It has taken a while, but finally the world appears to be taking the illegal trade in ivory seriously. Why now? Reports of a ‘terror trail’ that links al-Shabaab and black-market ivory. The Elephant Action League investigated the ivory trail into Somalia, and found that ivory, or ‘white gold’, is ‘one of the lifelines of al-Shabaab’. EAL found that according to sources within the militant group, ‘between one to three tons of ivory, fetching a price of roughly $200 per kilo, pass through the ports in southern Somalia every month’. Al-Shabaab’s monthly income from ivory is – according to EAL – between $200,000 and $600,000.
On Thursday, Obama organised for a six ton hoard of ivory confiscated in the US, worth millions of dollars, to be crushed in front of ‘visiting dignitaries’ in Colorado in bid to make a stand against the illegal ivory trade. It’s a symbolic move for a country that has the second-largest market for ivory in the world, but opponents to the crush argued that the destruction will only push ivory prices higher.
Earlier this year, our Wild Life columnist, Aidan Hartley, expressed frustration at our inability to change people’s attitude to ivory trading – particularly in the Far East.
‘Our African governments are ineffectual or corrupt or both, allowing traders to operate almost with impunity. And the buyers are Chinese, millions of them, who believe ivory will bring them luck, and that removing tusks will not kill an elephant any more than sheering a fleece will cause the death of a sheep. Whatever we have been doing up to this point has failed. Celebrity conservationists in their donated safari vehicles have failed. Journalists like me have failed.’
More than 30,000 elephants were killed last year for their tusks – almost 100 per day. This is the highest figure since the ivory trade was banned in 1989. And it’s not just elephants that are suffering from the illegal trade. Rhino are also poached for their horns, which are sold in China and other parts of Asia as cures for everything from cancer to food poisoning and smallpox.
Last year, 668 rhino were killed across Africa, with the number this year expected to be nearer to 1,000. In 2000, just 7 rhino were killed by poachers. The death rate of rhino is set to exceed the birth rate in the next few years.
Of course powdered rhino horn doesn’t come cheap. But as the Asian economy continues to flourish and the middle classes to increase, more and more people will be able to afford to buy rhino horn, which will increase the demand. And while there’s demand, poaching will continue. All this, for a product that Owen Paterson has described as having ‘the same medicinal value as my big toenail’.
There have already been concerted efforts to try and prevent poaching for both rhino and elephants. Embedding a microchip in the horn of every rhino in Africa is one plan, with the World Wildlife Forum (WWF) having donated chips and scanners worth almost £10,00o. We Brits are also sending 25 troops to Kenya, who will train local rangers to protect themselves from increasingly violent poachers; last year 60 wardens were killed protecting animals. Machine guns, night vision goggles and vets’ drugs are all commonly used by poachers, while both rhino and elephants frequently have their tusks and horns hacked off while still alive.
So can Obama and the British Army succeed where everyone else has failed? It may well be too late. Just last week the Western Black rhino was declared officially extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, while the Northern White rhino and the Javan rhino are both very close to extinction. This Sunday will be the next full moon in Africa – otherwise known as a ‘poachers’ moon’. Prime time for poaching; who knows how many more will be killed.