2011 — annus horribilis for African elephants


As the year draws to a close, TRAFFIC has warned 2011 has seen a record number of large ivory seizures globally, reflecting the sharp rise in illegal ivory trade underway since 2007.

This comes at a time Zimbabwe police have arrested 144 poachers this year alone.

Poaching of rhino and elephants in Zimbabwe has been on the increase since the advent of the fast-track land resettlement programme.

Part of the seized ivory consignments may have originated from Zimbabwe.

According to the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, 31 rifles, 226 rounds of live ammunition were also recovered.

Among the poachers were 125 Zimbabweans, seven Zambians, three Congolese, three South Africans and six Batswana.

Just recently, 31 Zambians were also arrested for poaching fish in prohibited zones along the mighty Zambezi River.

Parks director-general Vitalis Chadenga said poaching has become a major concern along the Zambezi Valley, whose mighty river is shared by eight countries at the southern tip of Africa.

Chadenga said poaching has exacerbated the dire circumstances of certain species — the jumbo and rhino.

He said some 23 black and white rhinos were killed in national parks and conservancies this year, while 37 poachers and illegal dealers in horns have been arrested.

Rhino and elephant remain a major target for poachers who sell their products on lucrative markets in Asia and the Middle East.

In addition, Chadenga said 88 elephants have died of thirst in the last three months, and many others were migrating to nearby countries in search of “greener pastures”.

Despite pumping in water 24 hours per day to avert the crisis, scorching temperatures have seen perennial waterholes and pans in the vast game park drying up and the water table “getting very low” resulting in boreholes failing to cope with demand.

Small game species have already succumbed to thirst en bloc around the water holes dotted around the dry park as they could not compete with big game and dangerous predators for the finite resources in the park.

These changing climatic conditions in Zimbabwe’s vast flagship wildlife sanctuary — Hwange National Park — have caused the death of large numbers of several endangered species including elephants, lions and black rhinos.

Although official confirmation of the volume of ivory involved in some cases has not yet been registered, what is clear is the dramatic increase in the number of large-scale seizures, over 800kg in weight, that have taken place in 2011 — at least 13 of them.

This compares to six large seizures in 2010, whose total weight was just below 10 tonnes. A conservative estimate of the weight of ivory seized in the 13 largest seizures in 2011 puts the figure at more than 23 tonnes, a number that probably represents some 2 500 elephants or possibly more.

The most recent case to come to light was of 727 ivory pieces discovered on December 21 concealed inside a container at the port of Mombasa, Kenya, destined for Asia.

Over the last 12 months, most large seizures of illicit ivory from Africa have originated from either Kenyan or Tanzanian ports.

“In 23 years of compiling ivory seizure data for Etis (Elephant Trade Information System), this is the worst year ever for large ivory seizures — 2011 has truly been a horrible year for elephants,” said TRAFFIC’S elephant expert Tom Milliken.

Milliken manages Etis, the illegal ivory trade monitoring system that TRAFFIC runs on behalf of parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites). Etis holds the details of over 17 000 reported ivory and other elephant product seizures that have taken place anywhere in the world since 1989.

Once the records of hundreds of smaller ivory seizures are at hand, 2011 could well prove be the worst year ever for elephants in the database.

“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.”

The smugglers also appear to have shifted away from using air to sea freight; in early 2011, three of the large scale ivory seizures were at airports, but later in the year most were found in sea freight.

“The only common denominator in the trafficking is that the ivory departs Africa and arrives in Asia, but the routes are constantly changing, presumably reflecting where the smugglers gamble on being their best chance of eluding detection.”

In six of the large seizures in 2011, Malaysia has been a transit country in the supply chain, a role that TRAFFIC first drew attention to in 2009.

A typical example occurred earlier this month, when customs in Malaysia seized 1,4 tonnes of ivory (widely misreported as 15 tonnes) concealed inside a shipping container en route from Kenya to Cambodia.

Once inside Asia, the documentation accompanying an onward shipment is changed to make it appear as a local re-export, helping to conceal its origin from Africa.

“That’s an indication of the level of sophistication enforcement officers are up against in trying to outwit the criminal masterminds behind this insidious trade,” said Milliken.

“As most large-scale ivory seizures fail to result in any arrests, I fear the criminals are winning.”

It is clear Africa is running short of financial resources to sustainably manage the burgeoning elephant population and fend off marauding poaching syndicates.