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    Despite Huge Busts, Elephant Poaching Has Reached Record Levels

    Written by

    Derek Mead

    Editor-In-Chief

    Despite being illegal in most countries, the ivory trade continues unabated, which spells doom for Africa’s elephant populations. Just in the last week a pair of reports have shown that elephant poaching, and wildlife trafficking in general, is a problem of massive proportions.

    First, the good-ish news: Interpol recently announced the completion of its largest international ivory crackdown ever, with 14 African nations and China working together. However, the size of that bust may just signal that business is booming for the ivory trade, a conclusion supported by a UN-backed report by CITES (PDF) that rates of elephant poaching and the ivory trade have reached their highest pitch in a decade.

    Interpol worked with the International Fund for Animal Welfare on Operation Worthy, which produced more than 200 arrests and seizures of nearly two tons of ivory, 20 kilos of rhino horn, and automatic weapons in three months of operations spanning 14 African nations.

    Meanwhile, the State Forestry Police Bureau (FPB) in China, working off of IFAW information, pulled off busts that are brain-melting in there scope: According to the FPB, the agency stormed through a horde of websites and antique shops, and found 700 instances of illegal wildlife trade. According to an IFAW release, the FPB’s actions “busted 13 gangs, punished 1,031 illegal traders, seized over 130,000 wild animals and their animal products.” Additionally, 7,155 shops and 628 websites found selling illegal parts were shut down. In short, it was a massive crackdown at the heart of the wildlife trade.

    “The intelligence gathered during Operation Worthy will enable us to identify the links between the poachers and the global networks driving and facilitating the crime," David Higgins, manager of Interpol’s Environmental Crime Programme, said in a release. “By identifying their international trafficking routes, arresting those involved at higher levels, and suppressing the crime at its source, in transit, and at its destination we are making a real contribution to the conservation of the world’s environment and biodiversity.”

    A customs official in Malaysia checks out the goods from a two ton bust in 2011 that snagged 700 tusks headed for China. Image: STR/AFP/Getty Images.

    Still, as great as it is to see some serious law enforcement effort focused on wildlife trafficking, the sheer number of busts shows just how big the problem is. Even taking the FPB’s numbers with a grain of salt — the agency claimed its operations involved 100,000 officers spread all over China — we’re still talking about tens of thousands of animals and parts being seized in China, while the ivory seizures by Interpol represents a few hundred elephants at least. And that’s just the start.

    Last year, wildlife trade monitor Traffic announced that a record 23 tons of ivory had been seized in 2011, which the group said followed a trend of increasing ivory harvesting since 2007. This year hasn’t been any better, with hundreds of elephants in Cameroon — elephants in the Bouba N’Djida National Park, no less — killed since January. Half of the population of Bouba N’Djida’s elephants have been killed, and poaching hasn’t slowed even after Cameroon sent its military in.

    That’s been followed by the CITES report, which states that elephant poaching has reached the highest levels ever recorded. According to CITES’ Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) program, the total volume of ivory seizures in the last three years are three of the five biggest hauls ever. So, despite massive busts, elephant poaching continues at a breakneck pace.

    Where’s it all going? China and, to a lesser extent, Thailand. The smuggling routes are convoluted, but follow a basic pattern with ivory flowing from Africa to poorer nations in Southeast Asia or the Middle East and then into China. It’s a massive economy, with organized crime managing much of the product flow. If you’ve any doubt as to how pervasive the smuggling is, know that the recent busts in Africa and China led none other than the United Arab Emirates to announce that the busts were good for securing its own ports, a statement that’s highly indicative of how widespread international smuggling is.

    “The MIKE analysis shows poaching to be highest where human livelihoods are most insecure and where governance and law enforcement are weakest,” MIKE program coordinate Julian Blanc said. “It also suggests that poaching is driven by demand for ivory in East Asia. The number of African elephants poached in 2011 alone could well run into the tens of thousands.”

    IFAW Wildlife Trade Program Director Kevin Alie discusses the work the IFAW and Interpol do to curb trafficking.

    The thing is, the trafficking economy is so entrenched, and so lucrative, that seizures of animal parts aren’t enough on their own to stem the tide of the trade. Take Cameroon, for instance: Even with military involvement, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the country is poor, leaving enforcement agencies underfunded and people willing to trade their nation’s icons for cash. And, while seizures make the flow of ivory more difficult, the flow of animal parts can only be truly slowed if traffickers and poachers themselves are brought to justice.

    “While being essential, enforcement efforts to stop wildlife crime must not just result in seizures – they must result in prosecutions, convictions and strong penalties to stop the flow of contraband. The whole ‘enforcement chain’ must work together,” CITES Secretary General John Scanlon said.

    Of course, as we’ve seen in the drug trade, busting traffickers themselves can only slow the flow of illicit goods, not stop them. And as long as there are wealthy people putting up funds for illegal animal parts, there will be someone willing to try to procure them. To really put a dent in the wildlife trade, we must decrease demand. Considering China’s increasing number of wealthy citizens, their desire for status, and a long tradition of demand for animal products that are now, and have long been, illegal, that’s an extremely tall order. But with the African elephant population having been cut down from around four million to around 300,000 in the last 80 years, it’s time for that to change.

    Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.

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    Image via UW Conservation Biology.

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