Elephants in the firing line
Sharon van Wyk
13 August 2013

The current plight of Africa’s rhino population, as disturbing as it is, pales in comparison to a much less widely reported massacre of more staggering proportions. In 1980 there were in the region of 1,2-million elephants walking the Dark Continent across some 37 range states. In 33 years that figure has quite literally plummeted and there are currently only an estimated 420,000 Loxondonta africana and it’s smaller, forest cousin Loxodonta africana cyclotis left. What has killed them is both Africa’s biggest open secret and its most shameful deceit.

To those in the know, or who are prepared to scratch a little at the veneer thrown somewhat haphazardly over the political gerrymandering that has accompanied the decline in elephant numbers, the reason for the loss of this flagship species is glaringly obvious because the demise of the elephant runs in concert with an equally alarming rise – not in human numbers, as may be expected, but in the economic foothold gained by a single country… China.

Indeed, the first investments in Africa by China’s state-owned companies began in the mid to late 1980s. By 1989 the Red Dragon was no longer a mere bedfellow, it was a permanent concubine – one highly favoured by political despots struggling to retain power over impoverished and disenchanted citizens. And by 1989 the continent’s elephant population had been halved to somewhere in the region of 600,000. The statistics record that 75,000 animals were poached each year throughout the 80s. Their ivory was valued at $1-billion. Most of it went to China, or ended up there.

With the Chinese government prompting from the wings, Zimbabwe led an assault on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES for short) of which it, and other key African states were members, calling for changes in the restrictions on the ivory trade. In what has been called one of the biggest faux pas in the history of environmental protection, in 1986 CITES introduced a new system aimed at registering, and therefore controlling, huge stockpiles of ivory and monitoring its “legal” movement. In effect, it gave the lunatics the chance to take over the asylum as most of the stockpiled ivory was owned by Chinese traders such as Poon Tat Wah and Poon Tat Wong of the notorious Poon family.

With “legal” permits in hand, it was the start of “open season” on elephants. Stockpiles of 89,5 tonnes of ivory were recorded in Burundi and of 200 tonnes in Singapore, in spite of the fact that Burundi at that time (1986) had only one remaining wild elephant and Singapore none at all.

CITES failure
CITES was not held accountable for the failure, even though the Environmental Investigation Agency launched a probe which showed the system to be not only unworkable but also largely corrupt. The result? China’s foothold in Africa quickly became a stranglehold.

In 1990, an outright ban on ivory trading was declared, but by the end of the 90s large populations of elephant were downgraded to Appendix Two, with CITES allowing “once off” sales of stockpiled ivory, thanks largely to pressure from countries where China continued to wield considerable political clout, including Zimbabwe and South Africa.

China’s political clout is bought and paid for in cold, hard cash. In the last decade China has pumped some $75-billion in “aid” and “development” into Africa with more than 1700 projects across 50 countries documented between 2000 and 2011. In return Beijing gets access to natural resources – most commonly understood to be mineral wealth – and receives an undisclosed number of entry permits for Chinese nationals into the countries it targets.

In Zambia, for example, China has built and upgraded roads in key areas of the country, including the capital, Lusaka, where Chinese is now taught in schools. The influx of Chinese immigrants is of enormous concern to politicians in opposition to the government of Michael Sata, who took over the reins of leadership in September 2011. Many have been flushed from China’s overburdened penal system and provide unskilled labour on Chinese funded construction projects, in spite of huge unemployment locally. Crime is on the rise, as is the drugs trade, and the ivory business is booming.

In May this year, Zambia’s Minister of Defence, Geoffrey Mwamba, was allegedly detained at Kenneth Kaunda International Airport en route to China and reportedly found to be in possession of three large bags of elephant tusks. Mwamba apparently claimed diplomatic immunity and no charges were brought against him. The tusks were confiscated by the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) but were subsequently discovered in the same bags at the same airport some days later, this time apparently in the possession of members of the Chinese diplomatic corps in Lusaka, also en route to China. No action has been taken by the Zambian Government.

Kenya & Tanzania
In Kenya and Tanzania, both countries with a strong Chinese presence, the picture is more blurred. The Tanzanian capital of Dar es Salaam is widely known as an ivory smuggling hub, serving, as it does, most of the illicit east and central African trade. But recent developments in neighbouring Kenya have added to the amount of ivory which is able to be shipped, unseen, off the continent, bound invariably for Hong Kong and Shanghai, often via Singapore.

Five years ago China offered to upgrade the road from the Kenyan capital of Nairobi to the border town of Loitokitok at the foot of Kilimanjaro. Whilst it is a relatively busy border post, with some tourism activity, Loitokitok’s cross-border traffic is largely restricted to people and some goods in transit. The brand new tarred road is therefore quiet. And, say locals, perfect for shipping truckloads of ivory in and out of Tanzania. To date no hauls have been reported, but sources within the Kenyan immigration service say that the ivory shipments are regular, and “large”. The guards are paid to look the other way. And afraid not to.

Arrests connected with ivory poaching are on the increase in Kenya. And according to Kenyan police sources, 92% of those arrested in the last two years have been Chinese nationals. Fewer than 15% of this 92% have been convicted. The Kenyan Wildlife Service has gone on record to say that incidences of elephant poaching skyrocket when Chinese crews are deployed on construction projects.

In Mozambique the elephants in Cabo Delgado and Niassa provinces in the north of the country are being effectively wiped out. Both of these provinces share borders with Tanzania and have access to the northern international port of Pemba, where most of the container vessels which pull in are Chinese and where an international airport provides air freight services direct to Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai. China is currently “rehabilitating” Pemba airport.

Many of the dock workers in Pemba are also Chinese. As are the labourers working on new oil and gas pipelines. Indeed, throughout Mozambique you will not see a local, unskilled labourer learning a new craft on a construction site as all of the workforce is imported from China. Instead, the unskilled locals become involved in poaching syndicates, supplying the Chinese with anything from ivory and rhino horn to bush meat, lion carcasses (which have value when turned into lion bone wine) and pangolin scales (which are made of keratin, like rhino horns).

This supplying of “goods” to the Chinese in Africa provides a more sinister opportunity – that provided by the “blood ivory” market. Insurgents and rebels throughout the continent are now funding their next uprising by providing elephant tusks to China in exchange for weapons or the money to purchase weapons.

China makes an excellent “knock-off” of the world’s weapon of choice for a would-be revolutionary – the AK47. Lighter, and much cheaper than the Russian Kalashnikov original, the Chinese Type 56 assault rifle, even in numbers, is small change for a few tonnes of ivory currently selling at up to $7000 per kg. The average tusk weight for an adult bull elephant is around 60kg.

Where does this story end? It’s hard to say. Certainly, if there were oil wells involved we could expect the US, or a coalition of some kind, to come and rescue the African elephant from the Chinese interlopers. But there is not. And in spite of the world’s worst human rights record, the world’s worst environmental record, the world’s worst animal rights record, the fact that it is one of the world’s last remaining communist states and various other unsavoury titles worn by China, the sad truth is that no government is prepared to stand up to the might of Beijing. Everyone’s just making too much money.

Like the border guards at Loitokitok, we are being paid to look the other way, and while we do, the slaughter of Africa’s elephants will continue unabated until someone, somewhere has the courage to stop kowtowing to the Red Dragon and kick it, lock stock and two smoking nostrils, out of Africa.