A few days ago, disturbing news emerged worldwide about the slaughtering by poachers in Cameroon’s Bouba Ndjida National Park of up to 450 elephants for their tusks. Yesterday, John Scanlon, the Secretary General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), expressed his concern about this development, stating, “This most recent incident of poaching elephants is on a massive scale but it reflects a new trend we are detecting across many range states, where well-armed poachers with sophisticated weapons decimate elephant populations, often with impunity.”
The massacre coincides with an increased demand for ivory from Asia. TRAFFIC, a conservation group that tracks trends in wildlife trading, reported that 2011 had seen a record number of large scale ivory seizures globally (13 seizures whose total weight amounted to more than 23 tons), reflecting the sharp rise in illegal ivory trade. “The escalating large ivory quantities involved in 2011 reflect both a rising demand in Asia and the increasing sophistication of the criminal gangs behind the trafficking. Most illegal shipments of African elephant ivory end up in either China or Thailand,” a TRAFFIC representative asserted.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora introduced a trade ban on ivory in 1990. (However, a few African countries where the elephant population is not threatened, such as Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa, were more recently allowed to resume ivory trade under very limited circumstances.) The ban had a significant effect on world trade in elephant ivory, virtually closing European and U.S. markets, but the recent massacre and reports by groups as TRAFFIC, unfortunately indicate a renewed increased trend in illegal ivory trade.
The lack of adequately funded wildlife management programs and conservation officials equipped with skills and the equipment necessary to counter professional gangs of poachers is partly to blame for tragedies such as that in Cameroon. In fact, according to Bouba Ndjida’s National Park conservator, “the park is 220,000 hectares with only six game rangers very poorly equipped, whereas the poachers used Kalashnikovs.” As such, I believe that a combined effort by governments and NGOs and thorough measures — including financial support to provide sufficient well-trained park rangers and appropriate equipment — are necessary to address this situation. But most of all, the demand for ivory has to cease and all trade on ivory should be banned. For as long as there is demand, and as long as there is legal trade, illegal ivory will find its way into the markets.
The shocking dimension of the elephant massacre in Cameroon seems to have prompted some action: governments in the region have been offered support to find, and bring to justice, the criminals responsible and to locate and seize the poached ivory. CITES’ Secretariat has reached out to the Ministers for Forests and Wildlife from Cameroon, Chad, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan offering support to help galvanize enforcement efforts and transboundary anti-poaching mechanisms in Africa. CITES has taken other measures, such as assigning a point person to engage with countries concerned and with partners in the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime to share intelligence that could help track the perpetrators and bring them to justice, and to help prevent future incidents.
These are all good and helpful initiatives. But I fear that as long as there are customers demanding ivory and willing to pay a high price for it, illegal trade in ivory will continue and elephants will continue to get killed for their tusks. According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, if the current poaching levels continue, countries such as Chad could lose their entire elephant population in the near future. At the very least, if ivory trade is not banned altogether, the Action Plan for the control of trade in elephant ivory (which was created under the auspices of CITES) should be efficiently enforced. What is certain is that a concerted effort by all players (national and international governments, NGOs, international organizations, etc.) is required to address this serious issue.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons