By Bee-Elle – ABC News
We are driving across Africa’s lush savannah and my eyes scan the horizon for silhouettes of wildlife.
Here in Amboseli, Kenya, swamps and marshes exist alongside dusty plains and shimmering salt pans. When the clouds part, the continent’s tallest mountain, Mt Kilimanjaro, reveals itself.
Without warning I hear the rustle of leaves by the roadside and the crack of a branch reverberates through the air. A large bull elephant emerges, his impressive tusks wedged into the fork of the acacia tree as he breaks off a tasty snack.
The elephant looks satisfied and saunters out of the bushes. He turns towards me and stops, assessing me for more than the usual few seconds. His eyes are warm and gentle, his trunk extended to detect my scent.
He is standing just metres away from me. But in the presence of this huge, wild animal I feel a comforting sense of calm emanating from him. I held his thoughtful gaze. A silent acknowledgement perhaps? An understanding, a connection?
After some time, the elephant turns slowly and ambles into the scrub.
A few weeks later in the semi-arid terrain of Tsavo, a few hundred kilometres east, I am scanning the horizon again.
A large shadow, like a boulder, appears on the ground. It takes a moment to register that this is an elephant lying on its side. Its stomach has been torn open by vultures and its entrails are spilling onto the ground.
The soil is stained with dark blood.
The elephant’s entire face is missing, hacked off by poachers who killed it for its ivory tusks.
Impossible to understand
After many years photographing elephants in the wild I find it increasingly impossible to understand how human greed to own objects made from tusks continues, now with full knowledge that these gentle giants are on the edge of extinction.
The ivory trade takes the lives of about 35,000 mostly African elephants each year. Most are caught in poaching hotspots across central and east Africa. Up to 70 per cent of tusks are destined for China.
With less than 415,000 African elephants left on the planet, these animals could become extinct within a generation.
The situation highlights how market forces can bring a species that has evolved over tens of millions of years to the brink of extinction.
Why haven’t bans worked?
What isn’t as clear, however, is why after hundreds of millions of dollars has been invested in fighting the poaching crisis, including the introduction of bans, the trade is still not slowing down.
Poaching elephants for their tusks in the 1970s and 1980s cut their numbers by half in what was labelled the “elephant holocaust”.
In response, the international ivory trade was banned in 1989.
Since then several countries, even China, have banned domestic sales.
Later, when elephant populations seemed to have stabilised slightly, the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) permitted two one-off sales of ivory stockpiles in 1997 and 2008.
Looking back we can now see that these sales marked the devastating moment that the war against ivory began to unravel.
These two sales of existing ivory, rather than purging demand, instead served to highlight the size of the market for ivory and opened the way for an illegal ivory trade to flourish.
Ivory seizures sky-rocketed and triggered a poaching crisis: 30 per cent of the world’s elephants were lost in seven years.
Since then, the international ban remains intact and no further stockpile sales have been permitted.
Yet banning the international trade of ivory is of little use if legal domestic trade continues to exist as it creates a potential cover for the trade of illicit ivory when new ivory is passed off as antique. This perpetuates an idea of ivory as valuable and desirable which could in turn fuel demand.
At last Australia has weighed in
Radiocarbon dating tests conducted by Oxford University have found that samples of ivory passed off as antiques in Europe were actually from recently-killed elephants in Africa.
A similar situation could exist in Australia.
Australia’s Environment Minister Sussan Ley announced last month that Australia will ban the domestic trade of ivory and horn.
The message was clear: we need to eliminate avenues for trading illegal ivory and end related activities, including money laundering, corruption and terrorism
But Australia’s domestic ban has been a long time coming and while good news it’s unclear what will be achieved.
Could bans actually increase poaching?
China’s domestic trade ban, announced in 2017, was a significant milestone in the global fight to protect the African elephant given that it came from the largest ivory market in the world.
Unfortunately trade bans can also stimulate the black market, which now forms the bulk of the trade.
Tusks are increasingly being traded cheaply in neighbouring countries, where legal enforcements are weak.
Laos is the fastest-growing ivory market in the world, while Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia show strong growth.
Demand from these countries threatens to reduce the impact of China’s ban, or worse still, reverse it.
So if ivory is illegal how is it traded?
DNA studies have shown how quickly ivory can move from Africa, where it is poached, to Asia where it is sold.
This highlights the fluid nature of the trade network that is controlled by highly organised criminal syndicates.
The major export trafficking hubs are in Mombasa, Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar with the bulk of the ivory arriving in China via Shuidong in the Guangdong province.
Bribes are used along the supply chain to ensure a blind eye is turned so that tusks can be smuggled across borders and through ports. Government corruption is another problem that hampers efforts to stop the trade.
Poachers receive around $70 per kilogram of ivory, a substantial proportion of an average salary. This wholesale ivory typically sells at around $700/kg, sometimes higher. The retail price is around 10 times higher than the value to poachers.
Can anything be done?
The demand in Asia needs to stop, through awareness campaigns of the destructive effects of the trade on some of the world’s most magnificent creatures.
African countries also need to take on a bigger role in curbing supply.
As poachers become more sophisticated, using helicopters, military-grade weapons, night-vision goggles and GPS equipment, the methods needed to track them down are becoming increasingly militarised.
Anti-poaching groups use drone technology, DNA testing and radiocarbon dating to gather insights into poaching hotspots and trade flows that are then passed on to law enforcement agencies.
This intelligence needs to be shared between Asia and Africa. Fighting corruption to ensure supply chains are disrupted also needs to be prioritised. Then better wildlife protection laws, and improved judicial systems on wildlife protection laws and heavier penalties also need to be agreed.
Local community education and awareness initiatives to creative alternative livelihoods in Africa need to continue, while promoting the importance of human-wildlife coexistence and provide the wildlife with the protections they deserve.
Perhaps most importantly, stronger political commitment to protect the elephant across all governments is needed to ensure they have every chance of surviving beyond a couple of decades.
We need to deploy the level of sophistication and strategy needed to fight in war or terrorism. If we don’t, the very real possibility is clear: elephants will be gone within a generation.
The countdown continues.
Bee-Elle is an Australian photographer specialising in wildlife and conservation advocacy.