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Photo of a dock worker for the Kenya Ports Authority standing amid rows of shipping containers.

A dock worker walks between stacked shipping containers in Mombasa, Kenya, last year. Mombasa is one of the three main ports for illegal ivory shipments.

Photograph by Trevor Snapp, Bloomberg/Getty

Christina Russo

for National Geographic

Published August 27, 2014

While there are effectively unlimited numbers of poachers and consumers fueling the lucrative illegal ivory market, a new report suggests that nearly all the ivory shuttled from Africa to Asia—the biggest market—is confined to as few as 200 shipping containers a year.

This "transit or supply chain is the single greatest point of vulnerability in the illicit ivory system," says Adam Roberts, CEO of Born Free, an anti-poaching group based in Washington, D.C.

On Wednesday, the group issued what it calls a "landmark" study on how illegal ivory is moved from Africa to Asia. Called "Out of Africa: Mapping the Global Trade in Illicit Elephant Ivory," the study was conducted over three months by C4ADS, an NGO that seeks to shed light on global conflict and security issues through research and analysis.

Here, Roberts talks about ivory trafficking syndicates, the African ports that ship out most of the ivory, and why it makes most sense for law enforcement to target that link in the overall trade chain.

The report says that too much attention is paid to the beginning and end of the ivory supply chain—on poaching and demand—and that more should be paid to how ivory is transported.

The priority has been focused historically on that which is readily accessible. Images of elephant carcasses littering the African savanna show the poaching problem. Ivory for sale in China and other East Asian markets shows the demand problem. But the intervening supply is hidden from sight.

Born Free has seen a strong focus on poaching and also on demand, but the third aspect of the trade—the movement of ivory from the dead elephant to the consumers' hands—is a vital focus and provides a further pressure point to stop the trade and save elephants.

What are some of the more astounding findings related to the movement of ivory?

One of the most interesting is that there is a huge international movement of ivory both by air and by sea, but the most significant amounts of illicit ivory are being shipped across the ocean.

Secondly, I think the most startling figure in the report is the analysis of poaching hot spots within elephant range and their proximity to exit points from Africa.

A map of elephant range and poaching statistics.
VIRGINIA W. MASON AND BRAD SCRIBER, NGM STAFF
SOURCES: COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY; SAVE THE ELEPHANTS; MONITORING THE ILLEGAL KILLING OF ELEPHANTS (MIKE); DEPARTMENT OF ZOOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD; KENYA WILDLIFE SERVICE; DIANE SKINNER, AFRICAN ELEPHANT SPECIALIST GROUP, IUCN.

What are the steps taken in transporting ivory illegally?

The goal is to kill as many elephants for ivory as possible. The ivory is then trafficked to a point of consolidation, where you put all the tusks together and prepare for export. This can mean one or two tons of ivory going into a container with seashells, dried seaweed, nuts, or other legal products to mask the wildlife contraband.

The ivory would then be loaded onto a boat and shipped to Asia.

Or you might have smaller quantities of ivory, including ivory that's been worked in Africa, flown to Asia in someone's luggage. In this case what we've found is that you'll have higher volume in terms of numbers of pieces if going by air or luggage. But weight—size of shipment—is bigger by sea.

And once received in Asia, the ivory is moved to carving factories or prepared for domestic sale or transshipment to a country like China.

One of the other interesting findings is that you're looking at two sets of organized criminal syndicates. You have the African criminal networks, which are doing the poaching, funding the poaching, and also consolidating the ivory. And on the receiving end, you have Asian criminal networks moving this wildlife contraband to market. And there seems to be some overlap between the two.

The report notes that the typical large-scale ivory seizure is between one and three tons, carried in 20- or 40-foot-long containers. There are three main ports in Africa being used to traffic ivory: Mombasa, in Kenya, and Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar, in Tanzania. The report says that the "nexus between criminal syndicates and corrupt freight logisticians may be particularly important." What are "freight logisticians"?

Freight logisticians are the different personnel and companies in the business of moving containers. It's a catch-all phrase we're using to account for the freight forwarders, shipping agents, container leasing agents, consignors, consignees, etc.

Why is the nexus between them and criminal syndicates so important?

As we try to keep poaching from being successful, we have to stop the movement of ivory itself. And so tackling that piece of the chain is important. These are the people who essentially grease the machine that enables illicit ivory to get from Africa to Asia. If we break that chain, we can break the whole market.

According to the study, only 100 to 200 containers annually carry these shipments. That's not that many containers...

Right! No one is looking at these exit points. People have not historically been as focused on the exit ports because they've been, rather, focused on the demand, the sale, and what's being confiscated when ivory finally hits Hanoi or Hong Kong. Our goal with this information is that we can stop it from getting that far.

According to the report, not a single African port ranks within the world's top 50 by size. The report identifies three companies that screen most cargo across numerous African ports and notes that fewer than ten shipping companies service most Africa to East Asia routes. So very few actors are actually involved in this segment of the trade.

Although there's a small number of shipments that leave Africa, each of these contains a large percentage of the total ivory exported globally. The second point you raise isn't just absolutely correct, it's the reason we commissioned this study.

