Category Archives: Zimbabwe

China MUST act, but AFRICA take the lead to stop ivory trade

China must act, but Africa take the lead to stop ivory trade

By Paula Kahumbu with Andrew Hallyday


Workers destroy confiscated ivory in Dongguan, southern Guangdong province, China, Monday, Jan. 6, 2014. Photograph: Vincent Yu/AP

Workers destroy confiscated ivory in Dongguan, southern Guangdong province, China, Monday, Jan. 6, 2014. Photograph: Vincent Yu/AP


A major new study provides disturbing proof that the crisis facing African elephants is even worse than people imagined, driven by the exploding trade in illegal ivory in China.

The study, written by ivory market researchers Lucy Vigne and Esmond Martin, and funded by Save the Elephants (STE) and the Aspinall Foundation, found that skyrocketing demand for ivory in China has sparked a booming trade in smuggled ivory. There are ever greater numbers of items on sale, carving factories, and legal and illegal retail outlets.

The expanding legal trade provides a perfect cover for laundering vast quantities of illegal ivory. The Chinese government is taking some measures to control the illegal ivory market, but it’s not doing enough. The situation is currently out of control.

The study concludes: “without China’s leadership in ending demand for ivory Africa’s elephants could disappear from the wild within a generation.”

This conclusion seems self evident. In fact this point has been made time and again. For example, an article published in Time magazine almost exactly a year ago concluded that if the Chinese authorities don’t act fast, we could be heading toward a future without elephants.

In the run-up to London summit on wildlife crime in February, I wrote “all eyes are on China” and in the aftermath suggested that we are losing to battle to save wildlife because “western leaders … don’t have the guts to take on China”.

What’s depressing is that so little has changed, despite the impassioned rhetoric of world leaders, high profile campaigns celebrities and British royals, and the sterling efforts of campaigning organisations like STE. To make change happen I suggest we need to challenge the notion of “China’s leadership” on two counts.

First, although Chinese action is essential to save Africa’s elephants, the leadership should come from Africa. While China may face a “conservation challenge” as stated in the title of the report, it is Africa’s elephants that are facing extinction.


Young demonstrators sit with a placard as they prepare to take part in the “Global March for Elephants and Rhinos” in Nairobi, Kenya Saturday, Oct. 4, 2014. Photograph: Ben Curtis/AP

Young demonstrators sit with a placard as they prepare to take part in the “Global March for Elephants and Rhinos” in Nairobi, Kenya Saturday, Oct. 4, 2014. Photograph: Ben Curtis/AP

Unfortunately, despite growing civil society engagement with wildlife issues, so far few African leaders have demonstrated they are serious about taking action. One of them, President Khama of Botswana, recently asked me, despairingly: “Where is the pride of Africa? Why aren’t we setting the agenda here? It is we who have the elephants.”

A recent Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) report made some highly publicised claims about involvement of visiting Chinese officials in ivory smuggling out of Tanzania. These claims were furiously – and unconvincingly – denied by Chinese authorities. What got less publicity was the much longer part of the EIA report analysing ingrained institutional corruption in Tanzania and the complicity of Tanzanian authorities in the illegal ivory trade.

Africans will not have the political or moral authority to make demands on the Chinese until we put our own house in order.

Secondly we have to stop thinking about “China” as a monolith – a single actor in the unfolding drama.

China is a highly complex society. The dynamic of ivory trade is driven by interactions among a wide range of actors. Political leaders, government officials, organised criminals, consumers and civil society organisations all contribute to the illegal ivory trade and attempts to control it in different ways. We need to understand their roles and target our actions and campaigns accordingly.

For example, was the ivory spending spree by the Chinese delegation in Tanzania sanctioned ‘from above’ or was it a case of lower-level officials getting out of control? In the first case, a high level diplomatic protest might be in order. But in the second case it might be more effective to engage with Chinese civil society organizations already combating corrupts officials at home.

Consumers who purchase ivory are also driven by different motives. The report suggests that “investors banking on continued rises in the price of ivory appear to be a significant factor in the recent boom, rather than buyers of traditional ivory carvings”.

This is important information. Buyers of handicrafts might well be swayed by awareness raising campaigns, but law enforcement is likely to be a more effective strategy against unscrupulous investors – and of course also against the organised crime networks that supply them.

