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The African elephant, the largest animal on Earth, is under threat. Some herds are being decimated at an alarming rate. They are still being hunted for their ivory despite a trade ban in place for more than 20 years. These Ivory Wars are threatening the existence of these intelligent long-lived behemoths/

What is at the heart of the illegal killing of elephants in Africa can be summarised in one word – money.

Bull Elephant
Bull Elephant

Today, Malaysia is the latest country to emerge for ivory smuggling, but it’s just one of the many staging posts around the world in a multi-million-pound criminal trade.

So to understand the links in this chain, I’m going back to where it all begins – Africa.

Man has always hunted elephants here – for meat, sport and for ivory. Its tusks were traditionally used in carvings, piano keys and even false teeth. Today, some conservationists fear killings are so out of control that elephants could soon disappear forever in parts of the continent.

Ivory Wars

Kenya – is a popular Safari destination. Tourism is essential to the country’s economy. But even here in Samburu in the North, a place where elephants have recently thrived, there are alarming new signs, and sickening images that tourists rarely see. I’m following the trail left by elephant poachers. We’re on our way with Stephen, who is the conservation warden for the West Gate Community here, because nearby there is an elephant which has been killed. The carcass of which is, I think, not very far away. Death always brings this disgusting, high, sweet smell and it seems to hit you in the stomach and cling to your skin and you’re hair, but more than the smell, actually, it’s the shocking sight of this adult female elephant with her face having been hacked off because the poachers wanted to take the tusks.

Mutilated Elephant Carcass a victime of the ivory wars
Mutilated Elephant Carcass

Male elephants, due to the size of their tusks, are most vulnerable to the poacher’s snares and guns. The dead elephant was 35 to 40 years old, and pregnant. The warden thinks two poachers were involved in the slaughter. Just a few feet away lie the remains of the elephant’s dead baby. The ivory wars are a sickening business.

The carcass was found just outside the gates of Samburu National Reserve. It’s a base for Save The Elephants, a charity founded by Iain Douglas-Hamilton. Iain witnessed the decimation of Kenya’s herds in the 1970s and 1980s when numbers plummeted. They recovered after the ivory trade ban was agreed in 1989. But in the last three years, Samburu has lost a quarter of its elephants, in large part due to poaching. Poaching has an enormous impact on the herd as a whole. Elephants live in a matriarchal family were females lead the group and the loss of a herd member has a profound impact.

Save the Elephants

It’s a constant battle, in the ivory wars, to try and stay one step ahead of the criminals. Gilbert Sabinga works for Save The Elephants. He is mapping where poachers have been active as part of a system called MIKE. Technology is a vital tool in monitoring and protecting the animals, but it’s a huge challenge on the 165 square-kilometre reserve. Eight elephants are outfitted with a satellite collar. It sends text messages to a radio antenna and tracks their routes. If the signal stops moving for a matter of hours, it could be a sign of a poacher in the area, so the team spring into action. Today, Gilbert wants to check up on two matriarchs called Wendy and Mercury. The team wants to make sure their herds are safe from poachers active in the area.

Captured Tusks in the ivory wars
Captured Tusks

I’m on my way to see what the poachers after, raw tusks. They are locked away in the offices of the Kenyan Wildlife Service on the edges of Samburu. It’s a dangerous area. Just days before we arrived, people were shot in cattle-rustling skirmishes..

These captured tusks are at the very heart of this story of the trade in illegal ivory, and they’re a really pitiful sight, not just because you see the smashed-up blooded tusks, but they are also a reminder that no elephant is spared, from large bull elephants whose tusks weighing their luck 30 kg to little baby elephants whose tusks weigh no more than two kilograms.

So how do these poachers operate? It’s 5 AM. Andy Marshall, a former SAS officer, is head of security in charge of a 50-strong army. A dead elephant has been discovered on a private nature reserve of 100,000 acres. The owner has been attacked by poachers. Today, they are following a tip-off from an informer.

Hunting for Clues in the Ivory Wars

Andy suspects criminals have buried tusks from an elephant they killed ten days earlier. This morning, they hoped to catch one of the gang red-handed and recover the ivory. But they’re too late. The Ivory Wars are rapidly changing. The poachers fled the camp. Only a young boy is left behind. The team hunts for clues on the gang’s whereabouts.

Smuggling Suspect
Smuggling Suspect

This trail leads nowhere, but poaching is drawing in communities across Africa.

Zambia. On the outskirts of the capital Lusaka, they’re cracking down on the distributors and criminals. The authorities are stepping up enforcement in key nations all over Africa and Zambia is one of them. Interpol is launching its biggest ever operation against the illegal ivory trade, involving 14 countries across the continent. David Higgins is Interpol’s man on the ground, advising the hard-pressed local law enforcement.

This road is the main smuggling route for ivory poached from the nearby National Park into Lusaka. Today, officers have set up a roadblock. The operation includes officers from the Zambian wildlife authority, local police and customs and has been in planning for nearly a year. After three days, the first proper breakthrough. Officers prepare to arrest a suspected smuggler they have been tracking for two weeks. The officers are concerned he may be armed. The suspect is found with two raw tusks stashed under the bed, worth £2000.

Smuggling Syndicate

If found guilty, he could get anything from 5 to 15 years in jail. The officers get a break as they get more information about the gang. They set up a rendezvous with another of them, but they shoot the suspect’s tyres as he tries to flee. Inside his van, ivory, but more importantly, a wealth of intelligence on the smuggling syndicate.

