Poachers have killed 300 gentle rhinoceroses since the beginning of 2014 in South Africa alone. So far this year, throughout the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, poachers have gunned down another 15,000 unsuspecting elephants. Lions are dying out, too. Fabled Africa, with its profusion of big game, is now imperiled by Asian greed, rampant corruption in places such as Zimbabwe, and lax African protection.
Woolly mammoths and sabre-tooth tigers once roamed the Arctic and sub-Arctic lands that now include much of Canada. But our ancestors slaughtered them, mostly for food. Now only 350,000 to 500,000 elephants — descendants of the mammoths — remain in Africa. Another 50,000 elephants, half of what once were, live threatened lives in southern China, Laos and Vietnam. If 30,000 to 35,000 big African elephants continue yearly to be assassinated for their tusks, these elephants may be at risk of eventual extinction. Already, a sub-species, the smaller and smoother-skinned African forest elephant, could be extirpated within the next decade. It now inhabits insecure places such as the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as Gabon and Cameroon, where poachers largely operate with impunity.
The rare purse-lipped black rhinoceros and the somewhat more abundant wide-lipped white rhinoceros (so called despite being grey) live largely in southern and eastern Africa, having already been eliminated in West Africa. Today, both sub-species of rhinoceros number only about 25,000, but more than 1,000 are being eliminated every year. In 2013, South Africa lost a rhino to poachers every eight hours throughout the year. Rhinoceroses are largely secretive vegetation eaters, the white variety chewing grass, the black favouring leaves, and bothering no one. But poachers want their pointed horns. (In fact, the horns are not made of bone; they are composed of cuticle-like keratin.)
This wanton modern-day slaughter of the beasts of Africa obeys fundamental laws of supply and demand. By far the world’s largest market for the tusks (ivory) of African elephants and horns of rhinoceros is China, followed by Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia. Many Asians ascribe medicinal properties to ground-up ivory and horn. Some have long believed a slurry of elephant tusks prevents cancer. In some parts of China, and in Vietnam, macerated rhinoceros horn is believed to be a potent aphrodisiac. Others in China and neighbouring countries adore carvings or other kinds of art made of ivory, all being regarded as important status symbols. High-ranking officers in the People’s Liberation Army have a particular fondness for ivory trinkets as gifts. Chinese online forums offer a thriving and essentially unregulated market for ivory chopsticks, bookmarks, rings, cups and combs. Yemenis and some Asians prefer rhinoceros horn for dagger handles — another status symbol.
On the shady back streets of Beijing or Hanoi, illicit ivory sells for $1,500 per pound ($675 per kilo); rhino horn for up to 30 times that amount ($20,250 per kilo). Given such prices, and ripe demand, it is no wonder that Asian syndicates are able to employ gangs of African poachers to seek out elephants or rhinos at night and kill them for their tusks and horns.
The value of ivory is so high that in April, thieves sawed off the double locks on two steel safes in a supposedly secure South African storage facility in Nelspruit, the capital of Mpumalanga Province. The two safes contained 40 large elephant tusks.
In neighbouring Zimbabwe, where there could be as many as 90,000 elephants at risk, President Robert Mugabe’s rapacious soldiers are themselves poaching elephants and shipping tusks overseas. Directed by at least several senior officers, killings are believed to have occurred in key reserves in the Save Valley as well as in the Hwange National Park. In 2013, military personnel allegedly poured cyanide into pools in one of Zimbabwe’s famed national parks to take tusks from 300 elephants that came to drink and then died.
This demand for ivory and horn, fuelled in part by rapidly rising incomes in Asia, has, in this decade, led to the unprecedented decimation of elephants and rhinoceroses throughout the continent, but particularly in southern and eastern Africa where both mammals are more abundant and where there have been (until now) improvements in the numbers of both species in such countries as Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
South Africa and Mozambique, especially the game parks that straddle their mutual border, have in recent years also battled an upsurge in poaching. So have Zambia and Namibia. But the most complete devastation has taken place in in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, where fighting factions (including the Lord’s Resistance Army) have routinely slaughtered elephants to pay for weapons and ammunition.
Elephant poaching is at its highest level in Africa since the 1980s, when the destruction of elephants in countries such as Kenya and Uganda more than halved what was then a thriving population of the world’s largest land mammals. In 1989, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned global trade in ivory, but since about 2009, with Asian demand ramping high, attacks on elephants and more valuable rhinoceroses have resumed at a ferocious pace.
In the 1980s, Chinese purchasers ultimately fuelled the slaughter. But now, with about three million Chinese working in Africa and many more millions visiting as tourists or entrepreneurs, there are much more direct ties between African poachers and those who purchase their purloined tusks and horns. A raft of male and female Chinese traders have been caught in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Namibia and South Africa trying to board aircraft to China or Hong Kong with suitcases stuffed with ivory or horn.
In Namibia in March, three Chinese men were about to board an aircraft at Windhoek’s international airport when they were apprehended with 14 rhino horns and a leopard skin. According to the Namibian police, the smugglers had been in Zambia and Namibia for only two weeks, and had visited Namibia many times before.
Last year in Kenya, on different occasions, several Chinese individuals were caught attempting to fly out of Nairobi with concealed bundles of ivory and rhinoceros horn. In 2011, more than 150 Chinese citizens were arrested across Africa, from Kenya to Nigeria, for smuggling ivory. And there is growing anecdotal evidence that poaching increases in elephant-rich areas when Chinese construction workers are building roads.
