Ivory Trade Threatens Future of African Elephants

SEATTLE, Washington, February 27, 2007 (ENS) - The illegal ivory trade is flourishing and threatens to undermine efforts to save the African elephant from extinction, according to a new study released Monday. Poaching of the species has risen to a level not seen in two decades, researchers report, and could doom the world's largest land animal unless western governments step up efforts to halt the illegal trade.

"The illegal ivory trade recently intensified to the highest levels ever reported," according to the study, published in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

China's burgeoning economy is a major force driving the growth of the illegal trade, escalating prices and attracting organized crime.


Poaching continues to threat one of the world's most intelligent species. (Photo courtesy WWF-Canon)

A kilogram of ivory that $200 by 2004 now fetches some $750, the researchers said, and from August 2005 through August 2006, authorities seized some 24 tons of illegal ivory destined for Asia.

But that figure represents only about 10 percent of the estimated illegal shipments, bringing the total closer to 240 tons - an amount that would require the slaughter of more than 23,000 elephants, about 5 percent of the estimated wild African population.

"Policing this trafficking has been hampered by the inability to reliably determine geographic origin of contraband ivory," according to the study. "Ivory can be smuggled across multiple international borders and along numerous trade routes, making poaching hotspots and potential trade routes difficult to identify."

This also makes it difficult to "refute a country's denial of poaching problems," the study said, but a new genetic test is helping to determine which elephant populations are most impacted by the illegal ivory trade.

The new test, devised by a research team led by University of Washington biologist Samuel Wasser, was used to track the source of a 6.5-ton shipment of ivory intercepted by authorities in Singapore in June 2002.

The shipment included 532 tusks and 42,000 hankos, small blocks of solid ivory used to make signature stamps, or chops, that are popular in China and Japan. The seizure was the second-largest on record and the largest since the international ivory ban took effect in 1989 - it represented ivory from 3,000 to 6,500 poached elephants.

Authorities assumed the ivory had been collected from many different places, in particular from forest elephants, but the work by Wasser's team has shattered that belief and raised concern that regional populations could be decimated by poaching.

DNA analysis traced the ivory to elephants found in a small area of southern Africa, centered in Zambia.

The tusks in the seized shipment weighed an average of 11 kilograms apiece, more than twice the weight normally seen in the market, indicating they came from a large number of older elephants.

"Elephants are majestic animals and are not trivial to the ecosystem," said Wasser, the study's lead author and director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington. "They are a keystone species and taking them out significantly alters the habitat. It has ripple effects on lots of different species."

Wasser and his colleagues urged western governments to help African nations curb the illegal trade by targeting poachers.

Poor nations, such as Zambia, can't do it alone, they contend.

"If it really is organized crime that's driving this, then the only hope we have of stopping it is to stop the ivory at the source, to not let it into the international market," Wasser explained. "Because once it's in the international market, the trade is very hard to stop."


Tusks from the second-largest contraband ivory recovery in history are laid out on the ground in Singapore after they were seized in 2002. (Photo by Benezeth Mutayoba courtesy UW )

The world implemented a ban on the ivory trade in 1989 amid evidence poachers had decimated the population by some 60 percent during the 1980s.

The World Conservation Union estimates some 400,000 to 600,000 African elephants remain in the wild, down from as many more than 1.3 million in 1979. Poaching and habitat loss are the key threats to the species.

Western nations contributed heavily to enforcement efforts when the international ban took effect in 1989, the researchers note, and in the next four years poaching was virtually eliminated. But the success apparently left a sense that the problem was solved and the nations withdrew their funding.

In addition to stronger enforcement, the researchers call for education programs to discourage poaching in Africa and to persuade people in Asia not to use ivory, much of which is obtained illegally.

"If people really realized what is happening they would be ashamed to be part of the crisis," Wasser said. "We don't want to spend our time catching criminals, we want to stop the crime from happening. That's the most effective enforcement you can do."