The year 2011 was declared Annus Horribilis "a horrible year" for elephants by the International Union for Nature (IUCN). This was the year when seventeen consignments of ivory tusks weighing over 800kg were seized in various seaports across Asia including Malaysia, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Philippines.
Most of the consignment originated from Kenya and Tanzania and the final destination was generally China and Thailand. This information shocked the conservation world because the figures did not only represent tens of thousands of elephants killed in Africa but they also pointed to the involvement of organized crime syndicates in the illegal ivory trade capable of moving large consignments of ivory undetected.
Large scale ivory seizures continued in 2012 with the most alarming seizure occurring in December 2012. This was one of the largest ivory seizures on record, weighing about 6000kg. The consignment was seized in Malaysia.
The 2,341 pieces of ivory originated from Lome, Togo and were headed for China. Reports indicated that a Malaysian company was being investigated in connection with this shipment but no arrests were made immediately. This was the common trend with seizures across Asia as investigation yielded little evidence to sustain prosecutions.
We are now in 2013 and the ivory seizures continue to be a regular news item. A recent report from the port of Mombasa indicates that 600 pieces of ivory weighing about 2000kg were intercepted by Kenyan authorities concealed in containers labeled as decorating stones.
600 tusks represent 300 dead elephants. No further evidence is required to convince the world that the African Elephant is faced with an unprecedented crisis.
Most elephant range states across Africa have recognized the seriousness of the crisis facing elephants and they have deployed massive resources to fighting the menace.
Kenya Wildlife Service has been on high alert for over a year now. They have lost men and women in anti-poaching operations, spent many days on patrol and logged thousands of flying hours patrolling the parks. This effort has not stopped the poaching.
Wildlife authorities are faced with sophisticated poaching gangs armed with automatic weapons that are sometimes fitted with silencers. Helicopters and all terrain vehicles are at the disposal of these well trained men with night vision equipment and sophisticated communication gadgets.
These gangs work efficiently through the night and park rangers are left to count carcasses in the morning. A representative of South African National Parks told a recent meeting of law enforcement agencies in Nairobi, Kenya that wildlife agencies across Africa will not win the war until they 'own the night'. This calls for resources that many of these wildlife authorities can ill afford.
Meanwhile, China continues to deny all responsibility for the escalating ivory trade. China insists that the escalation of poaching in Africa is as a result of weak law enforcement and inadequate protection for elephants. A recent report presented to CITES by renowned ivory trade researchers, Esmond Bradley Martin and Lucy Vigne suggests otherwise.
The report states that over 63% of the ivory offered for sale in China is illegal. The ivory industry is thriving with little evidence of monitoring by government. These unregulated markets are fuelling demand in the country as the disposable income available to the growing middle class increases exponentially.
Clearly, China has completely lost control of the domestic ivory markets. Evidently almost 90% of the illegally seized ivory in the last few years is destined for China.
In March 2012, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora will the CITES will convene in Bangkok, Thailand for the sixteenth Conference of the Parties (COP 16). The CITES convention is ratified by 177 countries.
The discussion on ivory trade will center on a proposal submitted to the conference by the African Elephant Coalition member countries led by Burkina Faso and Kenya. The proposal seeks to amend the annotation for African Elephants so that no CITES party will submit ivory trade proposals to the Conference of Parties until after 2017. This proposal needs to be supported.
The Conference of the Parties will have occasion to discuss additional measures to protect the African Elephant. The provision of resources and the capacity building required to enable range states to enhance their law enforcement capability is imperative.Funds will have to be mobilized and deployed urgently if elephants will continue to roam the forests and savannahs of Africa.
Finally and most importantly, the demand for ivory in China must be addressed. The unregulated domestic markets have to be controlled and China should be compelled to educate her people about the impact their demand for ivory is having on the African Elephant.
They must be told that there are not enough elephants in the world to meet the demand for ivory in China. They must be told that, "Only elephants should wear ivory".
This article is authored by Dr. Winnie Kiiru. Director of CHD-Conservation Kenya and Trustee of Kenya Wildlife Service.