By Max Fisher
There are thought to be about 500,000 elephants in Africa today. That’s just an estimate, but whatever the number is, it’s definitely declining. It’s dropping in part because the elephants are losing their habitat, but also due increasingly to ivory poachers. A 2011 study that monitored 60 of the locations most-frequented by elephants found that an astounding 7.4 percent of those elephants were killed illegally just that year. On those sites, which account for about 40 percent of the entire African population, they estimated that 17,000 elephants were killed. It would certainly stand to reason that the total number of elephants killed by poachers in Africa was much higher that year.
The global illegal ivory trade has more than doubled since just 2007, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which also estimates that the trades is now three times as large as it was in 1998. They say that seizures of illegal ivory shipments over 800 kg in size (that’s about one ton) have doubled since 2009. Doubled.
Where is all this ivory going? Most of it is actually funneled from Africa to a handful of countries in Asia. For all the continent-sized damage caused by the ivory trade, it’s mostly drive by a surprisingly small number of countries. They’re sometimes called the “Gang of Eight“: that refers to exporters Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda; middleman states Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines; and consumers China and Thailand.
The global market is bigger than those eight countries, of course, but a comprehensive new report on the illegal ivory market and its devastation of the elephant population put its pretty clearly: “Today, most ivory is obtained illegally from Africa and manufactured and sold in Asia.” The report was released by a United Nations Environment Program office called UNEP/GRID-Arendal, which is short for the Global Resource Information Database office in Arendal, Sweden.
I’ve pulled two maps from the report, which are included here. The first, at the top of this page, shows the contours of the illegal ivory trade, as measured in large-scale seizures. Remember that this only counts seizures of over 800 kg (about one ton), and it only counts the people who got caught. But you can see the basics: the elephants are killed and stripped of their ivory in East and Southern Africa. Then they’re shipped to Southeast Asia to be processed from raw tusks into commercial products, which are often shipped to Thailand or China, where a rising middle class is buying up more and more. More....