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South Africa one of 48 implicated in illegal trade of hippo ivory

South Africa is one of 48 countries implicated in the illegal trade in hippo ivory, according to a new report from wildlife-trade specialists Traffic.

The rapid-assessment report, The Often Overlooked Ivory Trade, aimed to assess the legal and illegal international trade in the semi-aquatic mammals between 2009 and 2018.

This was done by analysing data from the trade database of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), which regulates most of the international trade in ivory, as well as from data gleaned from Traffic’s wildlife-trade information system. 

The nonprofit organisation uncovered evidence of 163 incidents of illegal trade in hippo ivory, with law enforcement authorities seizing an estimated 957kg and 6 335 specimens of hippo ivory in the period. 

The illicit trade, the report says, implicated many of the countries and territories that commonly imported or exported hippo ivory legally. Hippo teeth were the most-seized specimen, with carvings and skulls also seized in smaller quantities.

Uganda was responsible for about 27% of the seizures, followed by Tanzania, with mainland China and Hong Kong collectively accounting for 31%. 

South Africa was involved as the country of export, or as a transit country, in eight seizures of hippo ivory, while being responsible for three seizures itself. Malawi, Cameroon, and Kenya made between five and 10 seizures each.

The common hippo is listed as vulnerable on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. The largest number of hippos are found in Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. 

Many countries and territories in which hippos are found allow permitted trophy hunting of hippos and the export of hippo ivory that comes from government stockpiles, including Ethiopia, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, according to the report.

‘Overlooked ivory trade’

Traffic’s report comes after an auction of hippo teeth and a proposed cull of hippos in Tanzania, the cancellation and reinstatement of a hippo cull in Zambia, and a call for evidence on hippo ivory trade by the UK, which “increased interest in this often-overlooked ivory trade”.  

“Ivory is most commonly sourced from the teeth of mammals, such as African elephant and Asian elephant, and, to a lesser extent, from mammoths, walrus, whales (specifically the Sperm whale, narwhal and orca), common warthog and hippopotamuses, specifically the common hippopotamus,” the report says. 

Wooly mammoths became extinct more than 20 000 years ago, but their ivory is widely traded in Asia and other parts of the world, according to the World Wide Fund For Nature, where it is used for carvings and to restore antiques.

Hippo ivory, although denser and more prone to cracking, is cheaper than the more popular elephant ivory and this may be one of the reasons it remains in demand among consumers, Traffic says. It can be carved into figurines, netsuke (miniature sculptures originating in 17th century Japan) and knife handles, among other items.

In the legal trade, hippo ivory was mostly exported from east and southern African range states to Asia, Europe, and North America. Most of this ivory was re-exported to countries/territories within the EU, Hong Kong, Turkey and the US. 

Between 2009 and 2018, exporting countries reported trading 24 749kg and 39 977 specimens of hippo ivory, while importing countries/territories reported trading 36 463kg and 22 755 specimens. 

“Teeth were the most commonly traded commodity, accounting for 99.9% of trade in terms of weight and nearly 80% of trade in terms of number of specimens. Other traded hippo ivory specimens included trophies, skulls, carvings, and jewellery,” the report reads.  

A total of 17 African countries (and one country/territory reported as unknown) were reported to have exported hippo ivory between 2009 and 2018. Uganda reportedly traded the highest quantity, accounting for more than 40% of total exports. Tanzania and Malawi exported more than 11 and seven tonnes of hippo ivory, respectively. South Africa and Zambia collectively accounted for about two tonnes.

SA’s trade in hippos

According to the report, between 2009 and 2018, South Africa traded 93 skulls, 471kg of teeth (2 626 teeth) and 730 hippo trophies — the equivalent of 1 132 animals.

Up-to-date population estimates or censuses for hippo should be conducted to establish an informed review of the sustainability of the hippo ivory trade, Traffic says.

The report comes amid concerns that the prohibition of domestic commercial trade in elephant ivory (with exemptions) in numerous countries and territories, such as Belgium, mainland China, France, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Singapore, Taiwan, the US and the UK, may lead to an increase in hippo ivory trade as a substitute. 

It, however, found that trade in hippo ivory appeared to decrease during the period, seemingly contradicting concerns that it may increase as a substitute for elephant ivory. 

“This research also found that the quantities of hippo ivory internationally traded between 2009 and 2018 resulted in an offtake or an equivalent number of about 1 349 hippos annually,” the report says.

The research sought to estimate the equivalent number of individuals from the hippo population based on the quantities of ivory traded internationally, with an offtake of 1% considered sustainable. Four countries, it says, exhibited offtakes that were higher: Malawi (4%), South Africa (2%), Uganda (3%) and Zimbabwe (3%). 

Traffic’s assessment found discrepancies within the reported trade data, which could be “potentially explained by numerous factors, including differing use of units by exporters and importers, trade in illegally harvested specimens, and incorrect or incomplete reporting”. 

Among the organisation’s recommendations are for Cites parties’ management authorities to ensure that the “relevant responsible personnel are familiar with Cites reporting guidelines for submission of annual reports”.

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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