Illegal poaching under pressure as ivory demand grows in China


Henry Kijimwana Mhango, This Is Africa

Date Published

African elephants are in danger of extinction, and a number of countries are increasing the efforts to fight the devastating effects of poaching.  

The trafficking of elephant ivory tusks is escalating beyond control, driven largely by demand from Asia. Statistics indicate that at least 100 000 elephants were killed for ivory in Africa between 2010 and 2013. Over the same period, the price for tusk ivory has tripled from $350 to $1900 per kilogram.

The trade in ivory is officially banned internationally. However demand is growing for ivory items such as pendants and figurines in Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where the sale of ivory is legal. China now has around 150 government-licensed shops, four times the number in 2004. Illegal factories and shops are thought to far outnumber the legal ones.

Demand for ivory items in China is growing. “Chinese nationals desire ivory as we associate it with luck,” says Ling Tie, a Chinese trader in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital.  

For some it is a way of displaying their wealth and status. It also has more utilitarian uses. “It is a good investment, and many give ivory as a gift or bribe to win favour with an official or business contract,” he explains.

Chinese government authorities also believe ivory carving is an ancient tradition that has cultural value, and therefore should be preserved.

Environmentalists disagree. They argue that demand for ivory is fueling wildlife crime across Africa’s elephant habitats. A growing enclave of Chinese middlemen is also conveying illegal elephant ivory back to their home country.

Malawi is known to be a nexus for this trade, drawing in ivory destined for export poached in some of Africa’s hardest hit countries including neighbors Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia.

A 2014 study found that Africa’s elephant population declined by 64 percent in the space of a decade, driven both by environmental degradation and poaching. At current rates, African elephants will disappear from the wild by 2025.

Increasing enforcement

The depletion has sent shockwaves through many African countries including Malawi, Kenya, Botswana and Tanzania. Together with international organizations, these governments are working to better enforce the international ivory trade ban in the hopes of saving elephant populations.

In March last year, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta gained global attention when he ordered officials to burn 15 tonnes of poached ivory. The tusks were valued at $30m on the black market.

“We want future generations of Kenyans, Africans and indeed the entire world to experience the majesty and beauty of these magnificent animals,” said President Kenyatta.

Kenya has promised to burn 115 tonnes more stockpiled ivory impounded from poachers in Nairobi National Park.

Malawi also also demonstrated its commitment last month when the country’s high court ordered the government to burn 781 tusks (2.6 tonnes), worth $3m, smuggled from neighboring Tanzania. The country is expected to destroy four more stockpiles of ivory seized from poachers.

“This is sending a very strong signal that Malawi is serious in combating illegal wildlife trade, specifically the ivory,” director of parks and wildlife Bright Kumchedwa said when the ruling was announced.

In October last year, Tanzania arrested and charged a Chinese ivory trader Yang Feng Glan alongside four Tanzanian nationals, and she now faces a possible sentence of 30 years in prison. The group were attempting to smuggle some 706 ivory tusks weighing 1.9 tonnes out of the country.

Ms Yang is suspected to have been a focal point between poachers in Tanzania and international buyers supplying markets in Asia.

Within the same month, another Chinese national, Li Ling Ling and four Tanzanian nationals were charged with smuggling ivory to Switzerland. The Swiss government confiscated the ivory, but let the smugglers go free.

Sharp declines in Tanzania’s elephant populations prompted the country, with support from donors including the Global Conservation Organisation, to establish a special multi-agency task force unit to deal with environmental crimes.

In June 2015, at least 157 countries adopted a resolution to combat the illegal wildlife trade during the United Nations Environmental Assessment Assembly held in Nairobi, Kenya.

Meanwhile, several donors including Germany, the World Bank and Britain are providing financial support and capacity building to African governments and local organisations combating wildlife crime.

The UK government granted Malawi some $430,000 over two years  to the establish the new Malawi Wildlife Crime Intelligence Unit, a multiagency effort.

“It is important that we work collectively and regionally to prevent Malawi and its neighbours from being used as source and transit points for this damaging criminal activity,” British high commissioner Michael Nevin said when the funding was announced.

Malawi was picked as a target country because of its status as a known transit and export point for illegal ivory smuggled across borders from its neighbours.

Beyond the moral arguments, there are economic reasons why preservation is in countries’ interests. In Malawi, for instance, officials says poaching has negatively impacted the country’s largely nature-based tourism industry.

“Most of our tourists come to see elephants, and the depletion of these magnificent animals through poaching is discouraging the tourists from visiting the country, hence our tourism revenue collections have been compromised,” Mr Kumchedwa explains.

China’s half measures

Following pressure from the international community, China last year issued a one year ban on the import of ivory – though not on selling ivory products already in China.

However an illegal trader managing an ivory retail shop in Guangzhou city says the ban has instead driven up black markets prices.

“The crackdowns themselves are pushing up the price of ivory, making it even more attractive to investors and more profitable for sellers,” says the trader. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being arrested.

Realising this, many of Africa’s leading wildlife welfare charities are demanding that China ban the ivory trade outright.

“Legal markets are being exploited by ivory traffickers leaking illegal ivory into these markets, and therefore legal markets are in turn exacerbating the problem,” says Kate Amoore, programmes director for Malawi-based Lilongwe Wildlife Trust.

“The ban on the legal markets will help to disrupt the illegal networks further by making it more difficult to find the market.”

So far that seems unlikely.  For China’s policymakers, the socioeconomic gains outweigh the benefits of banning the trade so far.

For wildlife conservationists and African governments, saving the region’s wild elephant populations looks to be an uphill battle.