Elephant tusks and rhinoceros horns are being smuggled into China from Africa in growing numbers by transnational gangs in spite of law enforcement efforts, pointing to a need for greater public awareness to reduce demand for the prized items sought for their ornamental value or for traditional medicine, activists and officials say.
In October, a major ivory seizure in Hong Kong uncovered roughly four tons of ivory products valued at more than U.S. $3.4 million, and believed by animal welfare groups to have been taken from as many as 500 elephants.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), with offices in China, estimates that 25,000-50,000 elephants were killed for their ivory in 2011, says IFAW Asia Regional Director Grace Ge Gabriel.
“Rhino poaching is also on the rise,” Gabriel said.
“South Africa has seen over 300 rhinos killed in 2010, 400 rhinos killed last year, and this year already 400 rhinos slaughtered by poachers.”
“Most illegal ivory is destined for Asia, in particular China, where it has soared in value as an investment vehicle and is coveted as “white gold,” Gabriel said.
The trade in illegal ivory and in rhino horns—which are often used in fraudulent medical remedies—is spread throughout China, and especially in wealthier urban areas, Gabriel said.
In auction markets alone last year, Gabriel said, 11,100 pieces of ivory were sold in China at an estimated value of U.S. $94 million—an increase of more than 100 percent from 2010. And 2,750 pieces of rhino horn were auctioned for a total value of U.S. $179 million.
African governments are working hard to reduce the traffic, but in many cases find themselves “outgunned” by the well-organized criminal gangs supplying the trade, said U.S. Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Robert Hormats.
“It’s clearly a bigger problem than many of us even a year or two ago had thought it was, in terms of volume, in terms of the number of animals killed, in terms of just the sheer amount of money that is made with illegal wildlife trafficking.”
“After the arms trade and the drug trade, this is the third most lucrative trade of illegal items around the world,” Hormats said.
To help reduce the trade, Hormats said, the United States assists in awareness and enforcement efforts with groups such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Wildlife Enforcement Network and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-sponsored Asia’s Response to Endangered Species Trafficking (ARREST).
“We’re eagerly anticipating additional cooperation with other governments and with NGOs, and also with outside groups that are simply concerned about this.”
What is most needed now is “public education—to explain to people that when they see these pretty ivory figures in a store, that an elephant died,” Hormats said, adding that consumers should also be aware that ground-up rhinoceros horns are not real medicine.
“And this is not an attack on traditional Chinese medicine, because some traditional Chinese medicine is very effective,” Hormats said.
Ultimately, greater public awareness of the problem is key to reducing the slaughter of endangered species, agreed Peter Knights, executive director of the wildlife advocacy group WildAid, which has enlisted the help of Chinese basketball star Yao Ming in publicity efforts.
“We need to make consumption of these products socially unacceptable in consuming countries,” Knights said.
“The effort now needs to be in enforcing laws in consuming countries and raising awareness to reduce demand there.”
Reported by Richard Finney.