BLOOMBERG – Since the 2000s, an elephant poaching epidemic has raged across Africa, with populations decimated in some areas and multiple species increasingly at risk of being wiped out by the ivory thirst of the ‘humanity.
Currently at around $ 3,300 a pound, the global ivory trade is worth around $ 23 billion a year, a reality illustrated by the gruesome photos of slaughtered elephants that have become almost commonplace.
In recent years, massive ivory seizures seemed to signal a headlong rush towards extermination.
In response, the European Union (EU) this year proposed an almost total ban on ivory trade anywhere in the bloc.
In combination with existing restrictions in China and the United States (US), the proposed rules could help create momentum towards a global crackdown, shifting the review to Southeast Asia, where much of the remaining trade has shifted.
A theory has developed among wildlife experts, one arguing that large seizures are not signs of disaster, but that tighter global controls are working.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime noted in its annual report on wildlife crime that recent seizures could mean investors are liquidating their stocks believing that, thanks to trade bans, prices are down for good.
However, conservationists fear that the recent increase in elephant killings may not be a last breath of poachers, but rather the latest chapter of an iconic mammal that will soon cease to exist.
For millennia, skilled artisans across Africa, Europe and Asia have carved elephant tusks into intricate works of art. Indeed, humanity’s fascination with luminous and porous material has long been the bane of elephants’ existence.
Even the limited human populations of ancient Greece and Egypt generated enough demand to wipe out elephant populations in North Africa and the Middle East.
European settlers from Africa went further, accelerating the march towards extinction by slaughtering elephants for religious icons, billiard balls, furniture inlays, musical instruments and sword handles. In modern times, smuggling efforts have benefited from official corruption and underfunded enforcement in countries like Kenya, Nigeria and Tanzania, according to the former chief of enforcement of the Convention on the international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora (CITES) John Sellar who is now affiliated with Transparency International.
The modern method of slaughtering elephants is shockingly inhuman: poachers use cyanide and poisoned arrows or spears, incapacitating elephants and causing slow and excruciating deaths. Tusks are often cut into the mammal’s skull while it is still alive. Guns are sometimes used, but the gunfire attracts the attention of park rangers, who poachers also regularly kill. Hundreds of rangers have been murdered since the International Federation of Rangers began to count in 2000.
In total, the three million or more elephants that roamed the Earth in the 19e Century are a little over 400,000 today. In some places, the population has been reduced by two-thirds in less than a decade.
Both species of African elephant, forest and savanna, are either endangered or critically endangered. One of the three Asian species is threatened. And although habitat loss due to growing human populations and agriculture is an important factor, the vast majority of elephant deaths are attributed to poaching.
In 2016, the US government sought to institute a near-total ban on the ivory trade. The following year, China also made efforts to close its markets. Advocates saw an opportunity in the fight to protect the world’s largest land mammals, removing the financial incentive for poachers.
As the illegal ivory trade continued, the effort of both countries was seen as progress. “Polls have shown that far fewer people are willing to buy ivory following the ban in China,” said Daniela Freyer, co-founder of the German conservation association Pro Wildlife, Daniela Freyer.
But there remains a major gap, the elimination of which would be a major step towards slowing the eradication of elephants. In many countries a distinction is still made between ancient ivory obtained long ago, which can be sold, and newer ivory from recent elephant killings, which cannot. This has been a controversial aspect of European rules, and emblematic of what environmentalists argue is the failure of half measures.
The EU has vehemently criticized laxity in enforcing the ivory trade in Asia while allowing it to continue in its own backyard.
African ivory imported into EU countries before 1990, Asian ivory before 1975 and all ivory acquired before 1947 can be legally sold within the EU. Meanwhile, ivory dating from before the mid-1970s can be exported from the block.
Although such rules appear to restrict trade in more recently harvested ivory, in reality this is not the case, said TRAFFIC policy director Sabri Zain. TRAFFIC is a UK based non-profit organization working to end the unsustainable trade in natural products.
There is no easy way to determine the actual age of ivory. The legal framework, he said, “allows traders to bring fresh ivory into the EU market”. Carved elephant tusk traders “are really good at making ivory look antique,” said University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology director Sam Wasser. “They know what they are selling. The whole thing is only a sham.
At the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague, Kateřina Pachnerová Brabcová and her colleagues used carbon-14 dating to determine the age of ivory that an alleged trader, caught in a 2016 bust, passed off as an object antique.
The suspect presented a statement from a recorded expert witness who claimed that the parts were old enough to be marketed legally in Europe. Such statements, the researchers said, are commonly used in the ivory trade to show that the items are free from restrictions.
It turned out that the expert was wrong and that the suspect’s ivory was much younger than claimed.
Indeed, some 68 percent of Brabcová’s “ancient ivory” samples were younger than 1947, and the “expert” determination was incorrect 86 percent of the time, according to the researchers, who published their findings in the journal. Forensic Crime, Law and Social Change.
The only real solution, argue conservationists, is to ban the ivory trade everywhere. The EU seems to have moved towards this prospect.
The European Commission proposal presented in January would fill important loopholes in the block’s ivory trade restrictions, leaving little room for repairing old musical instruments that incorporate ivory. France, Belgium and the Netherlands already have strong national bans in place, as does the UK.
Yet scientists and activists believe that a change in EU law will not be enough to slow the race to elephant extinction.
On March 24, the Elephant Trade Information System revealed an increase in the amount of ivory seized by law enforcement in recent years, including the three largest seizures on record. Tusks of thousands of dead elephants totaling over 25,000 kilograms have been intercepted in China, Singapore and Vietnam.
This gave credit to a 2020 article in Scientific reports that, with the exception of East Africa, seizures were increasing. About 15 years ago, more elephants were killed in Kenya and Tanzania, according to the report. But as these countries intensified anti-poaching patrols and the fight against smuggling, criminal syndicates shifted their activities to other regions, such as central and southern Africa.
Singapore’s bust in 2019 is consistent with those findings, said Wasser, who uses DNA testing to determine the ivory’s point of origin.
His lab’s work shows that Singapore’s ivory came from the Kavango Zambezi Transboundary Conservation Area, a protected area that spans portions of five southern African countries: Angola, Botswana, Namibia , Zambia and Zimbabwe.
More than half of the remaining African elephants live in the region. Wasser said that “the majority of the foreclosures we have analyzed over the past few years” have come from there.
For his part, Wasser remains skeptical of the UN claim that these large busts are a sign that the ivory grabbers are withdrawing from the trade. Singapore ivory, he said, “didn’t look old.”