The sight of burning elephant ivory stock is a spectacle of pyrrhic defeat. Above, there are pillars of smoke and flecks of red embers; below, pyramids of elephant tusks blackening in flames — hollow, charred remnants of slain icons.
Destruction of ivory stock is but one of many measures that governments, law enforcement agencies, and anti-poaching organizations have adopted to combat the illegal trade of wildlife goods, following the guidance of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species and other international wildlife policy. They work to manage poaching where species decline has been severe over the last several decades. But on the ground, poaching draws entire communities into rings of organized crime that exact pernicious environmental tolls. It can feel like one is fighting a never-ebbing blaze.
Two years have passed since China’s momentous ivory ban. Its effectiveness — and its shortcomings — speaks to the current and future status of wildlife crime, and calls for an investigation of all of the links in its twisted supply chain. Taking ivory and several other illicit wildlife goods as examples, we can understand the source of the flames.
Origins of Demand
The social origins of the demand for wildlife goods weave together strands of class, culture, and tradition, skewed by an abrupt transition into a modern context. In an interview with the HPR, Wander Meijer, director of GlobeScan, explained: “Ivory has always been used everywhere in the world by rich people as a sign of status. Why it has become such a big issue now is because it has been democratized. A lot more people are actually buying the products because they can afford it.”
Some goods are believed to have additional medicinal or curative properties. Rhino horn’s speculated medicinal properties are loosely defined, its appeal coming from a combination of social allure — wealthy buyers may choose to display or carve rhino horn rather than consume it — and erroneous traditional beliefs. Another victim is the totoaba, a large, endangered fish inhabiting Mexico’s Sea of Cortés: Its swim bladder, a fleshy organ falsely attributed curative powers, is valuable enough to earn it the nickname “la cocaine del mar” — cocaine of the sea.
As the ivory ban and awareness campaigns have been enacted across China, opinions do seem to be shifting, according to GlobeScan’s September survey. Nearly 80 percent of respondents said they would not purchase ivory. What is troubling, though, is the 14 percent who said they would.
Demand and consumption over the past year has risen within a small yet persistent demographic of patrons who evade Chinese wildlife trade laws by buying in countries with less stringent policies, such as Thailand, Hong Kong, and Cambodia. “If I walk across the Hong Kong-China border, and bring a few small ivory artifacts with me, like trinkets, nobody will check me, and nobody will notice it,” Meijer says. “The enforcement is not as stringent as people thought.”
China is the world’s biggest travel market — next year, two million Chinese people will go abroad. “The only demographic which showed an increase in both the demand for ivory and the purchase of ivory are travellers,” Meijer said. “If they go abroad to countries around China, people may not even have the intention to buy ivory, but what happens in practice is that they go to souvenir shops and it is offered to them.”
There is also the prospect of speculation. Stockpilers in Africa, China, and Southeast Asia “are betting on either elephants going extinct … or one day, for whatever reason, the market reopening in China. Again, in both cases you will have ivory there already, stockpiled like gold,” explained Andrea Crosta, a wildlife crime investigator, in an interview with the HPR.
Furthermore, even if demand does not increase, poachers may kill more in anticipation of rising prices, hoping to make elephants even more rare so that each tusk might fetch a higher price as elephant tusks grow sparse. The same phenomenon allegedly occurs with totoaba bladders, which are often traded and used as a sort of currency, a gold standard.
The Supply Chain
Organized wildlife crime drastically transforms the societies in which it operates. With its many links, it is the most tenacious part of the chain. The trade of coveted wildlife goods provides an enticing source of income for communities. A single totoaba bladder can generate thousands of dollars for a fisherman, and tens of thousands of dollars for a trafficker in the Chinese black market. This source of income is conditional: Fishermen provide the goods in exchange for a small percentage of the market value as well as weapons and ammunition, fishing nets, and other appliances loaned with the understanding that the poachers are responsible for them, thus creating a vicious system of economic and social reliance.
The 2019 documentary Sea of Shadows revealed the degree to which crime organizations exploiting the totoaba trade have infiltrated the lives of fishermen on the Sea of Cortés. Traffickers have not simply drawn fishermen into fishing illegal totoaba. They have monopolized the waters so that legal fishermen cannot compete, thus causing even more fishermen to turn to poaching.
Once fishermen are enveloped in the trade, syndicates lend them expensive equipment, such as fishing nets and weapons, controlling them through debt as well as through profit. The documentarian Richard Ladkani, who directed the film, recounted the consequences he witnessed firsthand in an interview with the HPR: “They are being extorted … One fisherman we interviewed in the film lost 16 nets, worth about $54,000. Then he went public with it, and started to rebel against the cartel, saying he couldn’t pay them back, so they killed him.”
The role of traffickers and mafias is often overlooked. No one knows the nature of these players better than Andrea Crosta. As the world’s leading wildlife crime investigator and head of Earth League International, he described the difference between the arrests of a key poacher — in this example, the Tanzanian poacher “Shetani” — and a key trafficker, the Chinese kingpin Yang Fenlan, known as the “Ivory Queen.”
“Shetani was one of the most important players in the first part of the supply chain. Someone like him still needs a trader to sell what he has and continue the supply chain,” Crosta said. “It’s not easy to replace someone like Shetani, but it’s not impossible. To replace someone like the Ivory Queen is a lot more difficult. This is why we have been advocating for years asking law enforcement and governments to go upstream in the supply chain and focus on people like the Ivory Queen … who know how to buy, how to smuggle, how to put together containers or shipments, avoid Chinese customs, and keep in contact with the buyers.”
It is important not to exaggerate the role poverty plays in causing poaching. “You have many, many cases [like San Felipe] around the world: they are not rich, but they do survive, they are not poor … what changes the equation are traffickers,” Crosta explained. “One must understand the disturbance and temptation factor that the traffickers bring into communities … If, tomorrow, you were to give jobs to [the whole population] of San Felipe, you would still have totoaba trafficking. Already, now, fishermen come not from the area, but from all around Mexico. It’s like a gold rush.”
Mafias, of course, impede justice. Paying off border and customs officials, according to investigators, allows elephant ivory to pour out of ports such as Dar-es-Salaam and Mombasa. In a recent crackdown on the Shuidong syndicate, shipments of ivory smuggled with mixed lower-quality goods were checked by customs at a rate of only one in 20 shipments on their journey from Tanzania to Zanzibar and eventually to Asia.
Corruption taints the legal arena as well. A recent case in Thailand against a powerful Vietnamese rhino horn smuggler, Boonchai Bach, was dropped due to the sudden recantation of a key testimony. Experts believe that the witness had been financially incentivized or threatened. This is one of many wildlife criminal cases that have been abandoned under suspicious circumstances; a similar case against nine Chinese pangolin traffickers arrested in Mozambique was dropped just this past month.
Even rebel militias like the Lord’s Resistance Army fund and operate using ivory profit. The challenge is thus political as well. Poachers in many sites oppose conservation measures that would endanger the crime syndicates that control them, or endanger their ability to poach, as observed in protests in response to fishing net bans in San Felipe.
Stemming the Demand
GlobeScan’s September survey on the demand for ivory after the ban found that the majority of people in China, excluding the die-hard buyer group, have been significantly discouraged from buying ivory due to the ban itself as well as the social awareness campaigns accompanying it. Respondents report that the most effective deterrent is the fear of elephants’ extinction. Additional bans and more broadly disseminated social awareness campaigns reaching a wider audience can further change social norms around buying wildlife goods in China.
Yet while awareness campaigns and legal deterrents are essential drivers for generational change, Crosta argued that we may not be able to buy enough time for such measures alone to succeed. “Awareness campaigns are a very long-term strategy in China. But the majority of the species, the environmental emergencies that we have right now — we are talking about five, 10 years max. There is no time for awareness campaigns of this kind to solve these problems. The strategy must be different.”
