The tusk of an elephant and the horn of a rhino, the sound of a gunshot and the swing of a machete. Two of nature’s most astonishing species are under attack, being slaughtered in cold blood so humans can acquire their tusks/horns. Fuelled by an ever-growing Asian market for these exotic products, it has become war in Africa. Conservationists and national park rangers are up against poachers hired to collect the highly sought after prize. The outcome of this war will determine if these species have a future on our planet, or if they will be sent to the history books.
The African elephant is the largest living land animal, with African white rhinos coming in second. These huge creatures have roamed the plains of Africa for centuries. Both species have evolved marvellous features that protrude from the face. The elephants tusks, made from ivory, are a sexually selected trait which allow males to fight for mating rights and show off to females. The rhino’s horn serves a similar purpose but is instead made of keratin, the same material as our fingernails.
Unfortunetly, these beautiful features are highly sought after by another species, humans. Ivory is used to make intricate ornaments, jewellery and special carvings. Rhino horn can also be used in this way but is more often ground to a powder and ingested as a treatment for everything from cancer to sea snake bites and hangovers. Both of these items have been used for decades across colonial Europe. Now as fast developing Asian countries like China and Vietnam grow, there populations are demanding more and more of these luxury products.
This increase in consumer demand is putting incredible strain on the populations of rhino and Elephant. As more people want the products, more animals must die in order to get the ivory and horn. These animals are shot and have their tusks and horns taken out, the rest of the body is then left to decompose in the wild. A life is lost just for a small token of luxury. This has turned many national parks into killing fields. Coupled with habitat loss and increased human vs wildlife conflict, the Asian trade has pushed these species close to extinction. Elephant range in Africa has shrunk by 41% since 1995, with 20,000 elephants being killed a year, meaning an elephant is killed every 25 minutes. The population has gone from 1.3 million in 1979 to just 352,000 today. Rhinos face similar declines, mass poaching means that there are now only 25,000 rhinos left across Africa. Since 2007 7,245 rhino killings have been reported.
Following on, between 2009 and 2014, criminal networks trafficked as much as 170 tons of ivory into Asia. The price of ivory has skyrocketed from USD $5/kg in 1989 to a wholesale price of USD $2,100/kg in 2014, with retail prices much higher. One rhino horn can cost $300,000 at a whole sale price. The astronomical value of these products means that the whole process has been militarized. Sophisticated criminal networks run the whole process, from hiring local poachers to kill the animal, African smugglers to get it out of their countries and safely getting it to the Asian shop fronts. Asian crime gangs are arming the poachers to make the trade more efficient. Poachers now have advanced weaponry to plough down these animals, some even have the use of helicopters. To combat this, those who are trying to protect the species have also had to become militarized. Conservationists are having to put down their binoculars and pick up a riffle.
The securitisation of anti-poaching measures has led to increasing anger among communities and negative sentiments against protected areas and conservation management authorities. This is because poachers are starting to return home in body bags. This is not the desire of those trying to protect the species, but it is the sad reality. In order to save the elephant and rhino from extinction we must go to war against the trade. This does not just mean stopping poachers, the entire production chain needs to be stopped. From corrupt government officials in Africa to Asian ivory smugglers in Vietnam and to shop keepers in Hong Kong.
The killing of elephants and rhino for their tusks and horns is illegal. However even when arrests are made, few poachers ever go to jail. The law is not acting as a deterrent to the onslaught, because it is not been properly put into place. Conservation group ‘Save the Wild’ says “a web of systematic corruption within the justice system is to blame”. Corruption and poaching are inextricably linked. In far too many cases, rangers, police, government officials – even magistrates- are easily corrupted by powerful criminal forces ready with supplies of hard cash.
We are in a horrible cycle. The poachers and crime networks actually want the populations of these species to decrease. The less individuals there are, the rarer the product becomes, and the higher the market price goes. You may be surprised to hear that it is not just the criminal networks that come into play, America and the EU are still home to a legal ivory trade. For example the EU is the largest exporter of legal ivory, between 2012 and 2016 7,500 items were exported each year.
