No more “state-approved ivory dealers”
BEIJING, China; HARARE, Zimbabwe––All trade in elephant ivory is now illegal in China, effective January 1, 2018, except in Hong Kong, which is reportedly soon to enact a similar prohibition, to take effect in 2022.
“From now on, if a merchant tells you ‘this is a state-approved ivory dealer’… he is duping you and knowingly violating the law,” said Chinese forestry minister Luo Shugang.
The Chinese state-controlled Xinhua news service reported that the sale price of raw ivory had already fallen 65% in 2017, the last year before the long-pending ivory sales ban took effect, while seizures of smuggled ivory entering the country fell 80%, despite intensified effort to interdict wildlife traffickers of all sorts.
Zimbabwe leads world in elephant exports
The last 105 licensed ivory-working facilities and shops selling elephant ivory in China were to be out of the ivory trade by the end of 2017, while 67 others had already closed.
But China still leads the world in live African elephant imports, mostly and perhaps entirely flown from Zimbabwe.
Only two days before the elephant ivory sales ban took effect in China, the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force announced that, “It is with great sadness that we report yet again that 34 baby elephants who were captured in Hwange National Park are already en route to China. We understand from our investigators on the ground that 30 left and four were left behind. We are unsure of the reason [why the four were left.] They are destined for zoos and Safari Parks.
When will it stop?
“The damage that is being caused to the elephant family units is tragic and the Zimbabwean Government continues to export the babies without a care or worry about their well being or social structure,” the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force continued. “This is deplorable and extremely disappointing that these babies are continuously being captured and torn from their mothers. When will it stop?”
Zimbabwe, meanwhile, leads the world in issuing permits to hunt elephants, at the rate of about 500 per year, and in live elephant exports, chiefly to China.
There appears to be little prospect of any of this changing soon, especially since the ouster of 30-year Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe in early December 2017 by a military junta left the nation more dependent than ever on Chinese loans and investment, while prominent individuals within the junta are believed to prosper from the trophy hunting industry, including elephant trophy hunting.
Despite slumping elephant ivory demand from China, and the prospect of losing the Chinese market entirely, poachers working in Zimbabwe have killed at least 251 elephants with cyanide since 2013, typically concealing the poison in oranges.
There was no hint of a slowdown as the Chinese ivory sales ban approached. Forty-two elephants were killed by cyanide during the first 10 months of 2017, with the November and December totals not yet announced.
The most publicized prosecution for allegedly poisoning elephants, however, ended with the November 23, 2017 acquittal of both suspects, Victoria Falls residents Zwelitsha Tshuma, 37, and Steward Msipha, 47.
Tshuma and Msipha were accused of killing 13 elephants in eight days at Ngwengwe Springs, but Victoria Falls resident magistrate Lindiwe Maphosa held that the evidence against them was essentially unsubstantiated hearsay.
Hunting threatens gene pool
Legal, licensed trophy hunting is also a threat to elephants in Zimbabwe––not so much to the general population, however, as to the genetic lines including the biggest males with the most spectacular tusks.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 2014, while Barack Obama was U.S. president, quit issuing permits to trophy hunters to allow them to import elephant parts, including tusks.
The Zimbabwean government, which profits from royalities paid by visiting trophy hunters, and Safari Club International together lobbied the Donald Trump administration to lift the suspension of elephant trophy imports.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced in November that the suspension would end, but when a public hue-and-cry arose, Trump put the decision to allow elephant trophy imports on indefinite hold.
Elephant trophy imports continue
“Opponents of lifting the trophy import ban included some of Trump’s staunchest supporters, including radio talk show host Laura Ingraham,” observed Washington Post environmental reporter Darryl Fears on December 16, 2017.
Despite the 2014 ban on elephant trophy imports supposedly remaining in effect, Fears added, “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service awarded permits to 16 people in 11 states who requested them between January 2016 and as recently as October 2017, according to Friends of Animals,” which “obtained documents through a Freedom of Information Act request.
“The permits were for elephants shot before 2014,” Fears explained.
After the elephant trophy import ban was announced, Fears wrote, “Friends of Animals sued to reinstate the ban less than a week later,” anticipating that Trump might not leave it in place for long. To support its legal challenge,” Fears continued, “the group requested and received a spreadsheet from Fish & Wildlife documenting the issuance of permits to import the remains of African elephants and lions, which are also listed as threatened, as trophies.”
Trump had purportedly also reinstituted a ban on importing lion trophies.
How many elephants will Chinese ivory ban save?
While any actual effect from the Chinese ivory ban on elephant poaching has yet to be seen, the potential influence is immense. Currently, the ivory poaching toll worldwide is estimated at anywhere from 10,000 to 33,000 elephants killed per year, depending on who is doing the estimating and why.
The African Elephant Coalition, representing 29 African governments, in July 2016 put poaching losses of elephants at 20,000 for the single year 2014.
Some of the variation in estimated losses is because of the inherent difficulty of projecting the size of an illegal traffic from the unknown percentage of the goods intercepted by law enforcement.
The African elephant population is known to have declined by about 110,000 over the past 10 years, to about 415,000 at the beginning of 2017.
