By Carol J. Williams
Conservationists battling illicit global trade in endangered species say at least 25,000 African elephants were slaughtered last year by criminal gangs eager to market the lucrative ivory from their tusks.
The poachers' take has risen to alarming levels over the last six years, with about one in 17 wild elephants being felled in 2012, by some estimates. That is a pace that confronts some herds with extinction as elephant births are again being outpaced by the illegal kills.
Protecting Africa’s majestic mammals from the scourge of tusk hunters was a task conservationists thought they had mastered two decades ago after the 178 nations of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, banned crossborder ivory trade in 1989.
But legal ivory-carving industries in Thailand and China have provided convenient cover for rogue traders, and the Internet’s anonymity and 24/7 availability allow buyers and sellers to conduct business in banned species parts without fear of detection or social reproach.
Even worse, say wildlife defenders, is the false confidence the international trade ban has engendered among consumers everywhere that any statues or baubles openly for sale must have been made from legally available tusks of domesticated elephants that died of natural causes.
Thailand Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra welcomed more than 2,000 conservation and wildlife advocates to a global meeting of CITES in Bangkok last week with a pledge to close the legal gaps that have made Thailand one of the biggest markets for “blood ivory.” The other flourishing market, China, has brought its laws up to international standards, but they are often ignored by unscrupulous dealers who substitute smuggled ivory items for documented domestic works.
“So many consumers just proceed on the assumption that no animal was killed for this product. The bloody killing fields are continents away from the Chinese consuming market, and there is very little consideration for what is going on there,” Tom Milliken, head of the elephant and rhinoceros program at the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic, said in a telephone interview from the Bangkok conference.
Thailand provides a convenient fig leaf to cover the illicit trade with laws that allow marketing of tusks taken from elephants that die after service in the logging and tourist industries. Even calculating a more accelerated natural death rate among the 1,000 or so captive tusk-growing males, a fully legal ivory trade would provide Thailand's registered carvers with less than 2,000 pounds of ivory per year, or about 25 pounds apiece.
“There is no way an ivory carver could have a livelihood with that volume,” Milliken said. More....