Record ivory seizure in Malaysia – Africa cannot afford to be helpless

Royal Malaysian Customs have just announced the seizure of 24 tons of ivory in Port Klang. This is the largest ever seizure of ivory in transit through the country, and is equal in size to all of the ivory seized in  2011 from Africa. The 1,500 pieces of ivory came from over 750 elephants were exported from Togo, a tiny west African country that has fewer than 200 elephants. The ivory was hidden in containers containing wooden crates that were built to look like stacks of sawn timber. The two crates were shipped from the port of Lomé in Togo, and was going to China via Algeria, Spain and Malaysia. Here are some reactions on text, twitter and facebook

“What the hell is going on?”

“Oh My God, this is Crazy! There must be some major crime ring in this. Chinese Mafia?”

“very sad”

“Folks, that’s 750 dead elephants right there! Completely atrocious.”

“When will these countries see the light? Money,money,Money thats all it is!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Disgusting”

While the rest of the world is in a state of shock at the scale of the seizure, Bonadventure Ebayi, CEO of the Lusaka Agreement Task Force the African Interpol for wildlife, says he is not surprised. Togo has virtually no law enforcement to speak of. It is a country through which timber from other central African countries is exported by both China and Malaysia. The ivory, he believes, came from several central African countries.

The size of this shipment reveals that it probably took months for the dealers to accumulate this volume of ivory and it was brought in on small boats plying the waters in this area. Togo is notorious for slack enforcement and is considered something of a free port with zero law enforcement.  The dealers of this ivory, clearly operated without any hindrance. They are probably a mafia like syndicate, took their time in packing the consignment, and the shipping route was not direct, but a rather lazy route via several other countries. Asked if there were officials involved Bonadventure laughed cynically “nothing would make a consignment of 1 ton, or even 500 kg of ivory through a port without corrupt practices”. He emphasizes that the smuggling of trophies is only possible through corrupt practices. The Togolese government seems not to care about the illegal trade going on at Lome and neither is it likely that the Malaysian or Chinese governments will do anything about this seizure.

Apart from one seizure of ivory in Singapore from several African countries which was returned to Kenya and later burned, none of seizures of African ivory in Asia have been returned to the country of origin. Investigations are not carried out, and there is no system of monitoring the specimens. At the end of the day this ivory will become “owned” by Malaysia.

The reason for this apparent lapse in investigations and monitoring of illegal ivory is money, or rather, lack of money. The law enforcement agencies of Africa are extremely poorly resourced in terms of man power, equipment and funds considering the work that they are expected to do.  The ivory syndicates are operating on mega budgets of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. African enforcement agencies which are expected to monitor all ports, and all wildlife, are cash strapped.

Moreover, there is a general lack of political will in the governments concerned. Many African countries wildlife agencies are dependent on support from the US Fish and Wildlife Agency, which is its self a national agency in USA, not an international agency. The US Fish and Wildlife Agency receives it’s funding from the US government. Why aren’t African governments financing their wildlife agencies adequately? International agencies and CITES agencies are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on monitoring elephants and writing reports for CITES conferences – their budgets often exceeding those of the government agencies. The reports often say that the problem is that law enforcement is lacking in Africa. It’s a tail chasing exercise. Hillary Clinton has raised concern in Congress about the scale of illegal trade of wildlife in Africa, but the silence from African leaders is deafening. Not one of them has echoed her call for addressing the problem.

AFrican governments have lamented for too long that there is inadequate funding for wildlife conservation, enforcement and security. We need to rethink our priorities in Africa and recognize the colossal economic loss due to criminal syndicates that are illegally exploiting our natural resources and national heritage.


To turn things around Africa must take responsibility.

1. Quantify the economic impact of illegal trade of African wildlife. It is estimated that only 10% of exported natural resources from Africa are legal! It’s not just elephants and rhino that are being illegally exported from Africa everyday. Many other mammals, insects, plants, reptiles and birds are also being illegally exported but nobody notices them because we are all looking at elephants and rhinos.  In fact, Africa is losing most of her natural wealth to criminals, and is hemorrhaging her heritage. Wildlife agencies tend to be positioned low on the economic ladder and are minimally resourced.  Moreover, the impact of poaching on nascent eco tourism outfits threatens investments and therefore jobs and revenues.

2: Reform law enforcement: Poaching and ivory dealing is not just a wildlife crime which is treated as a misdemeanor in most countries.  It is an economic crime that is deeply associated with corruption. Handling of wildlife crime cases as economic and organized crimes needs to be prioritized. This will take sentsitization of leaders, and bringing all the relevant agencies together nationally and internationally. And it will require a lot of money.  The criminally organized and militarized nature of elephant poaching and ivory trading in Africa, means that the syndicates are extremely well resourced. African governments must invest in raising these funds to reform the judiciary and educate the relevant agencies.

3: Create effective communication and collaboration between different security wings: It is generally known that the ivory and rhino horn trade is controlled by high level cartels who also deal in drugs, money laundering, human trafficking and gun smuggling.  The revenues generated are believed to be contributing to armed conflicts which threaten communities and significantly impact on tourism.  To deal with wildlife crime will mean collaborating with agencies involved in dealing with corruption arms  dealing, money laundering and other forms of organized crime.

4: Initiate effective monitoring: The impact of elephants poaching in Africa is very poorly documented and must be stepped up. In addition, investigations of the ivory seizures must be conducted, and ivory seizures must be monitored and national stockpiles across Africa and Asia audited to ensure that ivory does not escape into the illegal markets.

I asked Mr Ebayi what he thought of the recently announced Memorandum of understanding between Vietnam and South Africa. Would it make a difference for rhino, and should we pursue a similar arrangement with China on ivory. He wondered aloud what a piece of paper would achieve. “So long as the culture of consuming ivory and rhino horn are not addressed the demand will remain”.  He asked for proof that Vietnam was serious in the form of a government statement banning the use of rhino horn in country, and a significant contribution towards anti-poaching in South Africa. China will need to do the same for ivory if she expects her promises of support to be taken seriously.


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