Tusks From Over 500 Elephants Seized in Zanzibar

DAR es SALAAM, Tanzania, August 25, 2011 (ENS) – Tanzanian officials have confiscated 1,041 elephant tusks they found hidden in sacks of dried fish at the Port of Zanzibar, authorities said on Wednesday. The island of Zanzibar is located in the Indian Ocean, about 22 miles off the coast of mainland Tanzania.

Shipping documents for the container in which the elephant tusks were discovered show the destination as Malaysia.

Two suspects are in custody and are being questioned, Zanzibar police spokesman Mohammed Mhina told Reuters.

Vessels in the Port of Zanzibar, Tanzania (Photo by Victor Ochieng)

“Interpol officials from Dar es Salaam have arrived to investigate the incident,” he said of the international police force.

The seizure comes as 27 wildlife law enforcement officials from 11 Southern African countries gather in Gaborone, Botswana this week for a training session on the prevention of illegal trade in wildlife given jointly by Interpol and the nonprofit International Fund for Animal Welfare.

“This seizure makes it clear that the ongoing Interpol wildlife enforcement training, which IFAW is supporting in Gabarone, is vital to saving elephants – particularly those elephants of the Congo Basin which are most threatened,” said Kelvin Alie, IFAW’s Wildlife Trade Programme director. “While we gather to discuss combating the ivory trade, elephants continue to be killed for their ivory.”

“At a certain point you stop saying these seizures are alarming or surprising and accept them as a grim and inevitable reminder that we are losing the war against wildlife trafficking,” said James Isiche, IFAW East Africa director. “We need a global outcry to spur investment in creating the necessary wildlife law enforcement capacity to take on the international criminal syndicates who benefit from these massacres.”

Yet conservationists say they were “stunned” by news of the seizure. “Just imagine discovering the remains of at least 521 dead elephants in a single haul,” said Will Travers, CEO of the Born Free Foundation and president of the Species Survival Network. “This news has truly numbed us all to the core, and made us even more determined to redouble our efforts in the fight against elephant poaching and the illegal ivory trade.”

Elephants in Lake Manyara National Park, Tanzania (Photo by Imke Stahlmann)

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, approved a complete ban on trade in ivory in 1989, following a decade of bloodshed when 700,000 elephants were slaughtered. But since then there have been numerous concerted efforts to re-open legal trade, and two legal sales of ivory approved by CITES.

“Many experts believe the battle for elephants must not only be fought in the forests or on the savannahs of Africa, or even in the ivory markets of the Far East, but in the corridors of power at CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species,” said Travers. “Africa’s elephants need action – and they need it now.”

The elephant battles at CITES are truly something to behold. Elephant and ivory trade discussions are possibly the most divisive and contentious issues discussed by the 175 countries that have signed the treaty.

In 1999, CITES approved a legal export of 58 tonnes of ivory from Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana to Japan.

In 2008, China joined Japan as an approved “ivory trading partner” in a decision that the United Kingdom government justified at the time as an attempt to satisfy demand and thus reduce poaching.

In 2009, the second CITES-approved shipment of 108 tonnes of ivory to China and Japan took place, despite an international outcry that such legal trade would surely only stimulate demand, and therefore increase poaching.

In 2010, Tanzania and Zambia both asked CITES for approval to sell their stockpiled ivory. However, a group of 23 African elephant range states, known as the African Elephant Coalition, prevented this from happening. More ivory trade proposals are predicted for future CITES meetings, which take place every three years.

Conservationists point out that elephant poaching levels now are rising. “Seizures of illegal ivory this year alone run into tens of thousands of kilos; and the price of illegal raw ivory in the Far East has risen exponentially,” Travers said.

Pre-1974 ivory carvings for sale at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada, January 2010 (Photo by jericl cat)

A recent report by the EU-funded Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants Programme (MIKE) reveals an upward trend in poaching across East, Southern and Central Africa.

“There are not enough elephants left on this planet to meet Asian demand for ivory,” said Shelley Waterland, Born Free’s wildlife trade expert.

“Enforcement efforts are essential, but so is reducing demand. A complete ban on any trade in ivory whatsoever must be the only way forward if we are to have any hope of saving elephants across their current range,” Waterland said. “Many fragile populations will simply not survive for very much longer if this level of threat continues unabated.”

China is now recognized by CITES as the single biggest consumer of illegal ivory. “With the growth in disposable income of Chinese citizens,” Travers says, “many believe the demand will keep on rising.”

As a matter of urgency, Born Free is calling for China’s status as an approved ivory trading partner to be withdrawn.

The group says all countries should agree that future proposals to sell stockpiled ivory be abandoned.

The conservationists are calling on Interpol and the Lusaka Agreement Task Force to step up measures to infiltrate and destroy the organized criminal gangs that operate the poaching syndicates responsible for the current high level of illegal elephant poaching.

In addition, conservationists say money is needed to support law enforcement. “What elephant range states now need is the commitment of the international community to financially support these highly skilled and motivated trainees to be able to meet the task of protecting elephants and stop the legal trade in ivory which facilitates poaching and illegal trade,” said Alie.

An African elephant trust fund for the implementation of an African Elephant Action Plan was launched last week at a meeting of the CITES Standing Committee, which manages the affairs of the agency between the tri-annual meetings.

CITES officials and conservationists are urging the international community to join the Netherlands, France and Germany in donating to the African Elephant Fund, which has a goal of $100 million over the next three years. The fund is intended to help pay for priority elephant conservation actions identified in the African Elephant Action Plan, which has been agreed by all 37 African elephant range states.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.