March 22, 2010 | 6
The illegal trade in elephant ivory is booming. African elephants are being slaughtered at rates exceeding the former peak in the late 1980s, before Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES (pronounced SITE-ees), banned all trade in elephant products. The ban—as well as a worldwide public outcry against the slaughter—helped to stabilize the wild population of elephants. But within the last decade, highly organized international criminal rings have begun killing elephants like never before. The latest figures indicate that 38,000 elephants a year are falling to the poachers’ guns.
Last year, Samuel Wasser and Cathy Laurie of the University of Washington along with Bill Clark of Interpol described in Scientific American their efforts to use DNA analysis to trace ivory seizures back to the wild populations of elephants from which they were taken. They found that some of the largest seizures in recent years all came from the same population of wild elephants in Tanzania.
Despite this finding, Tanzania had petitioned CITES, which is now meeting in Doha, Qatar, to allow a one-time sale of ivory. The proposal had been strongly opposed by scientists, who argued that allowing any ivory sales would help build a market for a product that can only come from dead elephants. Earlier today, in a rare victory for science-based conservation at this meeting, the organization’s members voted to reject the plan. Following its defeat, Zambia withdrew a similar proposal.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that elephants are in the clear. The park rangers who are tasked with protecting elephant populations need better equipment and more detailed intelligence about where poachers are operating. And as long as demand continues to grow in China and Japan—where most poached ivory ends up—incentives for organized crime will remain high.