African elephants are being slaughtered for their ivory at a rate unprecedented since an international convention banning ivory trade took effect in 1989, a University of Washington biologist says.
The problem is so serious that the giant creatures might be on the path to extinction unless western nations reinstate strong enforcement efforts that all but halted black-market ivory trade in the four years immediately after the ban was enacted, said Samuel Wasser, director of the UW Center for Conservation Biology. He is the lead author of a paper detailing the problem published the week of Feb. 26 in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and he argues the continued loss of elephants will have serious consequences.
"Elephants are majestic animals and are not trivial to the ecosystem. They are a keystone species and taking them out significantly alters the habitat," he said. "It has ripple effects on lots of different species."
For the year ending in August 2006, authorities seized more than 23,400 kilograms, or nearly 24 tons, of contraband ivory, Wasser said. But the paper notes it is commonly assumed that customs agents typically detect only about 10 percent of contraband, so the actual amount of poached ivory probably is closer to 234,000 kilograms. That means more than 23,000 elephants, or about 5 percent of Africa's total population, likely were killed for that amount of ivory.
China's burgeoning economy is a major force driving the black-market ivory trade, escalating prices and attracting organized crime, Wasser said. In 1989 a kilogram of high-quality ivory sold for $100 on the black market. That rose to $200 in 2004 but by last year had ballooned to $750 per kilogram.
"If it really is organized crime that's driving this, then the only hope we have of stopping it is to stop the ivory at the source, to not let it into the international market. Because once it's in the international market, the trade is very hard to stop," Wasser said.
He and colleagues at the UW are working with other scientists and law enforcement agencies, primarily Interpol, to track the source of poached ivory. In June 2002 authorities in Singapore seized a 20-foot container packed with 6.5 tons of contraband ivory bound for the Far East from Malawi. It was the second-largest seizure of contraband ivory on record, the largest since the 1989 ban took effect, and represented ivory from 3,000 to 6,500 poached elephants. Authorities assumed the ivory had been collected from many different places, especially from forest elephants, but the assumption proved to be incorrect.
Over several years, Wasser and his colleagues have collected genetic information from a variety of populations by sampling tissue and dung from known populations, then compiled the information into a DNA-based map showing genetic differences between elephant populations. Using that information, the scientists grouped the tusks by common characteristics and then sampled randomly from those groups. They examined 67 tusks from the 532 seized in Singapore and showed that the ivory came from elephants on Africa's broad savannahs, not in forests. Further testing showed the ivory came from a small area of southern Africa, most likely centered on Zambia. Law enforcement agencies have identified many participants in the poaching, yet not one person has been prosecuted, Wasser said.
The tusks in the seized shipment weighed an average of 11 kilograms apiece, more than twice the weight normally seen in the market, indicating they came from a large number of older elephants. The shipment also contained 42,000 hankos, small blocks of solid ivory used to make signature stamps, or chops, that are widely used in the Far East, particularly in China and Japan.
Wasser noted that shortly before the seizure, Zambia had petitioned for permission to sell its ivory stockpiles internationally, stockpiles that were supposed to have existed before the international ban took effect in 1989. But the application said only 135 elephants were known to have been killed illegally in Zambia in the previous 10 years, far fewer than would have had to be slaughtered to produce the ivory in just the single seizure in 2002.
The paper's co-authors are Matthew Stephens, formerly of the UW and now at the University of Chicago; Celia Mailand and Rebecca Booth of the UW; Benezeth Mutayoba of the Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania; Emily Kisamo of the Lusaka Agreement Task Force in Kenya; and Bill Clark of the Interpol Working Group on Wildlife Crime and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. The work was funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service African Elephant Conservation Fund, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Center for Conservation Biology.
The authors wonder how a poor nation such as Zambia, with only slight international assistance, can fend off organized criminals fueled by the booming Far East economy, and they argue that Western nations must resume efforts to halt ivory trafficking. They note that western nations contributed heavily to enforcement efforts when the international ban took effect in 1989, and in the next four years poaching was virtually eliminated. But the success apparently left a sense that the problem was solved and the nations withdrew their funding.
Wasser and colleagues want to see reinstatement of strong enforcement, and also want to see education programs established to teach people in Africa to better manage their wildlife and persuade people in Asia not to use ivory, much of which is obtained illegally.
"If people really realized what is happening they would be ashamed to be part of the crisis," he said. "We don't want to spend our time catching criminals, we want to stop the crime from happening. That's the most effective enforcement you can do."
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