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Blood Elephants: Asia’s Ivory Demand Fuels African Conflicts

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Blood Elephants: Asia’s Ivory Demand Fuels African Conflicts

An ivory bust in Hong Kong this week sheds light on a growing problem for Asia and Africa.

Customs agents in Hong Kong have reportedly seized 189 elephant tusks adding up to approximately 769 kilograms (1,695 lbs.) of ivory in the city’s third-largest bust of endangered species products since July. Officials said the illegal ivory was worth an estimated US$1.5 million.

According to the Associated Press, the ivory shipments originally came from Cote d’Ivoire but the intended destination was allegedly mainland China.

Apparently, the Hong Kong government has become increasingly used to these type of busts. In July, Hong Kong customs agents found US$2.2 million worth of ivory tusks in a previous bust coming in from Togo. Also, last August, customs agents seized not only ivory, but also rhino horns and leopard skins worth US$5.3 million, which had come from Nigeria.

Conservationists and wildlife activists have been blaming China and Thailand for the massive surge in elephant poaching in Africa because of Asian demand for ivory trinkets, ornaments and other goods. In fact, activists have been warning about the dangers of increased ivory demand coming from these countries for a while now.

Jeffrey Gettleman, the East Africa Bureau Chief for the New York Times, told CNN why ivory and other endangered species goods are in such high demand in Asia. "It's the economic growth in Asia. And what's interesting is a lot of these economies are becoming more modern, more sophisticated, more advanced, like China, Vietnam, other parts of Asia, but they still adhere to traditional beliefs. And in many parts of Asia, ivory and rhino horn powder are valued for ceremonial purposes, for religious purposes, cultural purposes."

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) even released a report earlier this year about Africa’s elephant crisis, in which it too linked the issue to rising demand in Asia. The report called for placing specific emphasis on reducing demand from China, since it has the largest ivory market in the world.

“Nowhere is the need for demand reduction more critical than in China”, UNEP warns.

In an attempt to educate readers and spur action to protect African elephants, the UNEP report explains the global, national and local factors that drive the poaching and ivory industry. Globally, market demand is what drives poaching. As China has developed economically and consumers have accumulated more wealth, more and more people have been able to afford lavish goods, and ivory carvings are seen as a high-status symbol of luxury for many. The report notes that Chinese consumption patterns of ivory have a high correlation to African PIKE trends (PIKE is an acronym for “proportion of illegally killed elephants”).

The report also points to weak law enforcement, poor governance, and political and military conflicts as the main national-level factors that “facilitate poaching and allow illicit trade in ivory to grow.” Often, the profits from ivory and other goods made from endangered species end up being used to help finance internal conflicts.

Finally, local drivers for the illegal industry involve various socioeconomic factors and cultural attitudes. In other words, impoverished Africans have been known to poach elephants for basic survival as food security is a major issue in many countries within the continent.

So long as these global, national and local factors are not addressed, it is unlikely we will see any decrease in the global demand for ivory or with local elephant poaching in Africa (and also in Asia). If cultural attitudes that continue to focus on revering ivory as luxury products or as a means to make a living are encouraged or at least overlooked, then business will thrive. A cultural shift is needed not only in Africa, but also across East and Southeast Asia (where demand is highest) to encourage the conservation of elephants, rather than the destruction of them.

Elleka Watts is an editorial assistant at The Diplomat.