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Illegal Ivory, DNA and CITES

Saturday 12th May 2012

 Illegal Ivory, DNA and CITES

I recently contacted a friend of mine, Sam Wasser, about ivory poaching. Sam is now Professor of Biology and Director of the Center of Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, and conceptualized and coordinates the ivory DNA forensics project.

First, Sam had to collect DNA samples from living elephants and did this by extracting DNA from scats to create an extensive reference library of populations across Africa. Next, by extracting DNA from tusks seized by customs and police in various parts of the world, Sam can now trace back where the tusks came from, and with increased numbers of reference samples, can pinpoint locations of where the ivory was poached to within a few hundred kilometres. This means, even  given the extensive movements elephants are capable of, Sam is able to identify with increasing accuracy the populations exposed to poaching pressure.

But let’s back up a bit. Between 1979 and 1989, at least 700,000 elephants were killed for their ivory across Africa, and 70,000 of those were poached in the Selous Game Reserve in southeastern Tanzania alone. The proceeds from the ivory ended up in many pockets and even funded the needs of armies engaged in civil wars. In 1989 Tanzania declared its own war on poaching, and with the combined forces of the army, the wildlife department and the police was able to put an end to most of the illegal offtake. That same year, six African elephant range states including Kenya and Tanzania submitted proposals to CITES that resulted in the ivory trade ban. With most importing countries enforcing the ban, the trade in illegal ivory practically stopped, and western nations contributed substantial sums of money to antipoaching efforts. In a 2009 article in Scientific American (July 2009: 68-76), Sam called this “probably the most effective act of international wildlife legislation in history, and public pressure was instrumental to its success”.

Since then, however, the illegal trade has revived spectacularly. Sam believes this resulted from a diversity of factors – the Western aid dried up, southern African nations opposed the ban as they felt they had done well to protect their elephant populations and should not be penalized with a trade embargo, demand from increasingly wealthy individuals in Far Eastern nations grew, and a number of one-off ivory sales were agreed by CITES.  In the Scientific American article, Sam mentions that by 2006, poaching had arguably reached levels exceeding those before the ban. International crime syndicates had become involved as ivory smuggling was relatively easy and driven by very high prices – rising from perhaps $200 per kilo in 2004 to an estimated $6,500 in 2009. Based on the amount and number of seizures made, it was estimated that 8% of Africa’s elephants were being poached every year, higher that the 7.4% rate that led to the ban in 1989.

So where did all these elephants come from? Such information, Sam argues, can bring pressure to bear on the nations with poor records of antipoaching operations. He and his team analysed DNA from ivory made in three 2006 seizures – 5.2 tonnes in a harbour in Taiwan, 2.6 tonnes in a Hong Kong apartment, and 2.8 tonnes in a harbour in Japan. Despite numerous requests, the Japanese authorities did not allow Sam to sample their confiscated ivory, but the Taiwan and Hong Kong seizures were analysed.

All came from the Selous ecosystem, with spillover from Niassa in northern Mozambique.  Previous (2002) shipments seized in Singapore came from Zambia. PIKE, an index of poaching threat, rose from 22% in 2003 to 63% in 2009 in the Selous. The same measure climbed to 88% in 2008 in Zambia.

Tanzania applied to CITES to downlist their elephants to Appendix II in 2006 (allowing trade), withdrew the application, but resubmitted in 2009. Tanzania (and also Zambia’s) applications to CITES were defeated at the 2010 CITES Conference of Parties in Doha. Currently, all African elephant populations remain listed on CITES Appendix I, except those of Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Namibia, which are on Appendix II.

In a 2010 article in Science (327: 1331-1332), Sam and co-authors point out a number of failures of monitoring programmes, lack of data needed for scientific assessments of levels of poaching, and a continuing reluctance within CITES to place science above politics contributing to overall uninformed decisions on trade. The inference is that Tanzania and Zambia’s abilities to address the challenges of illegal poaching are compromised despite their claims of conserving elephants. 

Clearly, a renewed effort is needed to ensure the proper protection of elephants. There is considerable disagreement whether the legal ivory sales from national “stockpiles” (natural deaths and elephant culling) allowed by CITES and campaigned for by some elephant range states (with proceeds often promised to assist elephant conservation) has led to increased poaching. Such debates often lead to acrimony, but clearly, the legal trade cannot satisfy the demand generated in the Far East. Sam argues that if the data is not available or made available, a precautionary principle should be applied before elephants are downlisted and legal trade is allowed.

Recently, we have seen worrying levels of rhino poaching, and some would argue that the way to end this trend is by allowing nations like South Africa to sell their stockpiles, and for private rhino owners to sell horns as well. The rationale is that by flooding the market with legal products, the poaching will stop. South Africa is similarly defending the right to sell lion bones to the Far East. We do not believe that such measures can begin to supply the demand by legal means; indeed it seems to stimulate further demand and thereby encourages poaching. There are just too few rhinos, lions, and elephants left to supply a booming market that does not discriminate between legal and poached products. Poaching must be stopped by using scientific information like Sam is gathering to pinpoint hotspots followed by enforcement and court cases to break up the syndicates and their local supporters. And the public must continue to play a significant role in calling for the necessary reforms. 

Image: 2002 Singapore ivory seizure, Benezeth Mutaboya

Posted by Pieter Kat at 13:38

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