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New Market for the African Elephant

Published in The East African Nation media 7-13 October 2017

Laos in Southeast Asia, virtually unheard of in Africa is now the leading retailer in ivory, mostly sourced from recently poached elephants in Africa

Laos is now the hot-spot for rich Chinese tourists to gamble and purchase things they can’t do so easily at home – like jewellery and carvings from elephant ivory, rhino horn and consume wild animal products from endangered species – like tigers and bears.

Much of the ivory smuggled by criminal syndicates from Africa is processed into Buddhist items such as rosaries and figures of Gwan Yin - the Goddess of compassion, for Chinese customers Copyright Lucy Vigne

Much of the ivory smuggled by criminal syndicates from Africa is processed into Buddhist items such as rosaries and figures of Gwan Yin – the Goddess of compassion, for Chinese customers Copyright Lucy Vigne

When China cracked down on the ivory market recently at home, it seemed a saving grace for Africa’s elephants. But all it did was shift the retail market to neighbouring Vietnam, Thailand and Laos.

Now Laos which historically was the poor cousin of China, is beginning to boom with Chinese investors and Chinese infrastructure and is no longer the preserve of budget backpackers. Rich Chinese tourists check into opulent addresses with cocky names like Kings Romans to shop for ivory merchandise and gamble away.

“Laos is the fastest growing ivory market in the world,” stated Dr Esmond Bradley Martin who has been monitoring the illegal trade in rhino horn and elephant ivory for the last four decades. Between 2013 and 2016 Chinese-owned retail outfits selling ivory has increased significantly with 80 per cent of the ivory seen being bought by Chinese visitors from the mainland to smuggle back home.

This growing retail market in Laos is the latest threat to the African elephant.

Commissioned by Save The Elephants (STE), Martin and his long-tern colleague Lucy Vigne have been researching the illegal trade that’s been wiping out the last of the world’s mega-herbivores from many areas. In their new report ‘The ivory trade of Laos: now the fastest growing in the world’, published by STE, law enforcement is non-existent, making it easy to smuggle large items of ivory – many machine-made in Vietnam and Thailand – to newly opened Chinese shops selling mainly to Chinese customers. It’s bizarre but items range from rosaries and Buddha figurines – sacred objects carved from elephants slaughtered for their ivory.

For the rhino figurines, with the weight on its base - illegal ivory items are being mass produced without artistic merit  Copyright Lucy Vigne

For the rhino figurines, with the weight on its base – illegal ivory items are being mass produced without artistic merit Copyright Lucy Vigne

Between the customer and the seller, it’s hard for them to picture the brutal slaughtering that’s wiping out the elephant for the trinkets traded.

“It’s incredible that Laos has been getting away with this, and it’s been worsening for several years now,” said Vigne, showing images of Laos where the cross-border trade using the Mekong River and through far-flung mountainous ranges makes it easy to smuggle products of wildlife.

Ivory Prices

The report shows that in late 2013, the wholesale price of ivory sold by traders in Laos peaked at US$ 2,000/kg while in 2016, it declined to USS$ 714/kg – attributed to the slowdown in China’s economy.

But despite this recent decline in price for ivory, the supply out of Africa has remained consistent.

In many poverty-ridden African countries like Mozambique, Tanzania, Cameroon and Gabon – poachers see no opportunities to engage in other – so to speak, careers. It matters little to them when prices in the international market drop. At the lowest level, a three-man gang of poachers receive as little as US$ 150 for a kilo of ivory. According to the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) data, the average tusk weight of seized ivory is 5 kilogrammes – and that for the poorest link in the chain, is the much-needed income.

According to Iain Douglas-Hamilton, in recent years 20,000 elephants have been poached every year. Kenya seems to have cracked down on poaching and its elephant population is increasing in the north where since 2015 there have been more babies born than elephants dying.

“But,” he continued, “There are really bad places where elephant numbers are going down.

“Selous had the largest known population in Africa – 100,000 but by 2013 the population was 13,000. The situation in Mozambique is really bad; in Zimbabwe along the Zambezi Valley it’s devastating; in Kruger which has the best protection there’s been an upsurge while in Gabon which has 60 per cent of Africa’s forest elephants, the situation is dire.

“We must do something to stop this urgently,” stated the veteran elephant crusader.

Dropping Figures

In 1979 there were an estimated 1.3 million African elephants. By 1989 only 600,000 remained. In 2010, the total had dropped to an estimated 470,000 according to IUCN’s African Elephant Specialist Group. about 415,000 remain. The loss of nearly a million elephants in a decade was due primarily to illegal killing for ivory for the international trade. Habitat loss is a second important factor: since 1970 human population has nearly tripled in elephant range states.

Despite governments banning the international trade in ivory since 1990, the illegal trade is rife with China the biggest market.

“But it’s a tiny percentage of the Chinese involved in this trade, something like one per cent,” informs Douglas-Hamilton. But as one of the world’s most populous nation – 1.379 billion as at 2016  – the one per cent translates to a ready market of 13,790,000 people – a number that can’t be ignored.

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