Illegal Ivory Trafficking – the Human Cost

It is well known that the illegal trade in wildlife harms the species which are taken or killed for their body parts, but what is less known is that this illegal trade also finances the terrorism which leads to many human deaths and the ripping apart of communities in African countries. I learnt more about this in June when I went to the US embassy in London for the event ‘Wildlife Trafficking – How are we Curbing it?’ with a keynote speech by John Scanlon, Secretary-General of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. This event that highlighted the United States’ leading role in curbing wildlife trafficking was meticulously organized by Mahvash Siddiqui, Environment, Science, Technology and Health officer (Science Diplomat) at the U.S. Embassy in London.

As part of the event we were shown the documentary film ‘Warlords of Ivory’ where investigative journalist Bryan Christy places a GPS tracker in a fake elephant tusk which was then taken up by ivory poachers. His tracking system shows that the ivory is taken into territory where Joseph Kony, warlord of the Lord’s Resistance Army, operates. The LRA is infamous for kidnapping children to use as child soldiers or slaves and for mutilating prisoners. Christy’s interviews with LRA escapees and defectors reveal that ivory is traded with the Sudan Armed Forces for weapons. The Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and war crimes but has never been brought to trial. This National Geographic article recounts what is shown in the film, and adds further detail, including a report that Kony intends to establish links with Boko Haram – perpetrators of the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapping – which is itself co-operating with ISIS.
Although the extinction of the African elephant is in itself a cause to fight ivory trafficking, ‘Warlords of Ivory’, shows that it also has a devastating human cost. The operations of these terrorist groups are being paid for by trading elephant ivory.

Below is a short video ‘Last Days of Ivory’ which conveys a similar message to ‘Warlords of Ivory’. Content note – some may find the scenes in this video distressing. It includes footage of the Westgate shopping mall attack.

What is CITES?

CITES is a international agreement dating from 1973 which provides a framework for regulation of international trade in wild animals and plants to ensure that this trade does not lead to their extinction. For species which are endangered (listed in Appendix I) trade is illegal except in specific instances. Appendix II species are not yet endangered but trade in these species is regulated to ensure that it does not lead to them becoming endangered. The African elephant is listed in Appendix I, except for certain populations which are in Appendix II.
Ultimately, while regulation of international trade in endangered species is necessary, the continued slaughter of elephants for their tusks suggests that the CITES framework alone is not enough to stop the trade.

What is being done about wildlife trafficking?

The Secretary General of CITES, John Scanlon, spoke positively about how high level political engagement in the issue of wildlife trafficking was ensuring that national border and foreign affairs agents were involved in the fight against import of endangered species, which was evidenced by speeches by Scott Crabb from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Mark Moseley from Scotland Yard. Nonetheless, John Scanlon sought to emphasise that because poaching is being done on an industrial scale by criminal transnational groups, there must be tougher penalties put in place such as are applied to other serious crimes. Otherwise the incentives to poach remain much higher than the risks for those involved.

As for demand, China is the largest consumer of ivory but the US is also an important market. Much of the demand for ivory comes from China’s growing middle class, though John Scanlon suggested that it is also being bought by speculators as an investment. However, a survey from March 2015 by WildAid, African Wildlife Foundation and Save The Elephants found that 95 per cent of respondents in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou said that the government should impose an ivory sales ban. This suggests that awareness in China of the issues of elephant poaching is increasing.

Given that the militaries and therefore governments of several central African countries have been implicated in the ivory trade, it seems that poaching will not stop while corruption in these countries remains prevalent. Action by both China and the African countries where elephants are poached will be necessary to stop the trade of ivory which is causing both the extinction of the African elephant and so much human misery.
Writer: Maia Perraudeau is an international law graduate student at Oxford University and founder of blogpost