By Sarah Logan and Jenik Radon
Africa’s elephant population has reached its tipping point: the number of elephants being killed exceeds the ones being born per year. In fact, in recent years, an estimated 33,000 elephants were killed annually for their tusks–that’s one elephant slain every fifteen minutes. This equates to about 7.5 percent of the elephant population being slaughtered every year. At this rate, Africa’s elephants can be wiped out in the next decade.
The continent’s few remaining big tuskers are particularly at risk. In May of this year, poachers in Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park killed Satao, one of the world’s largest elephants, who had tusks so huge that they touched the ground.
In recent years, poachers lacing watering holes with cyanide have caused heartbreaking large-scale massacres of elephants in Zimbabwe. Last year, over 300 elephants, as well as other animals, such as lions, hyenas, vultures and painted dogs, were poisoned in a single incident in Hwange National Park when they came into contact with the cyanide.
Africa’s fight to protect its elephants has evolved into a one-sided, low-intensity war: lightly armed game rangers stand little chance against heavily armed poachers. If game rangers are to be even remotely successful at curbing poaching, they now need night vision goggles, better weapons, training, and drones to monitor the vast swathes of game reserves. They also need helicopters for quick response, and to track animals and poachers from the air.
Severely underfunded wildlife programs have been unable to afford the superior technology and equipment needed for effective anti-poaching efforts. As a result, many tens of thousands of elephants have been killed, and hundreds of game rangers have died trying to protect them.
Wildlife crime is now one of the most profitable transnational crimes and, as far as ivory is concerned, China is the center of demand. This country has long been fascinated with ivory, using it to make luxury goods such as chopsticks, statues and rings.
Ivory continues to be a status symbol in China today, and with the country’s economic rise, many hundreds of millions of Chinese are now able to afford it. This has exponentially increased the demand for ivory, driving up the price in China to over $1,000 per pound, making elephant poaching and the illegal ivory trade extremely lucrative.
Despite the widely publicized plight of African elephants, efforts to curb the sale of ivory in China have been relatively limited. Some leading Chinese businessmen have spoken out against the ivory trade, and a few leading department stores in Hong Kong have agreed to stop selling ivory products, but the illegal trade continues. As part of the efforts to stop this crime, the Chinese government crushed six tons of confiscated ivory in January 2014 and donated $20,000 worth of anti-poaching equipment last month to be used by wildlife patrols in four conservancies in Kenya.
These efforts, while welcomed, are grossly inadequate to curb the illegal ivory trade. Some 90 percent of the illegal ivory seized in recent years has been destined for China, and estimates suggest that over 63 percent of the ivory sold in China is illegal. The majority of confiscated ivory originates from Kenya and Tanzania–countries where elephants are classified under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) as being threatened with extinction.
As such, member parties of CITES, including China, are under a legal obligation to prohibit unauthorized trade of ivory, and to penalize those found in possession of illegal ivory. It is evident, however, that the Chinese government is not only failing to combat the importation of illegal ivory into the country, but that it has also lost control over a significant proportion of China’s domestic ivory trade.
It is clear that anti-poaching efforts will never successfully protect Africa’s elephants while the financial incentive to kill them is so great. Rather, if Africa’s elephants are to stand a fighting chance, it will be because the Chinese government assumes a leading role in combating the illegal ivory trade. This will involve China accepting its primary role in furthering elephant poaching and the illegal ivory trade, and will also entail China committing to curbing and better regulating its domestic ivory market. To be most effective, these efforts would be made publicly and unequivocally.
Education campaigns are needed to inform Chinese nationals of the horrors perpetrated against African elephants and the devastating impact that the ivory trade is having on Africa’s elephant population. The aim of such awareness programs would be to make the purchase of ivory socially and culturally unacceptable in China, similarly to how it has now become abhorrent to purchase ivory in most Western nations.
Additionally, the Chinese government would be acknowledged for taking strong and immediate action to regain control over China’s domestic ivory market. They would also be commended for ensuring that participation in illegal ivory trade is met with penalties harsh enough to act as effective deterrents.
A radical change in Chinese attitudes towards ivory, together with effective implementation and enforcement of stricter ivory trade regulations in China, is the only hope to save Africa’s elephants. If the Chinese government rises to the occasion and not only fulfills their international obligations under CITES, but also undertakes additional efforts to contribute technically, materially, and financially to anti-poaching initiatives, then China could be lauded as saving the African elephant from extinction.
Sarah Logan is a lawyer at Radon Law Offices and holds a masters in Public Administration from Columbia University.
Jenik Radon is a lawyer at Radon Law Offices and Adjunct Professor at Colombia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.