached and trafficked from Africa, out of the forests, savannahs and woodlands. As is mahogany and sandalwood, chimpanzees, chameleons and lions. This list is just a fraction of the species sawn, shot, hacked and carried out from the African landscape every day, somewhere in an African nation.

Ivory is one of the most pronounced problems in many people’s minds at the moment. The Chinese are buying, just as they are buying illegal timber and lion bones, and they are the problem. At least, that is the strong public and media sentiment right now. Stories on the Internet abound, many going so far as to actually blame the Chinese for the slaughter. There’s no doubt they play a key role, but what of the other end of the supply chain, one that more and more conservation groups are getting upset at?

Trafficking ivory successfully requires a strong understanding of the local business & enforcement environment

Trafficking Ivory Involves Transactions

Trafficking can be referred to as a complex problem. It’s an assemblage of multiple problems spanning multiple countries and involving multiple commodities, with unpredictable variables. Blaming the Chinese implicitly assumes that the problem is heavily weighted towards China and therefore it can be rebalanced by focusing on China. Yet in the light of how transnational crime and business operates, that makes no sense.

Successful supply chains are very well balanced from a business perspective, as one might expect, and the ivory supply chain is certainly successful. Moving ivory from the horrific slaughter site all the way to the other side of the planet to be laundered and sold is no simple task. It demands facilitation and complicity by people who know and understand the business, legal risks and transport dynamics in each country, as pointed out by the United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime. The actual business negotiations entail political bargaining, tapping into systemic corruption and undertaking significant but hard-to-trace financial transactions. All of this requires powerful local connections and knowledge. And the supply chains are not restricted to ivory. Swathes of forest in Madagascar and DR Congo; cheetah cubs from the Serengeti of Tanzania and the plains of Botswana; lion bones and teeth from across East Africa and even counterfeit goods, arms and drugs are all being bought and sold along similar supply chains. And notably, all of the systems that now go into trafficking ivory have been in place long before the ‘Chinese problem’.

Sawdust and Blood

Unpalatable as it is to write, the forests in Congo do not get destroyed and the tonnes of illicit timber shipped without the Congolese complicity. The elephant slaughter and the export of thousands of kilos of ivory in Tanzania has not occurred with the Tanzanians ignorant of the problem or being incapable of doing anything about it. The rhinos in Kenya are not killed and hacked inside a fenced Kenya Wildlife Service intensive protected zone, nor the endangered sandalwood removed from national parks in trucks, without Kenyan involvement. Frankly, the lands of Africa are not swarming with Chinese people with rifles and chainsaws, carving the land to blood and sawdust. It’s being done by Africans.

At the CITES meeting in March 2013 the Chinese delegation were under immense pressure from the African nations to tackle the ivory trade. Their response was brutally direct – African nations need to stop pointing the finger and look inwardly at why it is so easy to slaughter elephants, hack out their tusks, carry them off and ship them from the ports. How can a 6000 kilo shipment of ivory be so readily moved through a supposedly secure exit point? While certainly not defending the Chinese for their role in the death of tens of thousands of elephants, the delegation had a point. In fact, CITES listed Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in the ‘gang of 8’ countries most complicit in ivory trafficking. Much is written on China and Thailand, little on the others.

It’s Transnational, Not National

But let us not slip too far into similar simplistic thinking about ‘African’ components in the supply chain. The ivory problem should not be thought of as African or Chinese, or even a combination. The problem we face, regardless of the position in the supply chain we are examining is not about nationality or even the product being traded. It’s about crime, business and economics, corruption and governance, culture and ignorance. And new markets will inevitably open up for existing and new wildlife products, be it ivory or endangered beetles.

Focusing on the Chinese consumer may feel intuitively right, probably because many conservationists understand that angle more so than the dynamics of organized crime. However, given the terrible scale of wildlife trafficking today we must push beyond that which limits us – our current understanding of the problem. We must acknowledge each link and understand all the associated vulnerabilities and weaknesses that we can strike. If we don’t, the businessmen and politicians who ply their trade along the entire supply chains, regardless of nationality, will continue to rake in the profits and devastate the species they trade for money.

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