Let’s be clear: China is also a highly centralised society. If the Chinese nation is contributing to the ongoing extinction of Africa’s elephants – as it is – the Chinese government deserves the lion’s share of the blame.

But, here again, we need to understand China better in order to know the best way to the influence Chinese authorities. China’s leaders are sensitive to pressure from foreign governments— and the hard evidence of reports by organizations like STE and EIA. It was notable that the first online report I found of the press conference in Nairobi today to launch the report was a long article in the South China Morning Post.

But Chinese authorities are also sensitive to pressure from an increasing confident civil society inside China. A recent visit to China by two young African activists, Christopher Kiarie of WildlifeDirect and Resson Kantai of STE, provided encouraging evidence of the potential for linkages between African and Chinese civil society organizations, to work together to increase pressure on the Chinese government to change.

A joined-up strategy led by Africans at all levels of society offers the best chance of success in these desperate times.


Wire Snares: Nasty, Costly and Very, Very Wrong

I read Iregi Mwenja’s first installation in his two-part series called Painful Death and I was quite disturbed. Looking at the pictures of animals trapped and helpless, or dead and rotting, or – perhaps even worse – maimed, was very upsetting.

Snared Antelope

As if on cue, Rosemary Groom of Zimbabwe Wild Dogs finally gets a picture of a wild dog puppy that she has been told that it was moving around with a wire snare still tightly digging into the flesh of its neck and she posts a blog entry. I very well know that wire snares are the “weapons” of choice for many subsistence and small scale commercial poachers. But these nasty, stomach heaving photos jolt me to a stark reality that may have gone sublime in my mind. It just looks painful how these animals die.

Snared dog at waterhole

I try to be rational and unemotional when discussing wildlife crime. I try to remain level headed but this method of harvesting bushmeat is simply barbaric. And it peels off my gentlemanly, unemotional, rational skin to expose the painful bare flesh that is my emotions. It is hard not to get emotional when you see this kind of death.

Iregi Mwenja says that statistics indicate 90% of the dead animals will go to waste as the poacher will either forget where he put his snares or he’ll never go back to check on them. The meat will just rot away. Granted, wild carnivores will eat some of the meat, but that also may well be contained in the 10% that is eventually utilized.

Then Iregi follows this with another installation in the second part of his series. This one is loaded with statistics. Suddenly, I am aware that a single David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) de-snaring team can remove an average of 450 wire snares in a month – working only two weeks a month. That there are several DSWT teams. That there are other organizations apart from the DSWT – such as Born Free Foundation – that are also carrying out some heavy de-snaring work. I suddenly am confronted with colossal numbers, and my heart threatens to stop. Iregi explains:

Just one de-snaring DSWT team lifts approximately 450 snares [per] month operating for a maximum of two weeks per month. One poacher can set at least 100 snares per day with a success rate of about 20% and about 15-20 poachers enter the park per day. With a success rate of about 20%, and assuming that one poacher sets about 100 snares a day, then 15 poachers have a probability of killing at least 300 animals per day. This figure may seems to be unrealistic. But the number of snares lifted per day and the number of animals found dead and those rescued by the de-snaring teams is a true testimony of the magnitude of the bushmeat crisis.

It is shocking, but it is the result of scientific research in one corner of Tsavo East National Park (where DSWT conducts most of its de-snaring operations). I am left wondering what the national, regional and global statistics are like. I wince.

Wire Snares

Rosemary gives us a clue as to how much it would cost to get a wire snare out of a single wild dog pup’s neck in her blog post. Suddenly, there is money involved, and I shudder like someone forgotten inside the butcher’s cold room. She explains:

Unfortunately, until I have my wildlife immobilization license…we need to rely on someone else to come and do the darting, and he is not always available at short notice. There is also a considerable cost associated with calling him out and getting the pup immobilized (US$100 per day fee plus the cost of drugs and fuel and scout time), and the current prevalence of snaring is really eating into our budget. (Likewise, for me to do [an immobilization] course so I can immobilize the dogs myself, costs US$1500).

That is only part of the story. Organizations such as DWST, Born Free and the African Wildlife Conservation Fund (Zimbabwe Wild Dogs) invest thousands of dollars in de-snaring operations. The Zimbabwe Wild Dogs project is already groaning under the weight of snaring happening in Zimbabwe. And that is just one part of the once wildlife rich nation (hopefully there are still wildlife surviving the madness that is governance in Zimbabwe).

