opinionBy Dr Alex Awiti
Africa is in the throes of another horrific elephant extermination. Demand for ivory in China is flourishing as never before and is driving the illegal killing of elephants.
Conservation groups believe poachers are killing off tens of thousands of elephants a year. The one-off sale of legal ivory harvested from elephants culled in Southern Africa endorsed in 2008 by the parties the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) may have triggered unbridled demand among the Chinese.
Trade monitoring information collected by the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) and International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) have shown that the majority of ivory now on sale in China comes from illegal sources.
Moreover, there is growing evidence that poaching increases in elephant-rich areas where Chinese construction workers are building roads.
In 2012, more than 150 Chinese citizens were arrested across Africa, from Kenya to Nigeria, for smuggling ivory. According to the Kenya Wildlife Service, 90% of ivory seized at Kenya's airports implicates Chinese citizens.
Jane Goodall, the foremost conservationist of our time, has made an impassioned plea for a worldwide ban on the sale of ivory to forestall the imminent extinction of the African elephant.
Here is a snippet of what is evidently an unconscionable catastrophe. Today only 6,000 elephants are left in the wild in eastern Congo, down from approximately 22,000 before the civil war.
In December 2012 a Tanzanian MP declared that poaching was out of control with an average of 30 elephants killed everyday.
In southern Sudan the elephant population, estimated at 130,000 in 1986, has crashed to 5,000. Chad, home to 15,000 elephants in 1979, has less than 400 left.
Last year poachers killed at least 360 elephants in Kenya, up from 289 in 2011. We all recall the massacre last month of family of 11 elephants in Kenya's Tsavo East National Park.
China's fabled economic boom has created a vast demand for ivory products, pushing the price to unprecedented levels, $1,000 for just less than half a kilogram, on the streets of Beijing.
China presents a vibrant and unfettered market for ivory bookmarks, rings, cups, combs and chopsticks. Experts believe that up to 70% of illegal ivory flows through China.
Iain Douglas-Hamilton, a leading authority on the African elephant, believes that with an estimated value of $7.8 - $10 billion per year, illegal wildlife trade is the 5 largest illicit transnational activity globally.
INTERPOL and the United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice have both recognized the increasing involvement of organized crime syndicates in wildlife crime.
In December 2012, 24 tonnes of ivory was seized in Malaysia. This and other seizures of large ivory consignments is clear evidence that a well-oiled criminal network now underwrites illegal ivory trade.
It is inconceivable that hundreds of kilograms of tusks could be moved across the globe without the help of corrupt government officials.
Poaching and ivory trade has become dangerously militarized. Similar to blood diamonds from Sierra Leone or Angola, ivory is the new conflict resource in Africa.
Conflict, weak enforcement and corruption have made it possible to trade for ivory for weapons. According to reliable accounts, Africa's most pernicious groups are killing elephants and trading ivory to buy weapons to perpetrate atrocities.
Organized crime syndicates are now believed to be linking up with rebel movements such as the Lord's Resistance Army, Al-Shabaab and the Janjaweed to obtain and move ivory through conflict zones and international ports, with the aid of corrupt state officials. Syndicates carry out detailed planning, have significant financial support, understand and utilize advanced information technology.
In comparison with other forms of transnational crime, the risks and penalties associated with the illegal poaching and trafficking of wildlife are small.
For instance, four Chinese men who pleaded guilty in a Kenyan court to smuggling ivory worth $24,000 were fined $340 each last month.
If unchecked the unbridled demand for ivory could exterminate the African elephant, exacerbate existing conflicts in Africa and foment new conflict. Tackling the demand for ivory must be a global priority.
As the epicenter of illegal ivory demand, China must understand that its global leadership derives not from the scale of its wealth or military power but from its moral courage to stand up against international crime.
It behooves China to declare an indefinite unilateral moratorium on ivory imports. The 40th Anniversary of CITES on March 3rd 2013 and the 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to be held in Bangkok is a chance to send strong and clear messages on combating the illegal trade in wildlife.
But seriously, the very idea of killing and trading in high value wildlife as an incentive for conservation is morally reprehensible.
Dr. Awiti is an Ecosystems Ecologist based at Aga Khan University, Nairobi