Environment:  Ivory

Criminal syndicates | Armed groups | Military collusion | Initiatives | Resources

A ban on the international trade of ivory has existed since 1989. Despite this, tens of thousands of elephants a year, more than at any point over the last two decades, are being killed in Central and East Africa by poachers for their tusks. As a result, Africa’s elephant population, that numbered some 12 million at the turn of the 20th century, is critically depleted with only an estimated 400,000 African elephants remaining today.

The cause of it all. Ivory carvings are extremely popular in China and Asia but are also still available in Europe despite the illegality of their sale. Source: The Times

The cause of it all. Ivory carvings are extremely popular in China and Asia but are also still available in Europe despite the illegality of their sale. Source: The Times

Whilst Asia as a whole is the dominant market for this so called ‘white gold’, the resurgence of poaching and trafficking is primarily the result of growing demand from one nation – China. Ivory trinkets are seen as status symbols by the country’s burgeoning middle class and such is the desperation to proclaim this new found wealth that prices have skyrocketed to $1,300 a pound or as much as $50,000 for a sizeable pair of tusks. However, Asian buyers are far from the only consumers of ivory today. Even with the collapse of legal markets in Europe and North America following the international trade ban, there still exists a considerable black market trade in such goods that has received little attention in the media. Ebay, for example, declared a total ban on all cross border sales would be enforced from 2009 but a search on its UK site for ‘ox bone’ – a widely used euphemism for elephant ivory – still yields hundreds of results for carvings available for import from Asia. Similarly, in 2011 alone, ivory worth £500,000 was found for sale on 43 other sites based in the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Portugal .

To satisfy this demand a new breed of poacher has now emerged in Central and East Africa who can be differentiated from their predecessors because of both the scale and violence of their activities. These poachers now use such increasingly sophisticated technology and armaments to conduct cross border, military-style operations to kill as many elephants as possible that they now pose a significant threat to human as well as animal life. Recent discoveries even point to poachers using chemicals, such as cyanide, to poison elephants as well as other animals such as vultures that attract the attention of authorities to the location of poaching activities. The employment of such tactic also presents further danger to animals and people because the contaminated carcasses are simply left to rot in the open. Wildlife rangers, local populations and security forces are now finding themselves seen as acceptable collateral in the quest for ivory. The result is a militarisation of a primarily environmental issue that is turning wildlife parks into battlefields as poachers and rangers employ more and more deadly arsenals to try and out-gun each other. The issue is now so serious that the United States and United Nations have publicly stated that the issue now has significant ramifications for international peace and prosperity. In 2013 UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared; “Poaching and its potential linkages to other criminal, even terrorist, activities constitute a grave menace to sustainable peace and security in Central Africa”. Who then exactly is responsible for this new form of poaching? The perpetrators can, for the most part, be divided into two main groups.

Rangers inspect the carcass of an elephant killed by poachers, who have then hacked off the tusks, in CAR.

Rangers inspect the carcass of an elephant killed by poachers, who have then hacked off the tusks, in CAR | Source © Martin Harvey/WWF

Criminal syndicates

The first are ‘Africa based, Asian-run’ criminal syndicates that exploit the region’s lax security arrangements to maximise the profits that can be made from the illegal exportation of ivory to their home markets. Wildlife rangers and conservation groups have reported a marked increase in the level of elephant poaching in areas located near to Chinese developments or camps where Chinese workers involved in such projects reside temporarily. High profit margins and low chances of being caught and convicted mean that ivory poaching is an attractive and lucrative endeavour for such organised criminals. There now exists a complex web of middlemen, suppliers, dealers and businessmen as well as corrupt officials involved with these criminal syndicates in the movement of illegal ivory from Central Africa through transport hubs (such as Kenya’s ports) to Asia’s consumers. The Chinese government in particular has been heavily implicated in the process, primarily through the forgery of documents that give recently poached ivory the appearance of dating back to before the international ban and can therefore be legally sold. At the very least it has employed some controversial and arguably underhand practices. In 2008 it bought up the vast majority of a sale of “legal” ivory from a number of African states at rock-bottom prices under the pretence of flooding China’s domestic market and subsequently reducing demand. However the highly inflated fixed price eventually set by the government only succeed in driving up desire for a perceivably valuable commodity, whilst yielding a significant profit for itself.

Armed groups

The other key perpetrators are an increasing number of the various armed movements that inhabit the African continent. These groups are now turning their considerable weaponry on elephants for meat that can be used to feed their members or traded, along with their much more valuable tusks, in exchange for arms and supplies.

