Almost 24 tonnes of illegally harvested ivory were seized by investigators in 2011—the largest haul since records began in 1990 and more than twice the amount in 2010. Traffic, a wildlife watchdog, reckons around 2,500 elephants must have died to produce so much ivory. This year could be worse. More than 200 elephants were killed in a single state of Cameroon in the first six weeks of 2012. This threatens to return African elephants to the crisis times of the 1970s and 1980s, when poaching was rampant and extinction loomed for many populations. This led to an ivory trade ban, in 1989, and in turn to a collapse in demand for ivory. Elephant populations have since recovered. Yet the effects of the ban seem to be wearing thin, especially in east, west and central Africa, where wildlife protection is generally weak and the poaching heaviest.
Illegally gathered ivory typically leaves Africa from Kenya or Tanzania in shipping containers. It often passes through Malaysia, where forged papers disguise its origins. Most is then dispatched to China or Japan. Some tusks also pass through the bazaars of Cairo, where Chinese traders are the biggest buyers China is the biggest recipient of poached African ivory; and the country’s demand for the stuff is surging. A study of two Chinese cities for Traffic, by Esmond Martin and Lucy Vigne, concluded that since 2004 the number of ivory items for sale there had grown by 50%.
Some ivory can be traded legally, for example when the elephant that grew it died of natural causes or was shot to protect people or crops. Some African countries have stocks that predate the ban, which they can also sell. Such legal ivory sells for around $900 a kilogram in China’s wholesale market, with the average tusk weighing between five and nine kilograms. A cheaper sort comes from extinct woolly mammoths, which are periodically excavated from Siberia’s tundra.
In southern Africa, where there is relatively little poaching, support for lifting the trade ban is strong. But east African countries, especially Kenya, which led the original campaign for it, say this would increase demand for ivory, which would often be met by poaching—given how easy it is to pass off illegal ivory as the legal kind. The collapse in demand for ivory that followed the trade ban supports that argument. So does the recent research by Mr Martin and Ms Vigne. Though legal ivory in China’s markets is meant to be marked as such, they found this was true of less than half the ivory for sale in Guangzhou in January 2011. Only a tenth of shops selling ivory had the necessary licenses.
Yet if the trade ban is losing its force, what will save the elephants? Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the founder of Save the Elephants, an advocacy group, says educating Chinese shoppers about the bloody origins of their purchase would help. There is currently an advertising campaign in China to do so. It features Chinese celebrities, like Yao Ming, a basketball star, and Ding Junhui, a snooker player, urging people not to buy products from endangered species. “When the buying stops,” they say, “the killing can too.”
Poaching: Black ivory, Economist, Mar. 20, 2012, at 73