Just when reports indicate East Africa’s elephant population is rising, thanks to intensified anti-poaching efforts by governments including high-profile arrests and subsequent jail terms, ivory smugglers are resorting to illegal processing sites in Central and West Africa.
At these centres, the cartels turn raw ivory into finished products, which are then shipped to Asian markets.
“Assessing data associated with seizures of commercial quantities of worked ivory supports these allegations. Comparing international trade transactions from Africa that were transported by air, post or sea in two three-year periods of time (2014-2016), suggests that the weight of such seizures has roughly doubled,” a report by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) says.
The processing sites come at a time when ivory manufacturing in China, Hong Kong and Thailand has noticeably contracted or is slated for official closure come 2018.
In the past three years, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Mozambique, Angola, South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Uganda, Malawi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have been the leading countries of origin for ivory exports.
They also account for the greatest number of seizures and quantities of worked ivory products moving out of Africa mostly by air.
“Whether ivory processing operations for export are occurring in all of these countries remains to be established, but Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Mozambique, Angola, South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Uganda, Malawi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as Congo were all previously identified as having ivory carving industries that appeared to be servicing demand in Asia with the production of key generic products such as bangles, name seals and chopsticks,” the report says.
Out of the 4,053 tonnes of worked ivory seized, Nigeria led with more than 769kg.
In the region, Ethiopia led with 350kg, followed by Kenya with 336kg and Uganda with 160kg.
In terms of destination, nearly three-quarters of these ivory products were destined for the greater China market, including the Special Administrative Regions (SAR) of Hong Kong and Macao. This trade accounted for over 60 per cent of the total weight in both periods.
The next destination for this trade was Vietnam, which represented eight per cent of the total number of seizures and 16 per cent of the total weight.
Egypt, which has an unregulated domestic ivory industry of its own, was the most important non-Asian destination.
According to Cites, expatriate-run carving operations for export have developed in recent years with Chinese operatives in Congo, who were formerly just engaged in trafficking raw ivory to Asia, but are now setting up ivory carving operations themselves and regularly export small quantities of worked ivory items.
“This was being done to minimise financial losses from seizures of large raw ivory shipments. It was explained that Chinese networks were able to undertake holistic operations that included obtaining ivory from source locations, transporting such ivory to carving sites, running processing operations using Asian carvers and exporting the ivory products to Asian markets,” the report says.
Tom Milliken, who manages the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS), said that these findings show a volatile and unsettled ivory trade equation as trade patterns shift as traffickers looking to find easier ways to carry on their trade.
“We have not turned the corner yet on the elephant poaching crisis and it is imperative now, more than ever, to keep up the pressure to stop the poachers and ivory traffickers by addressing emerging trade dynamics. These include unearthing ivory processing sites and online trading channels that currently remain beyond the reach of effective law enforcement everywhere,” Mr Milliken said.
According to the report, the situation in the region is, however, looking bright. At three sites in Tanzania and one in Kenya, less than half the number of elephant carcasses were recorded in 2016 compared with the previous year.
Tanzania remains the region’s elephant population stronghold although numbers in Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda are also stable or rising, as are some populations in Southern Africa.
Surge in poaching
Cites secretary-general John Scanlon said that the region has been badly affected by the surge in poaching over the past 10 years, and has experienced an almost 50 per cent reduction in elephant populations.
“However, there has been a steady decline in poaching levels since their peak in 2011, and the analysis from 2016 concludes that overall poaching trends have now dropped to pre-2008 levels. At the same time, 2016 recorded the highest level of seizures of illegally traded ivory by weight since commercial international trade was banned by Cites in 1989,” Mr Scanlon said.
The report also shows that African elephants are not evenly distributed across their range, with Southern Africa hosting the bulk of the population at 71 per cent followed by East Africa at 20 per cent, Central Africa at six per cent and West Africa at three per cent of the continental population.
However, while much of the current conservation focus is on the threat of poaching, in the medium to long-term, human expansion into elephant habitats, civil unrest and climate change are all likely to constitute the greatest threats to the survival of the species.
“Around 33 economic ‘development corridors’ have been planned, or are being implemented already, across Africa and if completed would total over 53,000km in length.
These are, therefore, likely to significantly impact elephant populations across their range, although the proportion of critical elephant range that falls into these corridors is currently unknown and urgently needs to be assessed,” it says.
Last year, Kenya’s Save the Elephant organisation managed to track five elephants in the Tsavo ecosystem crossing the standard gauge railway at elevated points beneath the railway tracks and the Voi-Taveta road.
The organisation was tracking these jumbos through satellite radio tracking collars in a bid to understand how their movements are influenced by the project. Some activists had said that the railway would affect the animal’s corridor hence putting them in harm’s way.
The report comes barely a month to next month’s crucial meeting of Cites in Geneva Switzerland from November 27, where Kenya will lead Burkina Faso, Congo, and Niger to push for destruction of ivory stockpiles and seek guidance for the management of stockpiles, including their disposal.
Cites has also set its eyes on Japan, which it accuses of being lax in implementing a ban on the domestic ivory market, an allegation the country denied, noting that it has a significant ivory market but that it does not contain illegal ivory and that the recent Cites recommendation on closure of domestic markets does not apply.
“The law will enter into force by June 1, 2018 and will replace the regulation of manufacturing and sales of ivory products, currently based on a notification system, with stricter regulation, requiring registration of a business. This will now see applicants interested in manufacturing and sale of ivory products screened through the registration process and given a five-year license,” Japan says in its defence.
The country also said that in April this year, its Customs department conducted discussion with China Customs officers on preventing the smuggling of ivory and possible co-operation between the Customs authorities of the two countries.
“While enforcing the new regulations will be critical to deterring illegal activity, Japan’s domestic ivory market is still full loopholes that leak substantial quantities of ivory to other markets, such as China...”
“Given that the parties to Cites last year recommended the closure of domestic ivory markets that contribute to poaching and illegal trade, an overhaul of Japan’s market oversight and regulation is urgently needed to ensure that it does not undermine the global fight against illegal ivory trade,” Traffic’s regional director for East Asia he added.
Since last September CoP17 meeting in Johannesburg, China has led the world in recording outstanding progress. In March, the Cites authorities in China closed 67 licensed ivory facilities, including 12 ivory carving factories and several dozen ivory retailers. This is the first stage of an agreed programme to close down China’s domestic ivory commerce by the end of 2017.
An additional 105 licensed facilities will be shut down by the end of the year. The price of ivory has fallen in China, but major challenges remain in tackling transnational criminal networks, Cites say.
Before CoP17, the US issued regulations for the “near-closure” of its domestic ivory markets and has maintained its strict new controls. To complement the federal regulations, seven states have adopted state level measures to restrict ivory sales in their jurisdictions.
The Hong Kong SAR is considering a draft law proposed in June this year to close much of its domestic ivory markets over a five-year phase-out period, although the extended period has been criticised as being much too long.
Two hearings have been held, in June and September this year, to receive public input over this.
On its part, in July this year, the European Union adopted new guidance to prohibit the re-export of stockpiled raw ivory.
However, there remains significant concern because of the EU’s retention of a major domestic internal market, including trade in ivory antiques where intra-EU commerce does not require any Cites permits or documentation.
Currently, the EU Commission is gathering data on the extent of legal and illegal ivory trade in, to and from the EU, in order to guide possible future initiatives at the EU level on this issue.
Last month, it launched a formal public consultation on ivory trade in the EU, specifically acknowledging the new provisions on domestic markets agreed at the CoP17, and sets out a range of options, up to and including a total ban on trade and internal commerce.
The consultation closes in December.