An ever-increasing demand for ivory on Asia’s black market is creating conflicts across Africa and having a devastating effect on the elephant population there. According to a somber and in depth report published by the New York Times on Monday, the high price of ivory has now made elephant tusks akin to blood diamonds, a natural resource to be plundered at all costs. As a result, elephants are now being killed by the tens of thousands on an annual basis with poaching at its most rampant in over thirty years.
According to the article, ivory is now sold on the illegal underground market for more than $1000 per pound. That kind of cash has lured in organized crime syndicates in China that work with rebel resistance groups throughout Africa who obtain the ivory by hunting down and slaughtering elephants in the wild. The tusks of the animal are then smuggled out of the country and shipped to Asia, where it is used in the creation of ornamental goods. Ivory has long been seen as a symbol of wealth and status in that part of the world and it has grown in demand with a rising middle-class, particularly in China.
It isn’t just outlaws and mob bosses that are caught up in the ivory trade, however. The armies of some African nations are also likely being used in poaching operations as well. The Times says that armies from Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan have all been implicated in the poaching of elephants. The article even implies that Ugandan soldiers have employed the use of military helicopters to hunt down and kill elephants inside the neighboring DRC. Those soldiers are blamed for the slaughter of a herd of 22 elephants that took place in April.And where is all of this ivory going? For the most part it ends up in China. It is estimated that 70% of the ivory finds its way into that country and last year more than 150 Chinese citizens were arrested in Africa on charges of smuggling ivory. Experts feel that if China cracked down on the demand for ivory amongst its growing middle-class, the systematic poaching of elephants would drop off dramatically.
For their part, most of the African nations try to protect their elephant herds as much as possible. Those herds are generally found inside national parks, which are of course protected lands. But those countries don’t have enough manpower, money or other resources to patrol those large sections of wilderness, thus poachers can come and go almost with impunity. When they are caught in the act, however, it often results in a bloody conflict between anti-poaching units and the outlaws, who are often very well armed.
Just how badly has the elephant population been hurt by the ivory trade? No one knows exactly for sure, but in the Congo’s Garamba National Park the creatures once numbered in excess of 20,000. Today it is believed that just 2400 still freely wander that region, which was also once home to the white rhino. Sadly, that species has already been hunted to extinction within the park as poachers harvested rhino horns, which are also in high demand across Asia.
Reading the New York Times piece is both shocking and sad. Having seen elephants in the wilds of Africa with my own eyes I found it impossible to not be struck by the intelligence and nobility of those animals. It is hard to believe that in the 21st century man’s greed could possibly see the last of these creatures roaming free.