By George Okore
Despite considerable efforts to combat wildlife poaching, the practice continues to threaten endangered species all over the world. In Africa, it is having a devastating impact on the continent's wildlife population.
Aware that poaching in Africa has reached alarming levels, particularly that involving rhinos and elephants, and with the most popular destination for their export being Asia, China has mustered timely international action against wildlife crime. In January, John E. Scanlon, Secretary General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), led the world in burning 6 tons of confiscated illegal ivory and other animal products in a show of commitment toward ending the illicit trade.
The public destruction in Dongguan, south China's Guangdong Province, of 6.15 tons of ivory stockpiles seized from illegal trade will both raise public awareness and show the Chinese Government's resolve to put a halt to slaughtering wildlife for their body parts.
"We congratulate China for timely intervention. The international community should reciprocate by improving law enforcement and increased efforts to reduce demand. These efforts need to be stepped up and strengthened to produce desired results," said the UN Environment Program Executive Director Achim Steiner, who added that the latest CITES data estimates that some 47,000 animals were killed in Africa in 2011 and 2012.
The African Elephant Specialist Group under the International Union for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission estimates the African elephant population to be around 500,000.
CITES said that preliminary indicators suggest that even higher levels of illegal trade may be reached in 2013. Although incomplete, the raw data for large-scale ivory seizures in 2013 (classed as involving at least 500 kg of ivory in a single transaction) already represented the greatest quantity of ivory confiscated through this type of seizure over the last 25 years. Large-scale ivory seizures typically indicate the participation of organized crime and so far, 18 such seizures have yielded over 41.6 tons of ivory this year. Whether this reflects better law enforcement or a further escalation in trade, can only be known when a full analysis of the 2013 data is possible. According to CITES, if the present rate of poaching activity is maintained, elephants in Africa could face extinction.
Tom Milliken, an ivory trade expert with TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, said, "From 2000 through 2013, the number of large-scale ivory movements has steadily grown in terms of the number of such shipments and the quantity of ivory illegally traded. The year 2013 already represented a 20-percent increase over the previous peak year in 2011; we're hugely concerned."
Last October, the African Elephant Summit in Gaborone, Botswana, also advocated stronger global action to halt illegal trade and secure viable elephant populations across Africa.
Zhao Shucong, head of China's State Forestry Administration, said that China is strengthening enforcement efforts both domestically as well as collaborating with other countries to stop illegal trade in elephant ivory and other illegal wildlife products.
To prevent the extinction of elephants, China is currently implementing its comprehensive National Ivory Action Plan. It has identified countries that are primary sources, transit routes and importers of illegal ivory. These include Kenya, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Uganda, Tanzania and Viet Nam. Collaboratively, China is working with these countries to enhance strong national legislation and regulations coupled with international enforcement, outreach and public awareness.
On an international level, China has led two cross-continental wildlife enforcement efforts, known as Operation Cobra and Operation Cobra II, to combat illegal wildlife trade, as well as providing funding to the African Elephant Fund and the Monitoring of Illegal Killing of Elephants project.
Kenya Wildlife Service Director, William Kiprono, said that there is strong evidence of increased involvement of organized crime syndicates and rebel militia in wildlife crimes. This is channeled through well-developed criminal networks, which is changing the dynamics of combating this highly destructive criminal activity. One of the regional initiatives to deal with this is the Nairobi-based Lusaka Agreement Task Force adopted in 1994. This was implemented to fight elephant poaching and other wildlife crimes. This, in turn, established the Africa Elephant Enforcement Special Account to mobilize resources toward conservation of African elephants, to which China is a contributor.