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Society & Culture

China and Africa's Vanishing Mammals: Part One

Apr 16 , 2019
  • Robert I. Rotberg

    Founding Director of Program on Intrastate Conflict, Harvard Kennedy School

China has banned the import of ivory and barred the trading of ivory, but still the poaching of elephants for their tusks and the trafficking of other mammal parts continues, with Chinese entrepreneurs paying African people to kill iconic big species. More can surely be done by the authorities in China, Hong Kong, and Vietnam to stifle demand for animals and animal parts. And the rulers of the United Arab Emirates could also cease facilitating the illicit transfer of tusks, horns, claws, and skins from Africa.

China sanctions thirty-six official ivory workshops. They are required to use ivory from existing and legal global stockpiles. All ivory sold in China is certified to have come from those sources. But the regulations are flouted daily, and cut up tusks and raw ivory flow almost without hindrance every month into China. Ivory, after all, is a part of China’s “intangible” cultural heritage and shutting it down is going to be a consuming work of decades. Banishing ivory carvers and their suppliers cannot be accomplished with a desultory wave, even in China.

China outlawed ivory imports in 2017 and Hong Kong followed in 2018 (but its ban will only take effect in 2021). China has burned piles of confiscated ivory and imprisoned a number of smugglers. China is hardly unaware of how endangered elephants have become and how central China remains in the global pursuit of elephant tusks.

What all of this demand for ivory in China means is that Africa is losing its animals. Many of the iconic fauna that are indelibly associated with Africa, and that attract so many local citizens and foreign tourists alike, no longer spread limitlessly across the vast savannas of the mid-continent. This century’s massive escalation of illegal poaching has decimated the herds of elephants, the pods of rhinoceroses, the prides of lion, and even the towers of giraffe that once browsed and foraged without much human interference. Even the lowly and secretive pangolin is being hunted ceaselessly to satisfy Asian demand.

Africa in 1930 counted as many as 10 million elephants across more than fifty countries. In 2019, no more than 400,000 elephants remain, a decline (by one count) of 111,000 or more since 2006, or by 30 percent in the seven years from 2009. The various local poaching accomplices across Africa are killing about 20,000 elephants a year, stripping the carcasses of their tusks, and leaving the rest of the slaughtered beasts for vultures, hyenas, and other scavengers of the savanna.

If anything, rhinoceroses are much more endangered than elephants. About 1000 are killed yearly, today leaving fewer than 23,000 white and black rhinoceroses in the wild, mostly in Botswana and Namibia, in South Africa and Mozambique, and – in fewer numbers – in Zambia, Tanzania, and Kenya.

Elephant tusks and rhinoceros horns are wanted almost exclusively in Asia. Since the 1990s, primarily Chinese, Vietnamese, and Malaysian customers have sought to purchase carved-ivory ornaments and chopsticks as displays of wealth and status, and also for use as medicinal elixirs.

Cancers can be cured and male sexual prowess supposedly enhanced by infusions of ground up horn (actually keratin, the substance of hair and fingernails) and ivory. Powder made from rhino horn is often added to food or brewed in a tea in the belief that the result is a powerful aphrodisiac, a hangover cure, and treatment for fever, rheumatism, gout and other disorders. Even though such outcomes have never been verified scientifically, many people across Asia still strongly believe in their health efficacy. Alas, China has not yet embarked upon a campaign to educate consumers to dispel the myths about ivory and rhino horn, or even to inform potential customers of the prosaic composition of rhino horn.

Research done in China identifies women who live in smaller Chinese cities and possess medium-to-high incomes as the key modern purchasers of ivory. They are the supposed “die hard” buyers of ivory products. These women are apparently attracted to ivory because it is “rare and beautiful,” carries cultural significance, and makes a good gift. Ivory, sometimes referred to as “white gold,” clearly is a status symbol – a luxury product that people use to flaunt their wealth. Another researcher remarks that China’s rising middle class often parked their money in ivory. After all, “it never goes bad.”

Ivory is worth $2,100 per kilogram, or about $5,000 per pound, in China, and somewhat more in Vietnam and Malaysia, with rhino horn now worth as much as $12,000 per kilogram in Asia. At those prices, which are hardly realized by the actual poachers, or even by middlemen, there is obviously room for profit taking at the end of the long logistical queue from Africa.

Local poachers in Africa usually work on consignment from African and Chinese middlemen, receiving a fraction of the overseas kilogram value of ivory and horn for their dangerous forays. Yet that fraction often represents the kinds of handsome incomes otherwise unavailable to rurally based African men and their families.

Effectively reducing the killing of African elephants and rhinoceroses thus depends more on curbing the foreign appetite for tusks and horn than on localized national endeavors to combat poachers. China needs to minimize demand through educational efforts or intensive regulation.

Substantial quantities of ivory destined for China and trafficked by Chinese men and women have been seized in recent years in the ports and airports of Nigeria, Togo, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, and South Africa. Cut up tusks and horns have been detected in shipping crates, in luggage, and even in hand luggage. In early 2019, a Tanzanian judge sentenced a Chinese businesswoman dubbed “the ivory queen” to fifteen years in prison for attempting to smuggle 860 tusks or pieces of tusk belonging to 350 elephants, and worth approximately $5.6 million, out of the country. The perpetrator was head of the Chinese-Africa Business Council of Tanzania and owned a popular restaurant in Dar es Salaam. In 2016, two Chinese men received an even stuffer sentence of thirty-five years in prison for attempting to smuggle ivory. In 2015, four male smugglers, also Chinese, each received twenty-year sentences for attempting to ship rhino horn to China. Even earlier, three Chinese “seafood” exporters were jailed and held for more than a year after being apprehended in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s main port. They were trying to exit the country with seventy-six elephant tusks hidden under shellfish.

As a counter to what happens at home, China has been attempting to assist especially East African countries and South Africa in their pursuit of poachers. Partnering with African conservation efforts, China directs overseas funding and training to wildlife ranger activities and other anti-poaching police efforts. With Chinese assistance and local control and major funding, several of these anti-poaching endeavors have been modestly successful in South Africa and Namibia but have yielded far less encouraging results in Zambia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.

The big battle to be won is at home, however, in China, where ivory sales need to be halted if Africa’s elephants and rhinoceroses are to be saved from extinction.

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