Inside the Global Industry That’s Slaughtering Africa’s Elephants
Mathew Scully
6 June 2013

China giving elephants a one-way ticket to extinction

“Unless Western and African nations can turn things around fast, to protect the 400,000 or so left, then the elephants of Africa, pretty much all of them, will be gone.”

So says noted American author Matthew Scully in his exhaustive look at the state of the world’s ivory trade – “Inside the global industry that’s slaughtering Africa’s elephants” ­

On a single night this March in the central African nation of Chad, a herd of 89 elephants – among them 33 pregnant females and tiny calves – was massacred by 50 men on horses and camels armed with AK-47s. Their tusks were hacked out, in some cases while the animals were still alive. Authorities suspect the gang to be the same one responsible for the execution of 450 elephants in Cameroon last year which were dispatched using rocket-propelled grenades.

The incident is nothing new for Africa, where an estimated 100 elephants a day die to fuel the rising demand for ivory in a country no other nation is prepared to stand up to – China.

Last year the UN reported that 32,000 African elephants met their deaths at the hands of ivory poachers. In 2011 that figure was reportedly 25,000. Conservationists and those familiar with the plight of Africa’s flagship species say the actual number of deaths is probably nearer to double the UN’s, all in the drive to provide China’s nouveau riche with the symbols of their status because nothing says “I’ve arrived” more in China than a carved elephant tusk.

As Scully points out, there’s big money to be made in the ivory trade, and a boundless market for it. A sizeable pair of tusks will fetch $50,000 on the street in China. But it’s hard to find big tusks, because Africa’s elephants are dying younger. Only a few with fully grown tusks remain, and they are living on borrowed time.

Poached ivory leaves Africa by every route, at airports, in large containers at seaports, in small fishing vessels, or simply by mail, and most is bound for China. The rest goes to hubs like Thailand, Japan and Hong Kong for onward shipment. Africa’s finite supply of 400,000 is meeting Asia’s furious demand. The mathematics are inescapable… One day soon there will be no elephants left.

In the early 1900s there were some 12 million elephants south of the Sahara. This means that the lust for ivory has killed off 97% of an entire species in the space of a hundred years, less time than the combined normal life spans of a single elephant and its mother.

The 3% that remains is now prey to the mania for ivory among carvers, collectors, and well-to-do buyers who cherish it for its “purity,” once the blood is washed off. It is also prey to the political machinations of the world’s leading industrialised nations which refuse, steadfastly, to either acknowledge the facts or take action against China.

Wherever there are Chinese labour camps in Africa, there is poaching. There are more than 1-million Chinese nationals residing in Africa. Some 400 Chinese companies operate in Kenya alone. Poaching has risen sharply in areas where the Chinese are building roads there. As Kenya’s director of Wildlife Services, Julius Kipng’etich, points out, the coincidence is glaring. “Ninety percent of the ivory confiscated at Nairobi airport is in Chinese luggage,” he says. “Some Chinese say we are being racist, but our sniffer dogs are not racist.”

Western policymakers and diplomats, pressed by other concerns, tend to view the elephant situation as hopeless. These same diplomats work their various purposes through the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, a Geneva-based organisation consisting of 178 nations that are legally bound to its rules. It regulates wildlife-related commerce among nations, but is actually part of the problem, not the solution.

For a time, in the 1980’s, this organisation and the man who ran it were prime movers in the mass hunting of elephants. Then secretary general Eugene Lapointe made a quick exit in 1989 after his close connections to the Japanese Ivory Association were revealed. The man who ran CITES for nine years later famously told the press that they were responsible for peddling “propaganda” about elephants and was quoted as saying that hunting elephants for their ivory was ordained: “It’s for their own good, to be hunted and used, a rule suffering no exceptions.”

What is for the good of elephants is that Scully’s story, and those like it, find a place in the mainstream media so that awareness is raised and, hopefully, a species saved from almost certain extinction.

This is a summary of the original article. You can download the full piece here:  OverviewElephantPoachingMathew ScullyThe Atlantic6June