Breaking the Chain
Crosta is co-founder and executive director of Earth League International and WildLeaks, organizations of wildlife crime investigators that perform undercover work to gather incriminating data on wildlife crime syndicates. He argued in The Daily Beast that the role of intelligence in disrupting the connection between poachers and final buyers is a key method for dismantling the trade altogether, but one many conservationists and policymakers have ignored.
“It’s in our mission to help law enforcement and inform the public, but we want to do it only with firsthand facts — information collected by our people, analyzed by our crime analysts, double-checked with our cyber experts. With these firsthand facts, you can hold governments accountable,” he told the HPR. Through undercover investigations using sophisticated intelligence techniques, ELI and WildLeaks have been able to gather data on ivory dealers, totoaba dealers, and players at many levels of supply chains worldwide, providing them at no cost to authorities who are able to use such data for arrest warrants and prosecutions. This, Crosta said, is an invaluable tool in keeping governments informed. “In the case of totoaba, for example, when we share information with [the Mexican authorities], we make it clear that we are sharing the exact same information with U.S. and Chinese authorities.”
Usually such authorities are responsive. “A year and a half ago, the Thai authorities arrested two of the most important wildlife traffickers in the region thanks to our work. Since environmental crime is not a big priority, they don’t have a lot of resources. But when we give them the information to do what they have to do, they like it — this is the best way to establish relations with law enforcement agencies.” Still, data alone cannot fix the entire problem.
A Political Solution
Meijer, Crosta, and Ladkani agree on one fundamental truth: as Andrea Crosta put it, “a political solution is everything.” Ladkani confirmed: “Frontline anti-poaching efforts will always only buy us time.” But what exactly does a political solution look like?
The 2017 ban is an example of sound wildlife policy. But its enforcement is another story. “What happened in China is that all of a sudden, it is way more difficult to launder illegal ivory into the system. It became a problem of law enforcement. Take rhino horn — rhino has been illegal in China for years. It’s not a legal problem,” Crosta said of the ban.
Fortunately, hope is dawning at the intersection of arts, media and journalism. Take Richard Ladkani’s environmental documentaries. In 2017, his film documenting the illicit ivory trade, The Ivory Game, was released in theaters and to millions of viewers on Netflix. The subsequent impact was drastic. “Two months after the film came out, China announced they would ban the trade of ivory … the day they announced the ban, they invited us to the Beijing Film Festival, where we opened the festival and won for best documentary.”
This summer, Ladkani’s Sea of Shadows was released. It was distributed through National Geographic, shared by powerful partners such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Jane Goodall, and screened worldwide, putting significant pressure on the Chinese, Mexican, and U.S. governments to crack down on totoaba trafficking and save the vaquitas. The documentary’s poster animal, the vaquita is the world’s smallest whale species, reduced to dwindling populations as they are caught and drowned in totoaba nets.
The film has made a positive impact so far, but Ladkani is keeping vigilant. “There were some very big announcements that the Mexican government is intending to send 600 additional troops to the area — soldiers, observers, monitors, analysts — to help save the vaquita. The Mexican president has talked about the vaquita for the first time.
The incoming governor of Baja California wants additional screenings there so it can become more of a public discussion. The media response was the biggest ever for a documentary in Mexico. But totoaba season is about to begin in November. We will see, starting then, how effective the government crackdown will be. We’re afraid it’s just for show. If they don’t really … make poachers suffer, then nothing will change.”
The solution may lie directly with us, the millions of viewers and social media users with media platforms at our disposal. When it comes to saving our species and communities, incriminating data on wildlife crime is the key, the lighter fluid with which we can douse those in power. But data alone, Ladkani said, is not enough. “People need to understand that the traditional way of conservation is game over. We are losing the war almost everywhere, and the criminals are laughing. And I want outrage.” Clearly, Ladkani’s efforts and the efforts of the fighters he documents cannot exist in a void. Public outrage is the catalyst — it is the spark.