By Elena Bersacola and Magdalena Svensson
Destruction of stocks of illegal ivory has been prevalent news in the media lately.
Most recently it was Hong Kong announcing the intention to crush 28 tons of its illegally smuggled ivory to show support for the fight against wildlife trafficking.
The first conviction of its kind in China occurred in May 2013, when a court sentenced a licensed dealer to 15 years in prison after he was found importing and selling illegal ivory products.
While this is encouraging news and shows promising signs from authorities, especially in China, the world’s largest ivory importer, it is far from the full story.
Just a week after the ivory destruction ceremony in China, a report on the ivory trade near the Chinese border in Myanmar was made public by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network. The TRAFFIC team discovered large quantities of mainly African ivory on sale in the market town of Mong La. The team, including our colleague Professor Vincent Nijman, found some 3,300 pieces of carved ivory and close to 50 raw ivory elephant tusks.
We made similar observations in September last year, when we traveled to Angola as part of a team from the UK-based Nocturnal Primate Research Group to survey nocturnal primates and other mammals in the northwest.
When moving between field sites, we observed a thriving bush meat trade. These observations prompted us to look more closely at the Angolan wildlife trade. We therefore decided to visit one of the largest craft markets in Luanda, the Benfica Mercado do Artesano.
Angola’s Benfica Market
Walking up to Benfica Mercado do Artesano, it was hard to imagine the buzzing commerce that occurred under the rusty tin roof. What we saw first, just outside the market, were several leopard skins hanging off the beams, right next to the busy road. The fact that a protected species was on display so visibly was a gruesome precursor of what was inside the market.
When we entered the market, we saw many wooden sculptures, paintings, colorful fabrics, and other craft products.
We soon realized that there were also a great amount of animal products for sale. These included marine turtle shells, many decorated with bright paintings or carvings, animal skins, teeth, and horns, and even the odd parrots and a blue monkey.
Ivory, Ivory, and More Ivory
Most shocking in Benfica was the staggering amount of ivory on offer, confined to a section containing some 30 tables. Elephant ivory was the most abundant product on sale, with a wide variety of items, including 50 raw tusks, 162 carved sculptures in all shapes and sizes, as well as 2,000 or more small objects. The ivory carvings took all forms, from large amounts of chopsticks and necklaces to bangles, name seals, rings, combs, knives, and earrings.
Prior our visit, there had been one report on the ivory trade in Angola, conducted by T. Milliken and colleagues in 2006 (“No Peace for Elephants,” TRAFFIC, Cambridge).
Like us, they found a significant and open ivory trade at the Benfica market, but ivory was also displayed for sale in several other locations in Luanda, including at five three and four star hotels and several shops, clearly targeting foreign buyers.
Where Is This Ivory Coming From?
In Angola, forest elephants are found only in Cabinda, an enclave situated between Congo and Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Savanna elephants are present in the northeast and southern regions, as well as in Kissama National Park just south of Luanda, where the population is estimated at 86 individuals, including translocated elephants from Botswana.
In 2007, the IUCN Species Survival Commission estimated the population of savanna elephants in Angola at about 1,700 individuals. But this estimate came from only 5 percent of the total possible range in Angola. Considering that at present we know virtually nothing about the elephant population in most of the animals’ range in Angola, the impacts of the illegal ivory trade could be of catastrophic dimensions.
Oddly, the size and shape of the tusks in Benfica suggest that most of that ivory was likely to have originated from forest elephants rather than the surrounding savanna elephants.
In their report, Milliken and his colleagues reasoned convincingly that the source was probably the northern neighboring countries of Congo and DRC.
Forest elephants throughout Central Africa have suffered a serious decline during the past decade, with the most catastrophic drop occurring in DRC (Maisels et al 2013).
DRC represents the most extensive forested area in Central Africa, and it was formerly the country with the largest number of forest elephants. Now forest elephants in DRC are found at very low densities in merely 5 percent of the total forested area.
If the Benfica ivory did indeed come from DRC, Angola would be directly contributing to the imminent extinction of the remaining forest elephant populations in DRC.
And Where Does the Ivory Go?
What was rather evident when we looked through the ivory in Benfica was that much of it was intended for an Asian clientele. There were many Buddha and dragon figurines, chopsticks, and typical Asian name seals. We also saw objects with Asian-like carvings, although they weren’t executed with the particular details typically seen in Asian sculpture.
In August last year more than a hundred kilograms (268 pounds) of ivory obtained in Angola were confiscated in Bangkok. That ivory appeared to be destined for Cambodia.
The Angolan illicit ivory trade routes are therefore likely to implicate a large number of countries, extending from the Congo Basin as far as East and Southeast Asia.
Will Angola’s Membership In CITES Help?
At the time of our survey, Angola was the only elephant range country that was not a signatory to CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).
The country did agree to partake in ETIS, the Elephant Trade Information System, which tracks the global trade in ivory, partly by analyzing seizure data from participating countries. Angola, however, has never submitted any reports to ETIS, suggesting that law enforcement with respect to ivory trade is absent.
In October 2013, one month after our visit, it was announced that Angola would become the 179th party to join CITES, in force at the end of December 2013.
Although this entry to CITES gives a glimmer of hope, it is hard to predict the real effect it will have on the national and international ivory trade.
At present Luanda represents a key intercontinental transit location for large-scale illegal ivory trading.
The Angolan authorities are now urged to overturn Luanda’s current role in the illicit trade by increasing law enforcement significantly and reporting fraudulent activities to international bodies. Specific controls at the airports could also play a great part in discouraging people from buying ivory and could raise awareness about the severity of this problem.
With a background in art and an MSc in Primate Conservation, Elena Bersacola is currently carrying out research on primates and ungulates in Africa and Southeast Asia. Magdalena Svensson has an MSc in Primate Conservation and has for the last seven years studied nocturnal mammals in Africa and the Neotropics.