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Demand from wealthy makes elephants unfair game

Jody Clarke

"We've witnessed a huge increase in volumes smuggled," said Patrick Omondi, the head of conservation at the Kenyan Wildlife Service.

The labels read “avocados”. But when inspectors from Kenya’s wildlife service cracked open 12 wooden boxes on August 21 at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta Airport they discovered two tonnes of ivory and five rhino horns, the latest in a series of major hauls by authorities around the world.

In July authorities in Thailand confiscated 765kg of ivory flown from Kenya. In May the Vietnamese netted nearly two tonnes of elephant tusks illegally imported from the East African nation, hidden in dried seaweed. Some of the tusks are thought to have been collected from dead animals over 20 years. But with elephant poaching up sevenfold in Kenya since a one-off ivory sale was approved in 2007, it’s likely many were not.

“We’ve witnessed a huge increase in volumes smuggled,” said Patrick Omondi, the head of conservation at the Kenyan Wildlife Service.

It was hoped that the 2007 agreement by Cites ­- the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species—would squeeze out illegal ivory trading by allowing four African countries to sell stockpiles gathered over many years from dead animals. Instead, it reopened a window for smuggling into China, where ivory is a sought-after commodity for use in everything from medicines to ornaments.

“It’s putting a huge increase on law enforcement. We’ve had to divert funding from programmes such as elephant research to elephant security,” said Omondi. “That’s hitting us.”

Elephant poaching more than doubled in Kenya to 204 illegal killings in 2009, from 94 the previous year and 47 in 2007, while rhino killings nearly tripled to 13 deaths in 2009 from five the previous year.

The situation is not as gloomy as it was in 1989, when Cites banned ivory sales after poaching devastated the African elephant population from 1,3-million in 1979 to about 600 000 in 1989. But it is still worrying.

With the trade reinvigorated, more ivory is finding an international market. The Elephant Trade Information System says more than ­- 14 000 products made from tusks and other elephant body parts were seized last year—an increase of more than ­­ 2000 since 2007.

Poachers, many with military training, are using increasingly sophisticated methods to track down animals. Said Kumunya Mugo of the World Wildlife Fund in Kenya: “They’re using tranquillisers and even microlight helicopters to get elephants and black rhinos. They’ll stop at nothing.”

There is a clear economic incentive. The price of ivory has risen from $250 a kilogram to $1 000 a kilogram in the past three years, said Omondi.

Some game parks have responded by using more overt military tactics to fight poachers. Some African conservation organisations in Africa are even operating a shoot-to-kill policy, according to a new study in the UK. But focusing on military-style enforcement merely undermines local support for wildlife and is ultimately counterproductive, argues Manchester University political scientist Rosaleen Duffy.

In her book, Nature Crime: How We’re Getting Conservation Wrong, Duffy argues that governments should tackle the demand side of the problem rather than concentrating on the effects of one-off ivory sales.

“Rather than focusing on poverty as a driver of poaching, we need to look at wealth. Poachers are servicing markets in the wealthy world, in this case in East Asia”, she says.

“There is good evidence to suggest that the collapse in poaching and rise in elephant numbers in East Africa after the initial ivory ban in 1989 were more closely related to a collapse in demand for ivory in Europe and North America.”

Omondi agrees. “We’ve more than doubled air patrols and put more staff on the ground. We have sniffer dogs at airports and want to spread them to the port in Mombasa and are co-operating more than ever with international organisations such as Interpol. But until the problem in Asia is tackled, international cartels that employ local people to poach will continue operating across Africa.”

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