The latest CITES report states that overall elephant poaching in Africa gradually declines for fifth year in a row. But… global illegal ivory trade transactions remain as high as in previous 6 years, with record-numbers of large-scale ivory seizures reported in 2016.

So what effect has that had one the African elephant population? Africa’s elephant populations continue to fall due to continued illegal killing, land transformation and rapid human expansion.

Here are the facts at a glance from the report:

  • Elephant poaching in Africa gradually declines for the fifth year, and drops in eastern Africa to pre-2008 levels
  • Illegal killing, land transformation and rapid human expansion reasons for the continuing population decline
  • Elephant populations in southern Africa stable or increasing
  • Record-numbers of large-scale ivory seizures reported in 2016
  • Ivory processing in Africa for smuggling of finished products to Asia on the rise
  • Domestic legal markets being closed and ivory price dropping
ivory seizures in Kenya

Ivory seizures in Kenya

John E. Scanlon, CITES Secretary-General, said: “Eastern Africa has been badly affected by the surge in poaching over the last ten years, and has experienced an almost 50% reduction in elephant population. There has however been a steady decline in poaching levels and this shows us what is possible through sustained and collective front-line enforcement and demand reduction efforts, coupled with strong political support.”

Graph via Cites

Elephant Populations

While Tanzania remains the sub-region’s stronghold for elephant populations, elephant numbers recorded in Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda are also stable or on the rise.

In southern Africa, Botswana still maintains the largest elephant population of any country in Africa. Elephant numbers in Namibia and South Africa have also increased according to the latest conservation status data on African elephants.

The news is not so positive for Central Africa: dramatic losses of elephant populations have been reported over 10 years, and levels of illegal killing remain very high.

Photo via CITES

Panic Ivory Sales

In 2016, nearly 40 tonnes of ivory were seized. The same year also saw the greatest number of illegal ivory seizures reported. The overall weight of seized ivory is now nearly three times greater than 2007.

“The upward trend may reflect a scaled up enforcement effort by customs, police and a more vigilant transport sector. There could also be time lags between poaching elephants and trafficking their ivory, or the entry into the illegal trade of ivory stockpiles,” said Scanlon.

“But the spike in 2016 may also indicate that ivory trafficking has been influenced by the prospect of greater controls, the imminent domestic ban in several countries and anticipation of continued drop of price. The international syndicates may be involved in a panic sell-off as they realize that speculating on extinction was a bad bet, with the an ever increasing risk of getting caught,” he added.

Elephants by Chobe river in Botswana

Elephants by Chobe river in Botswana. Photo: Botswana Tourism

Changes in the markets for ivory

The United States announced its near total ban on domestic ivory trade just before CoP17. China (including Hong Kong SAR) has announced the closure of domestic ivory markets within a specific time frame, and the UK has expressed its intention to do so. Recent reports from NGOs also claim that the price of ivory has plummeted over 50% in the past few years.

In the first World Wildlife Crime Report (published by UNODC), there is evidence that raw ivory tusks that have entered into the destination markets in Asia already exceeded the level of consumption.

These somewhat conflicting phenomena are occurring with governments making efforts to implement National Ivory Action Plans under CITES in 20 countries. More political commitments and collective international efforts has been seen in the past few years, including by the transport sector. There is additional funding for combatting illicit wildlife trade crime, tightened anti-poaching efforts and the use of new technologies to detect and interdict illegally traded ivory.

Wildlife traffickers – how are they responding?

Wildlife traffickers in the illegal trade are also evolving. For eg, although 2016 sets the record in the number of large scale seizures and overall weight, it is also the year with the lowest average weight per seizure recorded in the past 6 years. This could be due to a smaller size of large shipments to avoid losses when seized, greater diversification in the types of ivory illegally traded, modes of transport used, and local market developments.

There is also increasing evidence of ivory processing in Africa by Asian nationals for export to Asia. This involves smaller volumes of worked ivory carried through air check-in and carry-on luggage or couriers. Adequate enforcement efforts are yet to be deployed.

Also, an increasing number of elephants are being illegally killed through human elephant conflicts, which will become of increasing concern over coming years.

It’s just not enough

“The global collective effort is starting to reap positive results, but we are certainly not there yet. We must drive home the advantage we have while the political momentum is with us and the financial and technical support that goes with it. The African elephant gains is not across all regions, with some local populations still under serious threat, and other species increasingly being targeted by transnational criminals, especially high value timber,” concluded Scanlon.

In response to the CITES research, Dr Colman O Criodain, WWF Wildlife Policy Manager, said: While some regions are showing promising signs that frontline efforts to prevent poaching are working, in hotspots, such as Central Africa, the killing of elephants for their tusks continues unabated.

There has been an increasing number of seizures of smaller quantities, suggesting that the agile and adaptable traffickers are trying to find ways of avoiding detection. Unfortunately, this is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg: the amount of illegal ivory in consumer markets at any given time is only a fraction of the stockpiles accumulated by the traffickers. This underlines the need for combined global efforts so that we can be one step ahead.

Strides are being made to close legal ivory markets, with China – the world’s biggest legal and illegal market for ivory – phasing out all legal sales by the end of the year. Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand are also taking steps to strengthen legislation against ivory trade. The emphasis is now on ensuring that legislation banning or restricting ivory sales is rigorously enforced, and that remaining legal loopholes that allow trade to continue – in Lao PDR, for example – are closed.

With an average of 55 elephants being killed every day, there is no time to waste, we must act now.”

Source: CITES

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