There has been a massive surge in illegal ivory trading, researchers warned last week. They have found that more than 14,000 products made from the tusks and other body parts of elephants were seized in 2009, an increase of more than 2,000 on their previous analysis in 2007.
Details of this disturbing rise have been revealed on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the world ivory trading ban. Implemented on 18 January 1990, it was at first credited with halting the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of elephants.
But the recent growth in the far east’s appetite for ivory – a status symbol for the middle classes of the region’s newly industrialised economies – has sent ivory prices soaring from £150 a kilogram in 2004 to more than £4,000.
At the same time, scientists estimate that between 8% and 10% of Africa’s elephants are now being killed each year to meet the demand. The world’s largest land animal is again threatened with widespread slaughter.
“It is a really worrying situation,” said Richard Thomas, director of Traffic, the group that monitors trade in wildlife. “However, it is not absolutely clear what should be done.” Indeed, the issue is so confused that a conflict over the ivory trade is expected at March’s meeting of Cites, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
A key source of contention will be the future of legitimate stockpile sales of ivory that have been permitted by international agreement. Killing elephants for their tusks is illegal, but selling ivory from animals that have died of natural causes has been permitted on occasions. In 2008 a stockpile of tusks – from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe – was bought by dealers from China and Japan. The sale, of 105,000 kilograms of ivory, raised more than £15m.
But now countries including Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo are to call for a ban of these stockpile sales at the Cites meeting. They say such trade – albeit sporadic – only increases demand for ivory goods and is responsible for triggering the recent rise in illegal trade and the killing of thousands of elephants across Africa.
This point is backed by shadow environment secretary Nick Herbert, who recently returned from a visit to study the impact of ivory poaching in India. “On the 20th anniversary of the international ban on the ivory trade, we should be taking a stand,” he said last week. “Instead of flooding the market with more ivory and legitimising the trade, we should be choking demand, not stoking it.”
But countries such as Tanzania and Zambia, which have some of the worst poaching records in Africa, want a relaxation of ivory trade regulations at Cites so they can hold their own stockpile sales. They say the tens of millions of pounds that can be raised will help them fund rangers who can protect their elephants.
“Unfortunately the evidence is not clear whether stockpile sales increase demand for ivory or help to control it,” said Heather Sohl of the WWF. “We have had recent stockpile sales of ivory – and poaching has increased dramatically. But other factors may be involved. Many African countries are suffering terrible drought and local people are desperate. Killing elephants brings money, alas.”
Killing for tusks is a particularly gruesome trade. Elephants are intelligent animals whose sophisticated social ties are exploited by poachers. They will often shoot young elephants to draw in a grieving parent, which is then killed for its ivory. Estimates suggest more than 38,000 elephants were killed this way in 2006: the death rate is higher today.