These are deadly statistics – and painful pictures – of how dire the state of wildlife in Africa is. The Zimbabwe Wild Dog project has an appeal. They need your help on saving this little puppy, the rare species of which it belongs and other wildlife in Zimbabwe. Right now I ask you to urgently help them save this particular dog by donating through their blog. And continue to help them whenever you can in the future.

I read a book once, titled “Who Will Feed China?” and in the same fashion I will ask, who will save Africa’s wildlife?

Zimbabwe “Bartered Ivory for Guns”

Our fears that the one-off ivory auction by four southern Africa states to China and Japan was not going to end well may come true. Not that that is any cause for us to wear a smirk and say “we told you so”, but a time for us to ask CITES to open their eyes.

Ivory Stockpiles

There are reports in a Zimbabwean newspaper saying that Robert Mugabe’s government – cash strapped and hungry for foreign exchange to pay for imports – is planning to have the Chinese government pay for the ivory with guns Mugabe’s people ordered just before this year’s Zimbabwean presidential run-off. Apparently, Mugabe was facing an imminent end to his three-decade grip on power and decided to buy guns to wage war against the opposition should he loose the elections. The best place to buy these guns was from China since they are not participating in the arms embargo by western nations on Zimbabwe.

The report, published in the Zim Daily, indicate that part of the $480,000 Zimbabwe raised when they auctioned 3.5 tons of ivory last week is earmarked as payment for a cache of military hardware set to be flown into the capital Harare soon. The reports also indicate that in the run up to the ivory auction, “substantial quantities of high caliber weapons” had disappeared from the armory of Zimbabwe’s department of parks and wildlife near State House, Harare. During the same period, 200 elephants are reported to have been killed in the Zambezi Valley bordering Zambia. The Zimbabwe government blames this carnage on foreign animal rights groups which “want to thwart Mugabe’s bid to have CITES relax its trade rules”.

These reports have put the “fear of Mugabe” in conservationists who are now worried that Zimbabwe’s claim of being protector of the elephant is just a sham. Official Zimbabwe reports indicate that the country has 70,000 elephants in the wild, but experts think this is just window dressing by the government to get CITES to approve their proposal to sell all their alleged 20 tons of ivory stockpiles. The head of the wildlife department, Brigadier Albert Kanunga, a retired army officer, had lobbied CITES to allow them to sell 10 tons of ivory but only 3.5 tons were approved.

It is alleged that the ivory auctioned by Zimbabwe was flown out of Harare Airport on Thursday 6 November. If, then, the ivory for guns scam is true, the Chinese will bring Mugabe the guns sooner than latter. Apparently, an earlier shipping of Chinese military equipment bound for Harare had been turned away in the South African port of Durban. That could be the reason why China will fly in the new cache of arms.

Eight years ago in July 2000, a Nairobi based German wildlife conservation organization, ECOTERRA had revealed that Mugabe had sold 8 tons of ivory to China in exchange for firearms. According to the report on BNet website, the ivory had been flown out of Zimbabwe through Libya.

With such a record, it would be feasible to believe that last weeks CITES-backed auction will indeed be used to pay for more guns and ammo some of which – given the mysterious disappearance of arms from the wildlife department’s armory and consequent upsurge of elephant poaching- could be used in “harvesting” more ivory for Mugabe’s government. Which then negates the CITES claim that one-off sales will help elephant protection by reducing the attractiveness of poaching and investing the funds into conservation.

Moreover, Zambian and Senegalese middlemen operating in Zimbabwe organize underground deals through the “close-knit Chinese community” in South Africa to service the high demand for illegal ivory in China. This would imply that even South Africa, the allegorical “Big Brother” of Africa, is not fully in control of the ivory situation. In as much as Big Brother may have a tab of it’s own ivory stockpiles, they cannot rule out being used as a conduit for illegal ivory from tattered Zimbabwe. In short, the entire African continent is not ready for these – in Dr Richard Leakey’s words – ill advised one-off auctions.

In the end, what will save the elephant, in my view, is not how cheap ivory becomes – a la CITES – but how well we convince ordinary Chinese, Japanese and other Asian communities that they can practice their cultural beliefs without Ivory. Remove the demand for ivory and let the elephant roam the sunny grasslands of Africa without fear – like they did for millennia gone by. Legally selling government-held stockpiles will not kill demand.