We live in an era of mass extinction. And this time, it happens to be largely caused by humans.
As climate change, pollution, loss of wild areas and poaching threaten our wildlife, the plight of mega-herbivores such as elephants and rhinos has become particularly poignant and tragic. If in India habitat loss and fragmentation has threatened their survival, in African countries militarised poaching and criminal trade are driving them to extermination.
We are witnessing an illicit wildlife trade that is worth anything between hundreds of millions of dollars to $ 5 billion — placing it in fourth place after drugs, weapons trafficking and human trafficking on the transnational crimes scene. A shocking 24,000 elephants were killed in 2015 (that is approximately the entire elephant population of India) and 1,342 rhinos were poached in the same year. The cost of a kilogram of ivory has reportedly shot up from $750 in 2010 to $2100 in four years. Rhino horn, meanwhile, is today sold at $ 29,000 a kilogram. At this rate, the African elephant might well go the way of the mammoth in less than 20 years — hunted out of existence. Rhinos too seem to be on their way out. As many as 183 nations have signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) but that appears to mean little in terms of effectively addressing this tragedy.
While there is a dire need for better protection, monitoring and equipping guards to manage the supply side of this horrendous trade and addressing the demand side of this equation is of equal importance. The smuggling routes of these criminal syndicates, operating between Africa and Asia, needs greater discussion.
According to TRAFFIC and other organisations monitoring wildlife trade, ivory and rhino horns leave Africa in containers smuggled as normal merchandise and reach their destinations in Asia. Often, ports in Malaysia and Singapore serve as transhipment points. Recent undercover investigations by the The Hague-based Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC) has discovered that an obscure town in the north of Vietnam called Nhi Khe has become a powerful trading hub for illegal wildlife trade. Social media platforms like WeChat and Facebook are used to openly sell smuggled wildlife parts. Even bank transfers form part of the transactions and account numbers are flaunted explicitly on social media sites. In the one year that WJC did its investigation, illegal trade to the tune of $53.1 million had taken place in Vietnam, involving rhino horn, ivory and tiger parts. Rhino horn constituted the largest component of the trade — worth $42 million. While it is used as an ingredient in traditional medicine, the horn — and bangles and cups made from it — has become a status symbol and a sure sign of wealth.
At the recent Hanoi Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade, the international community urged the host government to use its criminal justice system effectively to curb this dangerous trade. Youth delegations from South Africa, where rhinos have been butchered to meet the insatiable demand for their horns, have travelled to Vietnam to spread the message about the herbivore’s vulnerability. There have been success stories about demand reduction. In the 80s, Japan was a major consumer of ivory; today it uses a tiny fraction. Taiwan is another country where trade in wildlife parts has been curbed. In China, where considerable demand exists, the government has a promised a crackdown on illegal trade but rogue actors seem to be running amok.
It was in 1989 that the CITES-sponsored total ban on ivory trade came into effect. Elephant populations did see a recovery. But the last decade has taken their population to a precipice. Shipments via and from Europe are making the situation difficult. In Britain, the Tory party promised a total ivory ban in their manifestos in the last two elections, but did nothing . In the 19th century, England witnessed an ‘ivory frenzy’ as a growing middle class craved ivory-carved combs, mirrors, piano keys and billiard balls. An estimated 1.1 million elephants were killed between 1860 and 1920 (the US, by 1913 was also consuming nearly 200 tonnes of ivory annually) to feed this frenzy. A total ban on ivory trade, by the United Kingdom, like the one adopted by India, will greatly help in mitigating this crisis.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Africa had 26 million elephants and today we may have far, far less than a million. They represent a 60 million year lineage that included four tuskers, shovel tuskers, mammoths and mastodons — mega-herbivores that shaped life on earth. And if the last of these elephants disappeared, the earth would be a poorer place.
A. Rangarajan is a freelance writer.