US to destroy its ivory stockpile

Behind the worldwide outcry about rhino poaching is another – and in many ways far more shocking – statistic. Every day, on average, three rhinos are butchered for their horns. But in that same day 96 elephants fall to poacher guns.

In Zimbabwe last month, the crack of a rifle was replaced with a more deadly approach. Cyanide was used to poison a water hole in Hwange National Park.

So far more than 100 elephant carcasses have been found by park officials with their tusks cut out. A Hwange conservationist, who has received death threats so his name is being withheld, claimed there is a link between local poachers, government officials and Chinese nationals.

There are estimated to be fewer than 460 000 elephants in the world and their numbers are declining fast. The sheer scale of their destruction in Africa has been ringing alarm bells among conservation organisations and, following President Barack Obama's visit to Africa, the United States government as well.

This has led to the creation of a presidential task force to curb poaching and, on October 8, the US Fish and Wildlife Service will crush and destroy its stockpile of about 5.4 tonnes of ivory seized in violation of wildlife laws. Obama has also called on all members of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) to do the same.

The US government is making this call, according to Cites, "to draw attention to the increased level of poaching and illegal trade threatening wild populations and strengthen efforts to crack down on these criminal activities".

Illegal wildlife trade generates between $10-billion and $20-billion a year, according to Bryan Walsh, a senior editor at Time, and the proceeds often fund and arm rebel and militia groups willing to slaughter imperilled species and kill people to obtain elephant ivory, rhinoceros horn and other wildlife parts.

This trade is the fifth most lucrative illegal activity after the sale of drugs, human trafficking, oil theft and counterfeiting, according to Walsh.

Because penalties for poaching tend to be far lighter than for trading drugs or people, it has become an attractive business for criminal syndicates and terrorist groups alike.

Al-Shabab, which carried out the attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, is one of them. The International Fund for Animal Welfare claims up to 40% of its funds come from illegal ivory sales.

"It's destabilising to nations, it's a threat to security forces and it's a serious loss for local economies that depend on wildlife. This is blood money at its bloodiest," Peter Seligmann, the chief executive officer  of Conservation International, said.

The US is the second-largest ivory market in the world after China, and trade within the country remains legal "under a confusing set of regulations which foster black market sales", according to the US Wildlife Conservation Society.

The Wildlife Conservation Society called on the US government to go further by instituting a moratorium on domestic ivory sales and to urge other countries to do the same.  

The call on other Cites signatories to destroy their ivory poses a dilemma for a number of African nations with ostensibly valuable stockpiles and limited revenues for conservation. These countries, including South Africa, are likely to campaign for a one-off sale of their ivory at the next Cites meeting in 2016 and will be reluctant to see a potential revenue source go up in smoke.

In July this year South Africa's environment minister, Edna Molewa, said South Africa would seek permission for a one-off sale of its stockpile of rhino horn – estimated to be worth around $1-billion – at the next major meeting of Cites in 2016.

In a statement earlier this year she said: "The Cabinet [has] approved the development and submission of a proposal to the 17th conference of parties to Cites, scheduled to take place in 2016 in South Africa, to introduce regulated international trade in rhino horn."

Her position will undoubtedly be the same for the country's large ivory stockpile. Such sales in 1999 and 2008 proved disastrous, leading to a rapid increase in poaching after the stockpiles were consumed by Chinese carvers and investors hoarding ivory as a hedge against elephant extinction.

Whether the US will back its call on Cites members to destroy stockpiles with a more muscular approach and also begin shutting down US domestic trade remains to be seen.

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Don Pinnock
Don Pinnock is a freelance writer and photographer. He is the former editor of Getaway magazine.

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