For years the officers fighting the ivory wars have only known the suspect under an alias, but now they hope to discover his true identity. They take him at his home to search for details on his buyers and the rest of the network. The individual offered the officers a bribe of around $US20,000, which he would undoubtedly get from somebody higher up. Eventually they discover a passport and he is revealed as a citizen from the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. Officers plan further arrests. The suspect will be charged with smuggling and bribery.

Nairobi Airport ivory wars communication hub
Nairobi Airport

So far, the operation has led to numerous arrests as well as the seizure of ivory and guns, and more are expected. Official figures show increasing levels of poaching last year, the highest in a decade. The key is cracking the syndicates who move the ivory around the globe. Most of this plundered ivory is heading out of Africa.

Central Africa

At Nairobi’s international airport, Dick, the sniffer dog, is on a training exercise, searching for tusks. Kenya, with one of Africa’s biggest airports, is a smuggling hub in the ivory wars. Nearly 85% of ivory seized from around the world either comes from or passes through East Africa. And Kenya’s wildlife service has identified a startling link among the traffickers. 90% of all the people arrested at Kenyan airports ferrying ivory, are Chinese. And the destinations of all contraband ivory, is always neighbouring countries around China. Since 2007, the amount of the seized ivory has gone up by 800% in Kenya.

Mighty River Congo
Mighty River Congo

So which countries in Africa is most ivory coming from? Elephants are believed to exist in 37 sub-Saharan countries with numbers estimated at between 500,000 and 700,000 in southern and eastern Africa. Estimates, now five years old, suggest numbers were actually growing by 4% a year.

Forest Elephants trying to evade the ivory wars
Forest Elephants

But in central Africa where poaching is rife, it’s feared numbers are plummeting. There could be as few as 60,000 elephants left alive. Elephants are threatened by many factors from the loss of their natural habitat to the ever-growing human population. And monitoring also shows that elephant killings are on the rise, according to the man who oversees all the data. Poaching thrives where governments and security is weakest. The one place more than any other in Africa is synonymous with chaos and the destruction of its elephant population. The Congo.

Brutal Excesses of Colonialism

The Congo was once a byword for the most brutal excesses of colonialism and the ivory wars are at the heart of it all. Today it’s the failed state, blighted by a bitter civil war which has claimed millions of lives. And the ivory trade continues. The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of Africa’s largest country’s and it sits at the very heart of the continent, numerous reports say that the elephant population here is being hammered by poaching. The DRC has also consistently identified as one of the top countries linked with the illegal trade in ivory. Much of this ivory is from the forests of central Africa, sold openly in large unregulated markets in Kinshasa. These black markets provide an outlet for poachers, carvers and smugglers.

Within 24 hours of being here in Kinshasa, I’ve been offered ivory for sale and I’ve seen it being openly traded throughout the market, and what’s more my Chinese colleague, dealing with go-betweens, was offered very large pieces of ivory, in fact, whole tusks for sale and export. I never imagined it would be so easy to buy ivory here in Kinshasa.

Illegal Trade

At the heart of this trade is an elephant found primarily in the forests of central Africa. Smaller than their Savannah elephant cousins, their ivory is straighter and pinker. Hidden away, they are difficult to track, making it hard to attract tourists and money. This leaves them especially vulnerable to poachers. African elephants represent two species forest elephants and Savannah elephants. Genetically, they are as different as the lion and tiger. The Congo basin is thought to have once had over 100,000 elephants, but in the DRC today this could be fewer than 20,000. A possible new species under threat of extinction. Forest elephants are so important to this ecosystem. They are being annihilated and we can’t stop it.

Customs Cutter
Customs Cutter

The illegal trade in ivory seems to be booming in spite of a global ban. So what’s going wrong? The 1989 ban rules out international trade, but, domestically, countries regulate their own markets where some ivory can be sold. But 4 years ago, CITES, the body which oversees the wildlife trade, lifted the ban to allow four southern African countries to sell stockpiled ivory to China and Japan. Some say it was a move which changed everything.

When that trade ban was put into place ivory prices dropped and that, effectively, controlled poaching. However, as soon as that one-off sale was allowed, ivory prices start going up, people start wanting the ivory and then poachers start killing the elephants again.

Smuggling Gateway

Malaysia is one of the main gateways for smuggling contraband – cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and, of course, ivory. And in 16-month period alone, five seizures were made, amounting to six tons, the largest ever such haul in Malaysia. To put that into context, those six tons of ivory would have come from approximately 700 elephants.

China is the biggest importer, by weight, of illegal ivory in the world. I wanted to investigate China’s voracious appetite for ivory, its fascination with shaping, carving and trading it. Lee-Cheong Leung has been working and sculpting ivory for more than half a century. He is one of the last master carvers working in Hong Kong today.

Lee Cheong Leung
Lee Cheong Leung

Lee-Cheong Leung “I think this is linked to the traditional culture of the Chinese. When you look back at the history of China, spanning 3000 to 4000 years, when we dig and find things from the past, they are often made of ivory.”

Mr Leung says he carves from legal stocks acquired before the international ban of 20 years ago. He also uses illegal ivory from the extinct woolly mammoth. Mammoth ivory, dug up from the frozen wastes of Siberia, is softer, darker and not as highly prized as elephant ivory.

Personal Conflict

When you’re working with this ivory, knowing where it’s come from, that animals have died in order to provide this tusk, do you feel a sense of personal conflict?

Lee-Cheong Leung “First of all, I should explain that when I carve ivory, I use very little raw material. Natural life cycle of elephants through illness and death means that there is enough ivory for me to carve anyway, as each carving takes years”

The 2008 one-off sale of African ivory to China depended on the country demonstrating proper regulation of its domestic market. Every ivory shop must be registered with the authorities and every item on display has its own unique identification card, so that every piece of ivory can be tracked after sale.

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