Policing the illegal ivory trade: from burnings to atom bombs
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African elephants are being butchered at an alarming rate. Methods for thwarting the illegal trade in ivory are complex and varied, but can help come fast enough to save an iconic species?
Two years ago, the authorities in Kenya staged the world’s largest ever ivory-burning event. More than 100 tonnes of tusks, some piled into pyramids three metres high, were doused in fuel and set aflame. Ivory curios were also immolated. The pyres burned for days. Videos of this grimly funereal event are available online. It’s hard not to feel an emotional tug, but did the spectacle have any lasting impact?
President Uhuru Kenyatta said the event showed how Kenyans felt that “ivory is worthless unless it’s on our elephants”. That message might not have been heard, never mind heeded, in parts of the world where it had hitherto been largely absent.
Alexander Braczkowski, a researcher at the University of Queensland, analysed global media coverage of the ‘ivory burn’. News of it filtered disproportionately to western audiences, he says. In other words, those most likely to be already aware of the grave impact of the bloody, illegal trade. Several conservationists active in trying to disrupt the black market trade have even suggested that seizing and destroying ivory might serve to bolster demand.
Kenya-based conservation economist Mike Norton-Griffiths calls the event “a wonderful PR exercise” but “whether it had any effect on poaching rates, I don’t know”.
John Sellar, a former police detective who was head of enforcement at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) for 14 years, advocates a more holistic approach. “This is a law enforcement issue but also a development issue,” he says. “In some places you’ve got endangered species in reserves or national parks, and the people on the edge of those reserves or parks are living in abject poverty.
“At a stroke, governments – and in many cases it was colonial governments – drew a line across a piece of ground and told these people, who previously were allowed to go into those areas to collect wood and engage in subsistence hunting, that suddenly they couldn’t do that. I’ve visited places in many parts of the world where the locals think that actually animals are valued more than humans, where people look on some of these poachers as almost like ‘Robin Hoods’.”
Sellar wants more ‘controlled deliveries’, whereby police hold off seizing contraband, instead covertly tracking shipments and using surveillance to follow goods through to end buyers. Spies could be put into trafficking gangs, or members ‘turned’ to become informants. This could enable authorities to build up an intelligence picture, pinpoint transit routes and round up key players, but the expense is prohibitive.
“It’s a problem of money,” says Enrico Di Minin, a conservation researcher at the University of Helsinki working on projects to tackle ivory sales allegedly taking place on Facebook. “There are limited resources.”
Sellar agrees: “If you’re in some form of organised crime group and you’re organising or facilitating the poaching of elephants in Africa, and then you have to get that commodity transferred across thousands of miles to China and get it processed into a $3m piece, you are having to wait an incredible amount of time to get a profit.”
The upsurge in poaching is accounted for by organised criminals “moving into commodities”, he explains. “It’s almost like with bitcoin where someone is deciding they’re going to invest in this.”
International gangs netting huge profits from drugs or people smuggling are simply awash with cash they “don’t know what to do with. I don’t know what they’re doing with the ivory,” Sellar adds. “I don’t know if they’ve got it in a warehouse somewhere, or buried underground. Who knows?”
Nevin Hunter, ex-head of the UK’s National Wildlife Crime Unit, tells E&T: “For the criminals, this is just a financial commodity they can make money out of.”
Dr Richard Thomas, global communications director at UK-based Traffic, sounds a familiar note of caution about ivory-burning events, saying that although they “look pretty spectacular” they may prove impotent. “To really put ivory out of action you need to crush it,” he says. “You’d have to have pretty high temperatures to put ivory beyond somebody picking up the charred ends.”
In a sign of just how lucrative the trade is, zoos in western countries have been forced to step up security. In 2017, gunmen broke into a zoo in France and killed a rhino to steal its horn. Museums and English stately homes housing antique ivory from the days of the British Empire are considered to be under significant threat of ivory-related burglary.
Alternatives to ivory
Ivorine: A catch-all term for artificial ivory, ‘ivorine’ typically refers to a type of sanded celluloid that was widely used as an ivory replacement in 1930s art deco-style items.
Vegetable ivory: A material made from the endosperm of the tagua seeds, which come from palm trees in South America. It has a similar feel to real ivory and can be carved like it. Originally used as raw material for the manufacturing of buttons in the 19th century.
Mammoth ivory: Prehistoric mammoths are regularly mined in northern Siberia as the permafrost there thaws, and the material from their tusks has been marketed as an ‘ethical’ alternative to fresh ivory. However, some conservationists have suggested that the trade in this ‘conflict-free’ material could be exploited as a route for ivory laundering.
Getting a grip on the trade will involve degrading demand and better enforcement, including delegitimising ivory products. That argument was made by supporters of the new UK ban on ivory sales, announced earlier this year. Previously, antique dealers had been allowed to export Victorian and Edwardian-era ivory pieces, as well as pre-1947 ‘grandfathered’ stocks, provided they had paperwork certifying that they were legal to export. The Environmental Investigation Agency and others had argued that UK ivory exports were stimulating consumer demand in the Far East.
Now the trade in ‘grandfathered’ UK stocks is set to be banned, but there will still be some exemptions. For example, musical instruments with an ivory content of less than 20 per cent and made prior to 1975 will be allowed to be sold in the UK for the foreseeable future. The move has been broadly welcomed, however, and goes beyond existing European Union rules.
State-level corruption in some parts of Africa is yet another factor that threatens the African elephant (Loxodonta africana). In a report released shortly after the 2016 burnings, CITES praised Kenya for its law-enforcement efforts but noted that the high volumes of large-scale consignments seized in the East African state indicated “a strong presence of organised criminal activity”. Kenya is regarded as a major transit point, with much of the poaching done instead in Central Africa.
Although there has been a wide-ranging ban on the international commercial trade in all elephant ivory since 1990, different countries have their own laws – something that complicates the picture. For example, Thailand allows trading of ivory from domesticated Thai elephants even though it bans the sale of African elephant ivory. In the past there has been concern that the legal trade can be used to launder illegal ivory.
For agencies looking to assist in the enforcement of national and international bans, forensic techniques, including geographical provenance DNA testing, are seen as offering valuable results.
CITES requires ivory seizures greater than 500kg to be geographically sourced and for the information to be input into a database called the Elephant Trade Information System. That means a global intelligence picture is slowly being built up.
Samples are typically transferred to the USA for geographical provenance DNA testing. That can take time, and expanding the technical capability to carry out forensic tests in countries identified as ivory transit points, as well as major consumer countries, could help boost timely police interventions.
In terms of catching poachers, chemical kits to lift fingerprints from tusks have been recently developed by UK academics. Researchers found that the most effective kit used a powder that binds itself to several components including fatty acids. Ordinary powders used to dust for prints are not effective because of ivory’s porous surface.
Finally, and somewhat bizarrely, the process of proving the age of ivory has been aided by the open-air nuclear bomb tests of the 1950s and 1960s. Radio carbon-dating based around the radioactive decay of the carbon-14 isotope was first used in a court case involving ivory in 2009. Fall-out from atmospheric nuclear bomb tests in the early part of the Cold War added extra carbon-14 to the atmosphere. Elevated levels of carbon-14 are present in the tissues of organisms alive subsequent to that date, making it relatively easy to detect whether a tusk came from an elephant that was alive in the nuclear era. Samples must be sent to labs with the requisite mass spectrometry equipment, however, so this is not an on-the-spot test.
When it comes to the ivory trade, perhaps even mushroom clouds have a silver lining.