Ivory pillage in Africa has become even more pronounced in Africa than in the previous decades. The population of African elephants is estimated to have declined by 150 000 over the past ten years. Eastern Africa, for example, has experienced an almost 50% reduction in its elephant population.
Just this week, authorities in the south-eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo were reported to have seized one and a half tonnes of elephant ivory. The smuggled tusks were discovered aboard trucks in the city of Lubumbashi. The seizure marks one of the largest in Africa in years as the battle against illegal tusk trafficking rages on.
The sad statistics of the loss of the popular African jumbo to mostly Asian countries comes at a time when the looting of natural resources continues to hold sway in the region. China is understood to be the main destination of the African elephant be it by legal or illegal ivory trafficking. The illegal ivory market is also heavily pronounced in Japan, Singapore and Taiwan. It comprises private individuals, companies, religious and cultural groups. The latter group is said to be motivated by the spiritual significance of the elephant ivory in preparing native medicine. Private individuals and some companies deal extensively in ivory trade for making jewellery and ornaments.
Illicit ivory trade tends to hold sway given the porosity of most of African boarder ports. This is explained under the mischief of towns and middlemen. In this uncouth exercise, locals actively partake in the mass exodus of ivory within Africa, facilitating its movement in and out of the region and beyond. The Ugandan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudanese border triangle is an example of one of these nodes.
Through this channel, ivory comes from the Central African Republic, South Sudan and DRC, and is smuggled into the Ugandan border town of Arua near the Congolese border. This town links together ivory suppliers, buyers, and transporters, and acts as a storage place. When the ivory lands in regional storages, it is reported that it is then transported to destined countries with a lucrative pay cheque in Asia.
Over the past eight years, the price of ivory has gone up from about $100 per kilogram ($100 per 2.2 pounds) to $2,500. The ever-increasing value of the tusks is also understood to be the main reason for the upward elephant poaching trend in Africa. The Centre for Conservation Biology estimates that the illegal trade is about 100 times the legal trade, with a value of $264 million over the past decade.
The Chinese city of Putian is where most of the ivory smuggled from Africa lands itself. Some of the buyers have no idea of the source of the ivory and are said not to care about the source. The ivory and the payment are the essentials in this murky trade. In Kenya, the pastoral tribesmen who were once supposed to be protecting the elephants from poachers are also participating in this trade. The local poachers make use of poison arrows, an identity factor that reflects local participation in facilitating illegal ivory trade.
Hidden in containers of mundane consumer products like cell phone parts, ivory is transported through as many as a half-dozen countries between Africa and Asia to avoid detection. Shipping documents are forged, and the Asian gangs who control the trade often bribe customs officials to smooth the journey.
A global ban on the ivory trade in 1989 briefly halted their demise. But the ban's initial success has been undermined by a booming demand for ivory among Asian consumers, a decline in law enforcement budgets and a thriving black market that takes advantage of rampant corruption in many African countries.
Given the high value income that comes with ivory trade, African governments should consider investing in ring-fencing its natural resources from pillage. Ivory is a key resource that Africa can tap in in order to enhance and develop the lives of the locals.