If we now know these are the ports—of course there are others—but if we know where the ivory is easily leaving Africa, we have an opportunity to focus our interdiction efforts on those ports of exit. And the harder we can make it for ivory to leave Africa, the safer we make it for Africa's wild elephants.

Is anyone talking to these shipping lines?

No. Because this report for the first time exposes this aspect of the trade.

Photo of officers from the Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) standing guard next to ivory tusks seized by authorities at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport's cargo terminal in Nairobi.
Officers from the Kenya Wildlife Services stand guard next to smuggled elephant tusks seized in Nairobi in 2011.
Photograph by Tony Karumba, AFP/Getty

What do you hope to discuss with them?

What we want to do is get a commitment from freight companies that they will not allow themselves to be used for this nefarious wildlife crime. If a lawful shipping company is moving millions or even billions of dollars' worth of legal goods each year, surely they don't want that tarnished or restricted because they're also implicated in moving ivory.

The solution at a high level is political will and communication, in that all resources have to be deployed to stop the corruption, seize shipments before they leave Africa, and ensure full and successful prosecution and penalties for wildlife criminals. Something as simple as U.S. assistance in providing sniffer dogs at these exit points to literally sniff out ivory would be immensely helpful.

The first thing we have to do is establish international cooperation. The more agencies in different countries with different capabilities that are communicating, the better for action on the ground.

And then secondly, looking holistically at the ivory trade as part of illegal trafficking in general will help, since our report shows that these shipments might also contain weapons or drugs or conflict minerals.

Why are you confident that the inspection services and the shippers aren't complicit in the trade?

There's no evidence to suggest institutional complicity.

What is the most frequent shipping route for illegal ivory?

The most frequent shipping route appears to originate in East Africa [Kenya, Tanzania], transship through the Strait of Malacca [Malaysia, Singapore], and arrive at Pearl River Delta ports [China, Hong Kong]. Nearly every interdiction of a seaborne shipment has occurred in or around a port.

The report notes that port activity in West Africa surged in the past year. Do you think this trend will continue?

I do, but I think it will be short-lived. Southern Africa is where the trend will go. Elephants are disappearing in West Africa, and the trade is moving east, which is why you see Mombasa and Dar es Salaam as big points of export.

Eventually the real profit will be hitting southern African elephants, which have historically been the most robust populations but will become targets as the trend sees localized extinctions in other parts of Africa.

With the information from this study and "Ivory's Curse"—the report Born Free released four months ago examining the militarization of poaching—have you deduced exactly who is running this trade?

Our research suggests that there are a limited number of syndicates, with a limited number of key personnel shipping a limited number of containers, and this accounts for the vast majority of illicit ivory.

This suggests how tractable the system could be. Unfortunately, to date not a single transnational ivory kingpin appears to have ever been arrested and indicted. Instead, arrests are primarily focused on poachers, consumers, and transporters, who are the low-level smugglers who physically handle or carry the ivory.

A recent study by Save the Elephants reported that 100,000 African elephants were poached from 2010 through 2012. How do you interpret these three reports together?

That study from a series of authoritative sources confirms our worst fears about the number of elephants being poached annually for the trade across the continent. It confirms the poaching is moving south across the continent. And we're now getting into a discussion of how many elephants are being killed for their ivory in 2014.

We're dealing in numbers that are unsustainable and paint a bleak picture for the future of elephants.

Promo for A Voice for Elephants.

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2 comments
Daniel Stiles
Daniel Stiles

I would like to tweak a few of the assertions made in the article. A "transit or supply chain is the single greatest point of vulnerability” is not a point, it is a series of points. The most vulnerable two points are the staging location before loading the shipping container(s) and the ivory workshop. Of these two, the workshop is the easier to find. I have pointed this out earlier, but for some reason workshops are not targeted very often.

The most startling figure in the report is the analysis of poaching hot spots within elephant range and their proximity to exit points from Africa.”  Most poaching hotspots are very far from ports.

Since our report shows that these shipments might also contain weapons or drugs or conflict minerals.” Incorrect. I have been speaking with UNODC people and they say there is no connection between ivory networks and the others. Ivory has never been found shipped with weapons, drugs or minerals.

The report notes that port activity in West Africa surged in the past year.” The report should have said West African port seizures have surged, mainly from Lomé. Activity has actually decreased in the previously most active port of Douala.

 “Unfortunately, to date not a single transnational ivory kingpin appears to have ever been arrested and indicted.” This is true, the reason being the “kingpins” are closely associated with high-level African government politicians or the military. This is why Feisal Mohammed Ali, known ivory trafficker in Mombasa, goes free even while East African police bosses meet in Mombasa.

The best way to reduce poaching is not by seizures – every tusk seized is one that has to be replaced by poaching. It is by driving the price of ivory down to make it unprofitable. Think about how to do that.

Krishna Kaphle
Krishna Kaphle

Great job, in filling the dot from source to blood stained trophy displays...when the buying stops..the killing does have now found a new phrase...when the smugglers are cornered..poachers will have to find something else to do, like terrorist organizations..illicit transporters also have to be  blacklisted..as the risk of penalty increases, the lure of gain diminishes. It needs collective and global efforts....let us allow those free to live their natural life.

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