The international trade in so called ‘modern ivory’ has been banned since 1989. However, any ivory products produced before 1947 can be traded. Here in the UK, each and every day hundreds and possibly thousands of ivory items are traded. This is a hot topic in conservation, how can we allow legal trade of a product that is causing modern species to suffer mass kill-offs. Some officials also advocate a very controversial strategy to help the species, of trying to flood markets with legal ivory. Others even suggest we start farming rhino for their horn. However, establishing extralimital populations of African rhinos is a very low-priority conservation action. Raising rhinos in captivity in order to flood the markets with farmed horn diverts funds from in-situ conservation, and also gives the wrong idea to poachers.
The idea of flooding the market with stockpiled products is to relief the pressure and need of poaching and also stop the market price for the products from increasing. For example in 2007 CITES parties suspended an international ban on trading elephant ivory and authorized four countries- Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe – to sell 115 tons to China and Japan. The sale, which took place the next year, was designed to flood Asia’s ivory markets and drive out illegal traders. Instead is signalled that ivory markets were open again, fuelling unprecedented elephant poaching across Africa – more than 30,000 elephants a year between 2010 and 2012 alone.
The idea of flooding the market from farmed, stockpiled or ancient items is heavily flawed. There is good evidence that the legal trade is being undermined by corruption. Poached ivory is being laundered as legal ivory and park staff, customs officials and politicians have been implicated. A legal trade fuels demand in countries that are the main buyers of illegal ivory, like China and as a result it allows for what is known as a ‘parallel market’ to thrive.
Calls from conservation groups for a near total ban on the sale of ivory and rhino horn have recently been strengthened as 32 African nations have demanded an end to the ivory trade in the UK and EU. The UK is now waiting for legalisation to be passed that will close the “antiques exemption” in the current law. Honk Kong has voted to ban the trade of ivory in a landmark decision, the ban is set to come into place by 2021. Stopping this legal trade is a great step forward, however it will not stop the killing of these animals as the illegal trade is yet to be suppressed.
The problem needs to be fought on two fronts, the demand in Asia and the supply in Africa. We need to look at what drives people to engage in poaching, look at the root causes of environmental and wildlife crimes by considering broader economic, political and systemic factors. Broad community empowerment will be key. Currently conservation and local communities are disengaged. The locals are losing their land, access to natural resources and cultural sites. Often the only benefits accruing to communities from wildlife and conservation derive from the poaching profits that trickle down to grassroots level. It is not surprising that some poor communities who struggle to make a living might be tempted by poaching. Rhino horns street value is greater than that of gold and platinum. Conservation needs to work to engage local communities in the efforts and offer them benefits to conserving their natural areas. When they see that their species are worth more alive than dead, then the killing will stop.
Furthermore, to truly stop this trade we need to disrupt the criminal networks at play. Buyers and intermediaries are the ones running the operations. These intermediaries organise and co-ordinate the transfer of wildlife from the bush to the market. They are usually well connected and have access to transnational trade networks. These networks are the real criminals, along with corrupt government officials. Addressing the extensive involvement of international criminal networks means we need strong intelligence-led law enforcement at both national and international levels along the full extent of the supply-demand chain. The poachers are getting $7 a kilo of ivory but in China a kilo gets $3000.
As long as ivory and rhino horn is worth money, the animals will continue to die. As we are attacking the problem from both the supply and demand end, we must also put effort into making these products socially unacceptable to have and therefore undesirable. This also comes from the UK, if we allow the trade of antique ivory, Asians will see it as a desirable product. Populations of both Elephants and Rhino area diminishing, it is going to take an international effort to protect them. The best thing we can do as individuals is to bring this war into the spotlight, pressure governments to put a stop to the trade. Every piece of ivory and rhino horn purchased means an animal had to die. If we get people to connect the idea that these products are causing brutal deaths to the species, then maybe the demand will stop.