Making the ivory trade go up in smoke

By Martin Leggett - 28 Jun 2012 16:32:36 GMT
Making the ivory trade go up in smoke

Ivory being burnt in Gabon, preventing it reaching the illegal trade © WWF-Canon / James Morgan

Actions speak far louder than words. So the torching yesterday of 10,000 lbs of government-held ivory spoke volumes about where Gabon would like to see its elephants tusks - sported proudly by the Central African nation's elephants, not part of the grotesque global trade in ivory ornaments. 'Gabon has a policy of zero tolerance for wildlife crime and we are putting in place the institutions and laws to ensure this policy is enforced," the country's President, Ali Bongo said, before igniting the pile of ivory carvings in Cite de Democratie.

The mound of thousands of ivory pieces was thought to have been culled from at least 850 slaughtered elephants, in and around Gabon. The number of elephants being killed by poachers in Central Africa has surged recently, as newly-rich Asia demands more ivory trinkets. Many governments in the region hold similar stockpiles of ivory, seized from those taking part in the illegal ivory trade. But Gabon is the first country to place the ivory out of reach for good, by putting it to the torch.

Ivory stockpiles that miracously 'get legs'

The flames aren't merely a symbolic loss to the illegal ivory tade, though. Stockpiles of ivory collected by governments have increasingly found their way back into the illegal market. At the WWF press conference yesterday, Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC's ivory trade expert, said that 'if not managed properly, ivory stockpiles in the hands of government suddenly 'get legs' and move into illegal trade. Zambia lost 3 tonnes of ivory from the government's strong room, just last week, and Mozambique lost 1.1 tonnes in February. Gabon's actions effectively keep the ivory out of the way of temptation.'

This firm action is part of a wider strategy, recently revealed by ten Central African nations, to strengthen law enforcement and tackle the escalating Wildlife crime crisis in the region. The plan is being put into action by the Central African Forest Commission (COMIFAC), and looks to cross-border anti-poaching operations - and better coordination among national agencies - to clamp down on the poachers. Police, judges and customs officers will cooperate to ensure there are more arrests and more successful presecutions.

Hundreds slaughtered

The seriousness of resurgent elephant poaching was tragically underlined by events in Bouba N'Djida National Park, in Cameroon, back in January. Hundreds of elephants were slaughtered by raiders, who were thought to have come from Chad and Sudan. Anywhere between 5,000 to 12,000 elephants may be being butchered for their tusks each year, according to the WWF. So the need to make law enforcement more effective, and to track poachers across borders, is readily apparent. But there is a need to tackle the other end of the market too.

Last week, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) released a report on the illegal markets that threatens Africa's elephants. It pinpointed Thailand and China as countries where obligations to shut down illict sales of ivory carvings are not shouldered.

'In the last two years we have seen open flouting of China's internal ivory trade laws,' said Dr Colman O'Criodain, WWF's wildlife trade expert, last week. 'In Thailand there is no regulation of ivory trade. Visitors can see ivory openly on sale, the vast bulk of it apparently of African origin.' That is something that governments there need to take firmer action on. And something that tourists to Asia should bear in mind, said O'Criodain.

'It is a crime to bring ivory home from another country, even if shopkeepers tell you otherwise.'

Follow: Twitter / Facebook / Google+ / Pinterest / More Conservation News

Topics: Elephants