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Record poaching drives African elephants into decline

Geneva - Killing of elephants driven by the illegal ivory trade has reached crisis levels in Africa, new information released today says. Across Africa elephants are being driven into decline due to poaching for their tusks, according to a report issued under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Data from the report shows increased poaching across the entire range of the African elephant, but the highest rates are in Central Africa. “The rise in levels of illegal killing and the dynamics surrounding it are worrying, not only for small and fragmented elephant populations that could face extirpation, but also for previously secure large populations,” the report says.

Last year is cited as having the highest poaching rates ever documented, exceeding record rates witnessed in 2010. It is estimated that tens of thousands of elephants are being killed each year for their tusks, which are in demand in Asia. East Africa is identified in the report as the centre of illicit ivory transport to Asia, with an escalating number of illegal consignments exiting seaports there.

“Alarmingly, 2011 recorded the highest number of large-scale seizures ever,” said Lamine Sebogo, WWF’s African elephant programme manager. “Such seizures indicate the involvement of organized criminal networks, but very few cases have been followed up with proper investigations, arrests, prosecutions or the imposition of credible penalties.”

This scale of illegal ivory trade was demonstrated early in 2012, when a gang of heavily armed foreign poachers entered Cameroon and killed hundreds of elephants in Bouba N’Djida National Park. This event, and others like it, constitutes an invasion and a threat not only to wildlife but people, territorial integrity and stability.

Poor governance and weak law enforcement efforts have been identified as the primary drivers of elephant poaching and ivory trade in Africa, according to the report that will be considered by governments later this month at a key CITES meeting. China and Thailand are identified in the findings as the two biggest raw ivory consuming countries in the world. Data indicates that poaching trends can be correlated with increasing affluence in China, and that raw ivory prices doubled there between 2004 and 2010.

“In the last two years we have seen open flouting of China’s internal ivory trade laws,” said Dr Colman O’Criodain, WWF’s wildlife trade policy analyst. “Many visitors, including foreign government representatives attending CITES-related meetings in China, have reported seeing ivory openly on sale without the required certification cards that prove legality of origin.”

The Chinese market remains the most prominent destination for illicit ivory, and a serious slackening of enforcement of country’s strict internal trade controls is a major cause for concern. In Thailand, legislative loopholes mean that there is no effective regulation at all. 

“In Thailand there is no regulation of ivory trade. Visitors can see ivory openly on sale, the vast bulk of it apparently of African origin,” O’Criodain says. “It is a crime to bring ivory home from another country, even if shopkeepers tell you otherwise.”

“It is imperative that CITES member states take remedial actions to shut down unregulated or poorly regulated domestic ivory markets, especially the world's largest markets in China and Thailand,” said O’Criodain.

One hopeful sign in the fight to save elephants is the recent adoption by Central African countries of an action plan to combat wildlife crimes including elephant poaching and illegal ivory.

“We commend Central African governments for taking action to safeguard their natural heritage through developing this plan. We call on government leaders to implement the plan as a matter of urgency and encourage the international community to provide financial support to this end,” Sebogo said.