The ivory may have been among the large shipment just uncovered at the main airport of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. The tusks of 58 elephants, worth $1.3m, were in metal boxes. The shipment was bound for Nigeria, purportedly from two embassies in Nairobi that do not exist. At the same time, in Vietnam, authorities found $600,000 of tusks hidden in a cargo of rubber from Tanzania. Thai customs last month spotted $3.3m-worth of tusks under a pile of frozen fish.
The quest for ivory charms in China and Vietnam makes elephant poaching lucrative in eastern and central Africa. Ivory fetches up to $1,200 a kilo in Asia, says the WWF, a wildlife lobby. That encourages middlemen. Many Chinese citizens in several African airports have been arrested this year for smuggling ivory. Detectives suspect many more get through with a few kilos and a bribe. Tree cover, armed groups, and open borders make elephants as vulnerable as ever. The herds of central Africa are being particularly hard hit. In Chad alone, at least 30 elephants are known to have been poached last month. Some conservationists think there is no future for a truly wild and unprotected elephant.
Yet, taken as a whole, African elephants have increased from a low of 500,000 in the 1980s to more than 600,000 today. The Swiss-based International Union for Conservation of Nature, an environmental lobby, which publishes a “red list” of the world’s most endangered species, says elephants in southern Africa are increasing by 4% a year. Their fecundity is offsetting losses in central and west Africa. Indeed, the main threat in Botswana, southern Mozambique, parts of South Africa and Zimbabwe is arguably not poaching but overpopulation. Boffins are pondering birth control for elephants, including even vasectomies. There are calls for culling or allowing trophy hunting under rigorous controls. Southern African countries are keen to see the lifting of the worldwide ban on the ivory trade.
But east and central African countries and well-financed animal-rights groups fiercely oppose this. They say an earlier decision to let southern African countries sell some of their ivory stockpile caused poaching to soar elsewhere: those handling the ivory often provide false labels of origin. In the end, as the Chinese get richer, it is probably only China itself that can determine the fate of Africa’s elephants. Earlier this month, two Chinese engineers were arrested in N’Djamena, Chad’s capital, with eight pairs of tusks. After producing diplomatic passports, they were freed. The fate of the tusks is unknown. That of the elephants isn’t.
Excerpt, Africa’s elephants: To cosset or to cull?, Economist, May 21, at 56