By Christina Russo
Efforts to stop the illegal killing of African elephants should focus on ivory transshipment ports and personnel.
While there are effectively unlimited numbers of poachers and consumers fueling the lucrative illegal ivory market, a new report suggests that nearly all the ivory shuttled from Africa to Asia—the biggest market—is confined to as few as 200 shipping containers a year.
This "transit or supply chain is the single greatest point of vulnerability in the illicit ivory system," says Adam Roberts, CEO of Born Free, an anti-poaching group based in Washington, D.C.
On Wednesday, the group issued what it calls a "landmark" study on how illegal ivory is moved from Africa to Asia. Called "Out of Africa: Mapping the Global Trade in Illicit Elephant Ivory," the study was conducted over three months by C4ADS, an NGO that seeks to shed light on global conflict and security issues through research and analysis.
Here, Roberts talks about ivory trafficking syndicates, the African ports that ship out most of the ivory, and why it makes most sense for law enforcement to target that link in the overall trade chain.
The report says that too much attention is paid to the beginning and end of the ivory supply chain—on poaching and demand—and that more should be paid to how ivory is transported.
The priority has been focused historically on that which is readily accessible. Images of elephant carcasses littering the African savanna show the poaching problem. Ivory for sale in China and other East Asian markets shows the demand problem. But the intervening supply is hidden from sight.
Born Free has seen a strong focus on poaching and also on demand, but the third aspect of the trade—the movement of ivory from the dead elephant to the consumers' hands—is a vital focus and provides a further pressure point to stop the trade and save elephants.
What are some of the more astounding findings related to the movement of ivory?
One of the most interesting is that there is a huge international movement of ivory both by air and by sea, but the most significant amounts of illicit ivory are being shipped across the ocean.
Secondly, I think the most startling figure in the report is the analysis of poaching hot spots within elephant range and their proximity to exit points from Africa.
What are the steps taken in transporting ivory illegally?
The goal is to kill as many elephants for ivory as possible. The ivory is then trafficked to a point of consolidation, where you put all the tusks together and prepare for export. This can mean one or two tons of ivory going into a container with seashells, dried seaweed, nuts, or other legal products to mask the wildlife contraband.
The ivory would then be loaded onto a boat and shipped to Asia.
Or you might have smaller quantities of ivory, including ivory that's been worked in Africa, flown to Asia in someone's luggage. In this case what we've found is that you'll have higher volume in terms of numbers of pieces if going by air or luggage. But weight—size of shipment—is bigger by sea.
And once received in Asia, the ivory is moved to carving factories or prepared for domestic sale or transshipment to a country like China.
One of the other interesting findings is that you're looking at two sets of organized criminal syndicates. You have the African criminal networks, which are doing the poaching, funding the poaching, and also consolidating the ivory. And on the receiving end, you have Asian criminal networks moving this wildlife contraband to market. And there seems to be some overlap between the two.
The report notes that the typical large-scale ivory seizure is between one and three tons, carried in 20- or 40-foot-long containers. There are three main ports in Africa being used to traffic ivory: Mombasa, in Kenya, and Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar, in Tanzania. The report says that the "nexus between criminal syndicates and corrupt freight logisticians may be particularly important." What are "freight logisticians"?
Freight logisticians are the different personnel and companies in the business of moving containers. It's a catch-all phrase we're using to account for the freight forwarders, shipping agents, container leasing agents, consignors, consignees, etc.
Why is the nexus between them and criminal syndicates so important?
As we try to keep poaching from being successful, we have to stop the movement of ivory itself. And so tackling that piece of the chain is important. These are the people who essentially grease the machine that enables illicit ivory to get from Africa to Asia. If we break that chain, we can break the whole market.
According to the study, only 100 to 200 containers annually carry these shipments. That's not that many containers...
Right! No one is looking at these exit points. People have not historically been as focused on the exit ports because they've been, rather, focused on the demand, the sale, and what's being confiscated when ivory finally hits Hanoi or Hong Kong. Our goal with this information is that we can stop it from getting that far.
According to the report, not a single African port ranks within the world's top 50 by size. The report identifies three companies that screen most cargo across numerous African ports and notes that fewer than ten shipping companies service most Africa to East Asia routes. So very few actors are actually involved in this segment of the trade.
Although there's a small number of shipments that leave Africa, each of these contains a large percentage of the total ivory exported globally. The second point you raise isn't just absolutely correct, it's the reason we commissioned this study.
If we now know these are the ports—of course there are others—but if we know where the ivory is easily leaving Africa, we have an opportunity to focus our interdiction efforts on those ports of exit. And the harder we can make it for ivory to leave Africa, the safer we make it for Africa's wild elephants.
Is anyone talking to these shipping lines?
No. Because this report for the first time exposes this aspect of the trade. More....