Ivory poaching: not just a conservation issue

Far more attention must be paid to the link between ivory poaching and transnational organised crime. Will this week’s CITES conference make that connection?

On Saturday, 24 September, Johannesburg welcomed delegates from around the world to the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP17) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

A major question at CoP17 is to what extent delegates can address the lingering question of the illicit ivory trade; and more importantly its connection to transnational organised crime.

CITES is the global framework for protecting and regulating trade in animals, and has been ratified by 183 countries. While CITES does not define wildlife crime per se, it strongly influences national legislation on what constitutes wildlife crime.

It also provides a means for cooperating against trafficking and prosecuting violators. Ivory has become a major issue viewed largely through an environmental lens. What has generated much less attention is the vast sums of money involved, and links to other non-state actors. There is very little understanding about how the ivory trade is used to fund other forms of violence.

Though highly volatile, the estimated price per kilogram for ivory on the black-market is about US$1 100. The average African elephant carries roughly 62.5 kg of ivory; nearly US$70 000 worth.

There is very little understanding about how the ivory trade funds other forms of violence

While protecting animals and addressing environmental concerns is inherently good, the trade should be viewed as a form of transnational organised crime. The international community must cooperate to better understand the links between poachers in Africa and the consumers of ivory internationally.

There cannot be a globally traded illegal commodity without an organised criminal network. Earlier this year, the Telegraph reported that the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda used ivory as the ‘lifeline’ of their organisation. The Council on Foreign Relations has also linked al-Shabaab with the ivory trade.

In an increasingly connected world, transnational organised crime poses a significant threat to international security and stability. Although it lacks a precise definition, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) generally defines transnational organised crime as a group of three or more actors who work in concert to commit a crime punishable by at least four years’ incarceration, to gain a financial or other material benefit.

While activities like money laundering, the illicit drug trade, human trafficking and the illegal trade in light weapons are traditionally associated with transnational organised crime, the trade in illegal wildlife products has become a significant manifestation of this type of crime, especially in Africa. The ivory trade is likely the most prominent example of this.

Ivory is obtained through the poaching of elephants. In Africa, ivory poaching is concentrated in two broad areas: East and Southern Africa. In the former, poaching most commonly occurs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, while in Southern Africa the major countries of concern are Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Combined, these countries account for 75% of Africa’s elephant population.

Ivory was the ‘lifeline’ for the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda

Seizures of ivory reveal that the predominant destinations for African ivory are in East Asia, mainly China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand. Ivory destined for Asia departs Africa mainly through busy seaports such as Mombasa, Dar es Salaam, Maputo and Durban. Even though there are measures in place to detect ivory in shipments, these ports must make do with inadequate technology, under-staffing, and a lack of sufficient training for the staff they do have.

Corruption also plays a major role. Customs officials are reportedly paid up to US$5 000 to allow a shipment to pass. For context, the World Bank estimates that average GDP per capita in Africa at purchasing power parity was about US$2 000 in 2015.

Once past these ports, the majority of ivory shipments are destined for Hong Kong, the main entry point into Asia. This is largely due to a loophole in Hong Kong law allowing the legal trade of ivory. This loophole persists because when ivory became internationally illegal in 1989, Hong Kong issued licences to traders to sell off their remaining stock, which should have been depleted by 2004. However, those stocks were strictly measured by weight, and there has been a tendency to replenish them with illegal ivory, mainly from Africa.

Things may be changing though. In June this year, the Hong Kong government moved to close this loophole and completely outlaw trade in ivory by 2021. Moreover, the Hong Kong government has publicly stated that illegal ivory trade has connections with other forms of transnational organised crime. The International Criminal Court also announced this month that it would begin to consider crimes resulting in ‘destruction of the environment’ or ‘exploitation of natural resources’ as crimes against humanity.

Although many countries already have a legal framework for prosecuting these crimes, the punishment of traders is inconsistent at best. Many countries apply the CITES treaty leniently; and individuals or groups often receive light sentences that would not even qualify for UNODC’s definition of transnational organised crime.

Wildlife trafficking is also a security issue, an economic issue and a test of political will

However, non-governmental organisations such as WildAid have been vigorously campaigning for stricter penalties, and to move wildlife trafficking from the environmental arena into the transnational organised crime domain. In Hong Kong, for instance, WildAid is advocating seven- to 10-year prison sentences and arguing that ivory cases be tried under the city’s Organised and Serious Crimes Ordinance, where there would be more thorough criminal investigations.

Awareness campaigns in Hong Kong, China and Thailand have also become increasingly prominent. Despite these efforts, ivory is still seen as a high-end product for jewellers, as well as those who consume it for its purported, but disproven, medicinal value. The sheer cost of ivory suggests that wealthy consumers are the major culprits though and should be more specifically targeted by these awareness campaigns. This also includes Europe and the United States, where ivory is not consumed as medicine and strictly purchased as a luxury item.

Meanwhile, there are the beginnings of regional initiatives aimed at curbing the trade of ivory. The East African Community and the Southern African Development Community have openly discussed the issue. However, these conversations have yet to yield concrete policies and have, in the past, been undermined by one-off sales of ivory stockpiles, notably in Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

Also, these initiatives focus almost exclusively on the environmental side, with insufficient attention paid to port security or the potential for collaboration with western and Asian partners to reduce the demand for illegal ivory.

Networks and syndicates involved in wildlife trafficking are poorly understood. Countries must coordinate to get a better sense of who the major suppliers and consumers are; and develop comprehensive strategies to address both the demand and supply side.

Although the environmental aspect is important, wildlife trafficking increasingly needs to be looked at as a security issue, an economic issue and a test of political will for African states to deal with difficult cross-border issues. That illicit ivory is used to fund violent crime and terrorism should provide more than enough impetus for better collaboration.

Zachary Donnenfeld, Researcher, and Jervin Naidoo, Consultant, African Futures and Innovation, ISS Pretoria

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