The plight of the African elephant

The current plight of Africa’s rhino population, as disturbing as it is, pales in comparison to a much less widely reported wildlife crisis of considerably more staggering proportions – the loss of hundreds of thousands of elephants.

In 1980 there were in the region of 1,2-million elephants in Africa spread across some 37 range states. In 33 years that figure has been reduced to an estimated 420,000 animals. That’s 780,000 elephants lost to the world. Some of this loss can be attributed to reduction of habitat due to human expansion, but the main reason is ivory poaching, and when it comes to ivory, the market is driven by one country – China.

Chinese involvement in ivory poaching is Africa’s biggest open secret and its most shameful deceit. Indeed, the decrease in elephant numbers is synchronous with China’s growing economic foothold in Africa. Investments by China’s state-owned companies began in the 1980s when they became bedfellows of failed and failing African governments, with Zimbabwe and Zambia leading the pack.

By 1989 China was the permanent concubine of the continent’s political despots, and the elephant population had been halved to around 600,000. Coincidence? Far from it. Records show that 75,000 animals were poached annually throughout the 80s yielding ivory valued at $1-billion. Most of it went to China, or ended up there.

The Chinese appetite for ivory remains stronger than ever… strong enough to manipulate a body the world holds up as the guardian of threatened species – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

In the early 1980s, with China prompting from the wings, Zimbabwe led an assault on CITES of which it, and other key African states were members, calling for changes in the restrictions on the ivory trade. The result was one of the biggest faux pas in the history of environmental protection – in 1986 CITES introduced a new system aimed at registering, and therefore controlling, huge stockpiles of ivory and monitoring its “legal” movement. In effect, it gave the lunatics the chance to take over the asylum as most of the stockpiled ivory was owned by Chinese traders acting for their government.

With “legal” permits in hand, it was the start of “open season” on elephants. CITES was not held accountable for the failure, even though the Environmental Investigation Agency launched a probe which showed the system to be not only unworkable but also corrupt.

By the dawn of the 90s China’s foothold in Africa became a stranglehold and its indirect influence on CITES grew exponentially. The end of the 90s saw CITES allowing “once off” sales of stockpiled ivory, thanks largely to pressure from countries where China continued to wield considerable political clout, including Zimbabwe and South Africa.

This political clout is bought and paid for in cold, hard cash. In the last decade China has pumped some $75-billion in “aid” and “development” into Africa with more than 1700 projects across 50 countries documented between 2000 and 2011. In return Beijing gets access to natural resources and receives an undisclosed number of entry permits for Chinese nationals into the countries it targets.

In Zambia, Chinese-funded development is booming, as is the ivory trade, and even the Zambian government seems to be involved. The Zambian Watchdog reported that in May this year defense minister Geoffrey Mwamba was detained at Lusaka’s Kenneth Kaunda International Airport en route to China with three large bags of elephant tusks in his possession. No charges were brought against him and the tusks were confiscated by the Zambian Wildlife Authority.

Curiously, sources at Zambia’s National Airport Corporation at Kenneth Kaunda International say the same tusks were discovered in the same bags at the same airport some days later, this time being carried by Chinese diplomats, also en route to China.

The situation in Kenya is equally disturbing. Five years ago China upgraded the road from the capital of Nairobi to the town of Loitokitok on the Tanzanian border. Whilst a relatively busy border post, Loitokitok’s cross-border traffic is largely restricted to people and goods in transit. Goods including regular and “large” shipments of ivory from Tanzania to Nairobi, say sources inside the Kenyan customs and immigration service who work there. The guards are paid to look the other way and afraid not to.

There is an even more sinister hand at work in this story – that belonging to the “blood ivory” trade. Political insurgencies across the continent are being funded by the supply of elephant tusks to China in exchange for the new weapon of choice for any self-respecting revolutionary – the Type 56 assault rifle. This Chinese “knock-off” of the AK47 is lighter and cheaper than Mr. Kalashnikov’s Russian-made original and is small change for a few tones of ivory currently selling at up to $7000 per kg. The average tusk weight for an adult bull elephant is around 60kg.

Where does it all end? It’s hard to say. No government is currently prepared to stand up to the might of Beijing because money talks louder than principles. Like the border guards at Loitokitok, Africa is being paid to look the other way, and while it does so, the slaughter of Africa’s elephants will continue unabated with some predicting extinction by 2025.

The author, Sharon van Wyk, is an award-winning conservation writer and wildlife documentary maker and works with the Conservation Action Trust –