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Illegal Ivory Trade Boosted by Angola Craft Markets, Conservationists Say

John Roach
for National Geographic News
October 27, 2006
 
Sky-high demand is feeding a renewed flood of illegal ivory sales in
Africa, posing a serious threat to the continent's elephants, conservationists say.

"The ivory trade is starting to come back, and it's really a concern," said Tom Milliken, eastern and southern Africa director for TRAFFIC who is based in Harare, Zimbabwe.

TRAFFIC is an international wildlife-trade monitoring program sponsored by the global conservation group WWF and the World Conservation Union.

In a recent pass through the open-air markets of Angola's capital city of Luanda, TRAFFIC researchers identified enough ivory to account for the slaughter of 250 elephants.

(Related news: "African Elephants Slaughtered in Herds Near Chad Wildlife Park" [August 30, 2006].)

But Angola's estimated elephant population is only 240, suggesting that much of the ivory is coming from animals killed in neighboring countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Of the 37 countries that harbor African elephants, Angola is the only one not a member of CITES, an international treaty that monitors illegal trade in species identified as endangered by member governments.

Milliken says that lack of CITES membership is helping to turn Angola into a major conduit for illegally obtained ivory.

TRAFFIC Report

Angola is recovering from a civil war, and today thousands of foreign business and aid workers are stationed in Luanda to help rebuild the country (Angola map).

On their days off, many foreign workers head for open-air craft markets south of the city, Milliken says.

"There you find many, many vendors—mostly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo—selling a whole vast array of ivory specimens," he said.

The ivory is primarily in the form of carved curios, such as chopsticks, targeted toward foreigners.

In April TRAFFIC issued a report on the surge in ivory sales in Luanda's markets and urged Angola to join CITES.

"There has been very little government responsiveness to the evidence we put on the table," Milliken said.

In addition to the sales in craft markets, researchers suspect tons of raw ivory are exported from Angola to the carving industry in China, where the growing economy is fueling increased demand for the luxury item.

"That was not captured by this report, but it's certainly something that could be occurring and we are concerned about," Milliken said.

Sam Wasser is director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington in Seattle.

His lab uses DNA fingerprints to track the geographic origin of elephant tusks seized by international police (related news: "Record Ivory Cache Traced to Zambia Elephants, DNA Shows" [August 18, 2006]).

He said the ivory trade through Angola is only "the tip of the iceberg."

Wasser is currently preparing a report on the illegal ivory trade. While he declines to provide specifics until the data are published, he says elephant poaching for ivory has become a serious threat to the species.

"If you look at the overall movement of contraband ivory, it is at a staggering level," he said. "Look at the price of ivory, and you'll see why."

According to Wasser, high quality ivory in China currently sells for $750 (U.S.) a kilogram (about two pounds).

"As long as there's opportunity to move ivory and there are legal markets out there and the price is so high, it doesn't take much [knowledge of] economics to figure out what's going to happen," he said.

TRAFFIC's Milliken cautions that ivory prices might actually be substantially lower in China.

He says that contraband raw ivory is currently available in Africa for less than $25 (U.S.) a kilogram.

He believes Chinese ivory dealers are entrenched in Africa, dealing directly with the poachers to supply China with high volumes of moderately priced ivory.

Elephant Hot Spots

The population of African elephants varies tremendously among the 37 countries where they are found, Milliken says.

"Senegal, for example, is looking for the last ten elephants in the whole country, and then on the other hand a country like Botswana is the polar opposite," he said.

Botswana has more than 120,000 elephants, which is over the carrying capacity of the country's available land.

Most elephant poaching today appears to be in the heavily forested region of Central Africa, Milliken says.

"Central Africa is experiencing [elephant] population declines, and some of these declines are extremely severe, like what is happening in the DRC," he said.

The University of Washington's Wasser agrees.

"People who have been monitoring those elephants are saying, Oh my God, there's nothing left out there," he said.

"But it's also the case that many savanna countries are still poaching like crazy—it's not just in the forest," he continued. "The whole market has reached an escalating level that is alarming."

According to Milliken, convincing Angola to join CITES could help curb the latest swell of illegal ivory trade.

Better enforcement of the treaty throughout Africa and Asia—particularly in China—is also crucial to stopping the tide, he says.

"If we take China out of the equation, we get a flat line" on the hypothetical chart of ivory sales, Milliken said. "The minute we put China [back] in, that line shoots dramatically upward."

But Wasser says that he doubts CITES membership and enforcement alone will curb the trade.

He notes that a record number of large seizures have been made in the past year, and the vast majority of these were from CITES signatory countries.

"What is driving this market right now? Why is the price higher than ever before? Why aren't people doing something about that?" he asked.

"That's what we really need to think about."

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