Elephant survival is a global problem that needs global and local solutions
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Elephant survival is a global problem that needs global and local solutions

In 2012 and 2013, poachers killed 10% of the global population of forest elephants. 100,000 African elephants were killed for their tusks between 2010 and 2012. Wildlife Conservation Society estimates that 96 elephants are killed illegally every single day. Another conservation group, iWorry, estimates that an elephant is killed every 15 minutse for its ivory — a total of 36,000 in 2012 alone.

Record-breaking ivory seizures

Thai customs officers recently seized a cache of 511 pieces of ivory that traffickers were attempting to smuggle from Kenya to Asia in containers marked “tea leaves”. The ivory, worth millions of dollars, was on its way to Laos, a centre for the illegal trade of banned exotic animal parts.

This latest seizure in Thailand comes less than a week after a recordfour  tons of African ivory was confiscated by authorities at Bangkok’s main port on April 20. That ivory, originating in the Democratic Republic of Congo, was also headed towards Laos.

But Laos is not the main market for illegal ivory. According to the conservation organization Traffic, Laos is fast becoming the major point of transit for large shipments of illegal wildlife parts. The ivory that arrives there is then divided and sold on to buyers in China, Vietnam or even back in Thailand, where it could be bought under the impression that it is farmed Thai ivory, which is legal.

The online market for ivory

While many may find the sale of ivory, whether legal or illegal, immoral and distasteful, a burgeoning market exists, largely fueled by the growth of affluent classes in Asia. But it isn’t just an Asian or African problem. A recent investigation by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) into the ivory trade on popular classified advertising site Craigslist found that an estimated $15 million in illegal ivory sales could be flowing through the San Francisco-based website every year. Buyers are located in major and smaller cities spread throughout the US.

While Craigslist does not officially allow the sale of illegal ivory, it has obviously not done enough to stop it. IFAW wants Craigslist to follow the examples of other popular only marketplaces like eBay and Etsy, which use special software to identify and remove offending posts.

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Seized ivory, Democratic Republic of Congo. Pic: Jonathan Hutson, Enough Project (Flickr CC)

On the other extreme, Japan still legally sells ivory, largely on sites like Yahoo and Rakuten, the world’s largest online retailer of ivory, whether legal or illegal. A global coalition of conservation groups recently appealed to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to ban the domestic trade in ivory.

From the coalition of groups’ press release:

Since 1970, ivory from more than 250,000 elephants has been imported into Japan—much of it from illegally killed wild elephants. According to the groups, Japan has consistently failed to comply with the ivory controls required by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). They point to a Japanese government scheme that allows poached ivory to be registered without sufficient evidence the tusks were legally acquired.

Does crushing ivory stocks work?

In 2013 the US government pulverized 6 tons of confiscated ivory tusks. Last year China, a major market for illegal ivory, crushed another 6 tons of its ivory stocks. The United Arab Emirates, another frequent crossroads for the banned ivory trade, has just followed suit as did a supply-side nation, Congo-Brazzaville, which recently burned 5 tonnes of tusks.

However, some believe that destroying existing stocks just makes ivory a more rare and valued commodity, to be gathered from living animals rather than existing stocks. They have a point, but this is a complex, global problem in which gestures like crushing ivory are largely symbolic.

We need an outright international ivory ban, dedicated control and the enforcement of existing laws on the buying side, along with viable economic opportunities for poachers on the supply side. We also need to respect elephants as intelligent living beings with rights, and not simply as something to exploit for personal wealth or vanity.