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Black-market boom for ivory

May 15, 2007 By Lucy Odling-Smee This article courtesy of Nature News.

African proposal to ban all trade may not be the answer.

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Sophisticated smuggling syndicates are driving a soaring trade in illegal ivory from Africa to Asia, according to a new report.

The find from TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade-monitoring arm of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN), comes as representatives of some 20 African nations are working together to propose a two-decade complete ban on ivory trading.

A similar worldwide ban was put in place in 1989. But from 1997 a number of ammendments to this rule have allowed for the sale of some ivory under special circumstances.

Some think that this partial lifting of the ban essentially gave a green light to poachers, explains Bob Barn, a statistician at Reading University, UK, who helped to analyse the data in the recent TRAFFIC study. If that is true, one might expect the African proposal to reinstate a full ban to be effective at stemming illegal trade.

But, says Barn, there is no evidence in the new study that trade boomed as a result of these ammendments. Instead, he says, growing markets in Asia seem to be the reason behind the increase in trade. "What the ivory trade depends on is demand," he says.

The African proposal, along with the results of the TRAFFIC study, will be heard at the meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) next month.

Patchy data

Trying to infer something about trends in an illegal trade is riddled with difficulties because so much of the data is incomplete or subject to bias. The TRAFFIC team mainly relied on government-provided information recorded since 1989 as part of the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS). This includes data from more than 12,000 ivory seizures from 82 countries, including the size of the seizures, where the shipment had come from and where it was headed.

To factor in sources of bias, such as differences in law-enforcement efforts and accuracy of reporting, the team threw a mass of other variables into the mix, including corruption indices for each country providing the data.

Overall, it looks as though there's been a steep upturn in illegal ivory trading since 2004, with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon and Nigeria being most heavily involved. Much of the ivory discovered has been destined for China, although Japan and Thailand are also important destinations. The volume of ivory seized — probably just a fraction of the overall trade — shot up from about 10,000 kilograms in 2004 to more than double that in 2006.

Chinese markets

Crawford Allan, director of TRAFFIC North America, speculates that China's booming economy is the main driving force behind the recent surge. More wealth means more spare cash for luxury items such as ivory carvings and chopsticks, he says. And with Chinese industries, from oil to timber, setting up shop in Africa, there are ample opportunities for Chinese businessmen to establish smuggling networks.

"This is the third analysis that we've done that heavily implicates China," says Tom Milliken, director of TRAFFIC's Africa programme and leader of the study. He adds that China has started to more stringently police the illegal trade since the first TRAFFIC report in 2002 highlighted problems in that country. As a result police seizures are on the rise. "In 2003, China reported a total of 17 seizures since 1989; that went up to 435 in 2006," he says.

In May last year, 6.5 tonnes of ivory was seized in Hong Kong, the bounty from thousands of slaughtered elephants. That stash was found behind false walls of steel containers — suggesting sophisticated crime networks with substantial financial backing. "Ivory trading is becoming a much more sophisticated operation than we've seen before," says Allan.

The moratorium proposed by 20 African states is not the answer says Sue Lieberman, director of WWF's Global Species Programme. She argues that allowing some amount of trading gives countries an incentive to "clean up their act" and properly regulate the market. "What's needed is to put energy into cracking down on the illegal trade," she says.

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