Hunting & captures
More difficult to figure is to what extent the losses are directly due to poaching, as opposed to other factors such as fragmentation of habitat and disintegration of herd structure. These factors are affected not only by poaching but also by legal hunting plus herd and land management practices.
Overall, elephant ivory poaching appears to account for about 10 times as many elephant deaths as legal hunting and herd management, and perhaps 1,000 times more losses of elephants from the wild as live captures to supply zoos, temples, and other exhibition venues.
In 2016, the recent peak year for live exports to zoos, Zimbabwe sent 35 young elephants to China, while Swaziland sent 18 young elephants to zoos in the United States.
Temple elephant exhibition involves only Asian elephants, and occurs almost entirely in India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. Most temple elephants are believed to have been acquired from circuses, elephant ride concessions, traveling mahouts, and private menageries.
While some of these elephants have been clandestinely captured from the wild specifically to be exhibited, the majority appear to have been taken by government wildlife agencies from “rogue” herds that have menaced crops and/or human habitation.
As well as the live elephant traffic affecting orders of magnitude fewer elephants than either poaching or legal hunting, and being––by intent at least––nonlethal, a case can be made that the exhibition of live elephants, including in China, will help increase public appreciation of elephants, and thereby help indirectly to cut into the already much eroded demand for elephant ivory.
Interest in ivory down, in seeing elephants up
Certainly the rise of live elephant exhibition in the U.S. and Europe during the 20th century coincided with declining elephant ivory use––but this may have occurred more as result of the introduction of much less costly and equally durable plastic alternatives to ivory than as result of increased public empathy for the elephants displayed by zoos and circuses.
Chinese interest in ivory appears to have markedly waned as a result of public awareness campaigns conducted by elephant advocates, including the now retired international basketball star Yao Ming. But Chinese interest in seeing live elephants may never have been greater, with disturbing consequences, even if the numbers of elephants involved are small compared to the poaching and hunting toll.
Reporting for The Guardian, Adam Cruise and Christina Russo in October 2017 described “exclusive footage which shows the capture of young, wild elephants in Hwange national park by officials of the Zimbabwe Parks & Wildlife Management Authority” for “a Chinese national” who in 2016 “was associated with a case involving 11 wild hyenas, who were discovered in a truck at Harare International Airport” after having “been on the road for 24 hours without food or water.”
The youngest hyena was taken to the Wild Is Life sanctuary for rehabilitation, reported News24 of Cape Town, South Africa, while the other 10 were “returned to an enclosure in Hwange National Park.”
Cruise and Russo reported that while “Chinese newspapers announced in cheery headlines that three elephants – two females and a male, aged approximately four years old – had arrived at the Lehe Ledu wildlife zoo,” ElephantVoices cofounder Joyce Poole “noted that the face of one of the females looked pinched and stressed. The elephant appeared to have begun to wear her tusks down on the bars, rubbing back and forth in frustration. Poole added that her sunken look, dark eyes and mottled skin are common for young captured elephants,” whereas, Poole said, “In the wild, you only see the pinched, sunken look in sick or orphaned elephants.”
Poole, who headed the Kenya Wildlife Service elephant program from 1990 to 1994, has studied elephants in the wild in Kenya for more than 40 years.
Elephants for boots & uniforms
“Questions have been asked,” Cruise and Russo added, “about whether Zimbabwe is complying with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species stipulation that the sale of elephants must benefit their conservation in the wild. Zimbabwean environment minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri was reported in the Guardian last year as saying the sale of the elephants was necessary to raise funds to take care of national parks in Zimbabwe, which have been ravaged by drought and poaching. But in the past, there have been unconfirmed reports that Grace Mugabe,” wife of Robert Mugabe, “used funds from the sales of elephants to pay off a military debt to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”
Stuart Graham of The Times of London reported in December 2016 that “The 51-year-old wife of the [now former] Zimbabwean leader is believed to have sent 35 elephant calves, eight lions, a dozen hyenas and a giraffe [to China] to settle a debt for boots and uniforms bought for the Congolese military, a conservationist with intimate knowledge of the deal told The Times. There are fears that the elephants could be used to start an ivory-farming operation in China.”
Chopper crash blows the whistle
Elephant captures for export to China were still underway in mid-August 2017, coming to public notice after a helicopter crash-landed in Hwange National Park, reported Nokuthaba Dlamini of The Standard, the leading opposition newspaper in Zimbabe.
Wrote Dlamini, “Veteran conservationist Johnny Rodrigues of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force first blew the whistle on Zimparks’ mission, which was confirmed by Environment, Water & Climate minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri.
“China is a friendly destination,” says minister
Said Rodrigues, “They have captured about 18 little elephants to be transported to China, but in total, they are capturing 80 baby elephants for China. As conservationists, we frown at such kind of acts, as it is inhumane treatment of animals. They are being sent to scary places for the benefit of chefs who pocket the money.”
Responded Muchinguri-Kashiri, “We were given permission by cabinet to sell some of the animals rather than culling them or leaving them to die naturally. There was a feeling that we could perhaps sell these animals and we managed to sell some. This is something that was agreed, that China is a friendly destination and that they should be used for educational purposes.”