In 2013, Hong Kong customs agents seized 189 elephant tusks worth approximately $1.5 million. That shipment, from Cote d’Ivoire and destined for China, weighed nearly 1,700 pounds (770 kilos). It was the third interception in Hong Kong of illegal African ivory and other goods since July of that year, the first being worth $2.2 million and the second $5.3 million. The first came from Togo and the second, which also included rhinoceros horn and leopard skins, from Nigeria.
Nearly all of the lucrative trade in elephant and rhinoceros tusks and horns is illegal, and the result of poaching by Africans, many of whom are employed by Chinese entrepreneurs living throughout mainland Africa. Wildlife trafficking syndicates consistently sell poached ivory and rhino horn at Chinese markets in most of the major cities of southern Africa, particularly in Johannesburg and Maputo. An undercover sting in one market found abundant quantities of ivory and rhino horn being sold by Africans to Chinese middlemen.
The United Nations Environment Program says that since the largest ivory market in the world is in China: “Nowhere is the need for demand reduction more critical.”
“China is the epicentre of demand,” said a senior U. S. State Department official. “Without the demand from China, this would all but dry up.” There is no African market for ivory or horn that is not driven by external demand.
Responding to such international critiques, early this year China publicly pulverized a large amount of illicit ivory. Chinese officials reported that the 6.1 tons (5,500 kilos) of destroyed ivory were but a part of a larger trove of confiscated illegal elephant tusks taken by customs and other officials in recent years. The officials in charge of the destruction of the ivory would not reveal how much more illegal ivory is held in government warehouses, but they did acknowledge that the ivory in question had been intercepted by customs officials scrutinising containers from Africa as well as from shops in China selling carvings and other artifacts.
In an effort to put ivory merchants and smugglers on notice, Chinese customs and forestry officials made a large public show of piling up ivory ornaments and carvings to display the illegal loot. Tusks too long for the display were sawn up into smaller fragments. Then the massive heap was fed into two giant crushing machines.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare rightly congratulated China for engaging in a powerful symbolic act. It said it was pleased that China was “concerned about the toll ivory trafficking is taking on elephant populations, as well as the other threats to regional security that arise in connection with wildlife crime.” It constituted a clear message to consumers and middlemen that “ivory buying was unethical and wrong.”
China joined the United States, the Philippines and Gabon in such public displays of ivory destruction. In June 2013, the Philippines smashed five tons (4,500 kilos) and in November, the U. S. crushed six tons (5,400 kilos) in. In 2012, Gabon burned five tons worth then about $10 million. In all cases, the ivory in question had been confiscated over many years and had remained in storage.
China’s stockpile destruction may well discourage purveyors of elephant tusks from seeking new supplies. In an additional effort to alter Chinese views about elephants, in southern China, the authorities recently created a special reserve for endangered Asian elephants. Local Chinese populations, at least, may develop a new reverence for them.
South Africa and Mozambique share a border that joins the mighty Kruger Park in South Africa to the Gorongoza National Park in Mozambique. South Africa has an active anti-poaching regime, reasonably well-paid game guards, vigilant rangers and abundant tourist traffic. But across the poorly patrolled border, large animals have been shot, rangers are few and the poachers are better organised and much better paid than the guards. Moreover, until a treaty was fortunately signed between the two countries in April, it was not illegal to poach rhinoceroses in Mozambique.
As of mid-April, poachers can be apprehended in Mozambique for attacking rhinoceroses (and elephants). South Africa is also starting to fund Mozambique’s surveillance and ranger efforts since Mozambique is too poor to do so. South Africa’s elephants and rhinos may now be safer as renegade Mozambicans can be apprehended and charged in either country.
Lions are not being poached. But, for genetic reasons, about a third of the thousands of the lions of Africa have disappeared in the past 20 years. In particular, say experts, the lions living in West Africa and Central Africa are close to extinction. There may be no more than 400 to 800 West African lions and 900 in Central Africa (the Congo and the Central African Republic). Curiously, too, scientists using analytical DNA techniques have recently discovered that the West African and Central African lions are more closely related to the remaining 400 lions of the Kathiawar Peninsula in western India than they are to southern and eastern African lions. The West and Central African lions are also related to extinct lions of the Barbary Coast (Morocco, Algeria, and Libya) and to a pair of lions incarcerated in the Tower of London in the 14th and 15th Centuries.
Many international and national organisations are actively attempting to save elephants and rhinoceroses. Kenya has successfully converted poachers into rangers and is arranging protected areas for elephants with British assistance. Botswana has created a well-guarded sanctuary for a large and growing rhino herd. “Our No. 1 focus,” said the chief warden, “has been to make local people aware that these animals are worth more alive than dead.” Many countries have also begun to share tourism revenues with indigenous groups living near game parks.
Crushing ivory in China and the Philippines, banning the import of ivory of any kind into the United States and also forbidding the movement of ivory objects (even pianos with ivory keys) across state lines within the United States, is intended, ultimately, to stem the loss of elephants and rhino to poachers. Educating Chinese and Vietnamese consumers about large African mammals could help. So will a serious campaign, if it comes, by China on the many outlets in major Chinese cities that still sell ivory objects, and on those — including elite members of the ruling Communist Party — who still covet ivory. Expanding Kenyan- and Botswanan-type initiatives will also help. So will re-doubled patrol and enforcement efforts everywhere, and the ending of war in the Sudan, the Congo and elsewhere.
Without such redoubled global efforts to reduce demand in Asia, African elephants and rhinoceroses could easily go the way of the woolly mammoth and the Barbary lion.