The favour of ivory poaching by heavily armed groups has turned wildlife parks into increasingly dangerous battlefields. Somalia’s al-Shabaab (above) in particular are thought to rely heavily on ivory to continue their activities | Source AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh

The favour of ivory poaching by heavily armed groups has turned wildlife parks into increasingly dangerous battlefields. Somalia’s al-Shabaab (above) in particular are thought to rely heavily on ivory to continue their activities | Source AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh

The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in particular are thought to have been involved in poaching to help sustain their activities, with leader Joseph Kony believed to have personally ordered LRA fighters to kill as many elephants as possible and bring the tusks to him. Several escapees of the group also confirm that the group has killed at least 29 elephants and used the proceeds to procure guns, ammunition and radios.

Similarly, Darfur’s Janjaweed militia have been thought to travel vast distances to raid elephant herds in Central and East Africa.

The al-Qaeda affiliated, Somalia based group, al-Shabaab, are also particularly reliant on illegal ivory, its sales thought to constitute “up to 40 percent of the funds needed to keep them in business” (in actual terms thought between $200,000 and $600,000 a month).

These armed groups have also become important players in the transportation of raw ivory to the lucrative Asian markets. Sudanese smugglers use heavily armed caravans to fight or bribe their way across the country’s vast deserts to ports on its north coast or in neighbouring Kenya. In the Gulf of Guinea, there are also reports of pirate groups working in conjunction with Chinese ships that pose as fishing vessels to smuggle ivory out to sea and then onto Asia.

Military collusion

Opposition armed groups are, however, far from the only troops getting in on the act. Some governmental forces are unduly accrediting some instances of poaching to armed groups to hide their own involvement. The circumstances in which many elephants have been killed guarantees that the armed forces of a number of African states are complicit to some degree or other in the process of ivory poaching. Although well-equipped in many cases, none of the various armed groups linked to such practice have access to some of the high-end technology such as night-vision capabilities or air support that has been employed by poachers.

The Uganda military in particular has been implicated by a number of sources both assisting and carrying out the killing of elephants. The most serious accusations, backed by forensic evidence, involve the use of military helicopters to locate and shoot elephants from. The validation of such claims would be especially damaging for the American government who provides millions of dollars for fuel and transport services for the Ugandan Army to use in its hunt for Joseph Kony.

Similarly, wildlife rangers report numerous clashes with, and even instances of capturing, members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army carrying out poaching. Congolese troops have also even been labelled “the main perpetrator of illegal elephant killing in D.R.C.” by one American scientist conducting environmental research in the country. Like Uganda, both nations are benefactors of US financial and military support. Wildlife rangers in some instance are also turning killing the very animals they are employed to protect. Many are poorly paid, outnumbered and tasked with an extremely dangerous job (in 2004 over 100 rangers were killed in the line of duty in D.R.C alone). Social problems such as alcoholism, stress and poverty only encourage rangers to turn to such drastic measures.

Infographic detailing factors driving ivory poaching in central and eastern africa


Whilst the battle against ivory poaching may appear increasingly desperate there are some reasons for optimism. The increasing gravity of the link between ivory poaching and international security may well in fact be the saving grace of Central and East Africa’s elephant population. Environmentalists have long lobbied for international and governmental help in combating poaching with this latest connection only strengthening their arguments.

The international community has long tried to inhibit the movement and sale of ivory with the ultimate aim of reducing demand. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) secured an agreement in 1989 to ban the international trade in ivory between its some 178 members, all but totally outlawing global sales. However, the utility of the CITES covenant is somewhat undermined by the fact that there have been several supposedly ‘one-off’ sales of stockpiled ivory sanctioned under it which have done little to reduce demand.

Under US President Barrack Obama a presidential task force to draw up a new strategy for cracking down on the illegal ivory trade and help reduce global demand for ivory has been created with a $10 million budget. Whilst this sum may seem a relatively small amount in comparison to the billion dollar problem it is allocated to address (wildlife crime globally in total is valued at between $7 billion to $10 billion a year), it is still the largest ever commitment assigned to do so and one that John Scanlon, secretary-general of CITES, believes will make a huge difference. He states; “In combating wildlife crime … you can talk about investments in the millions and tens of millions (of dollars) and you can achieve a lot. It’s not like if you’re talking about combating climate change, where you’re talking about multiple billions.” President Obama has also brought up the issue of ivory with President Xi Jinping of China at a recent summit in an effort to help replicate the tighter domestic controls in the Asian nation that have greatly reduced demand for shark fins for the popular soup dish there.

As well as measures to increase the armed capability of anti-poaching forces, technological advances may also help turn the tide against poachers and smugglers in the region. Scientists have now devised a method of tracing tusks for radioactive carbon emitted into the atmosphere during Cold War bomb tests. The process can therefore identify whether a particular piece of ivory belonged to an elephant alive before or after the embargo on its sale. Such information could prove vital in stopping the movement and sale of illegal ivory made to appear older and therefore exempt from the ban. Social media may also play its part too. A number of organisations are now using these new platforms not only to get their message across but to help monitor, collate and even report instances of illegal poaching in real time.


Follow Resolution:Possible’s board Environment on Pinterest.