The Ivory Highway: With No Elephants Around The Chinese Keep Buying IvorySubmitted by jrd3820 on Tue, 03/18/2014 - 12:41
Due to China's rising middle class, the demand for ivory is growing and will soon pass the elephants reproductive capacities. How poaching has changed to meet business and market demands.
The Ivory Highway
By Damon Tabor
Inside one of the world's largest, most shadowy criminal trafficking networks – from the jungles of Cameroon to the black-market bazaars of Beijing.
Killing an elephant was easy, really. You found its tracks, big as serving platters, and you followed them. Then, Pierre said, you just aimed for the head. But in the thick rain forests of Cameroon, this seemed fantastical. There were branches, brush, slick gullied hillsides. The animal moved – often quickly. Moreover, Pierre hunted with an aged rifle he described as a caribou douze; inherited from his father, it was a weapon of indeterminate origin, and it was unlikely to be precise. What Pierre shot most likely died slowly and in great pain.
Thin and jittery and wearing a Minnesota Timberwolves jersey, Pierre was a Cameroonian contract poacher. We had agreed to meet at a seedy hotel in Bertoua, a city in the country's sparsely populated southeast and a major ivory-smuggling hub, to discuss the business of elephant poaching. A corpulent, shrewd bush-meat dealer named Madame Mado had provided an introduction, but Pierre was at first still suspicious. He stood outside the hotel door and scanned the room's interior for several moments before entering. In Cameroon, a wildlife NGO run by a former Israeli intelligence officer had begun targeting ivory traffickers, often by setting up sting operations in just such hotels.
Pierre, which is not his real name, lit a cigarette and settled into a plastic chair. He was reluctant to discuss the men hiring him to kill elephants – referring to them only as "command" – but he acknowledged they regularly placed orders for ivory. Very likely, Pierre's bosses were government officials or businessmen, perhaps even officers from l'armée camerounaise. In a poor, corrupt country like Cameroon, only a small elite could bankroll hunting expeditions in the jungle that lasted weeks and required expensive supplies – food, rifles, ammunition, cheap plastic packets of gin. "Somebody calls me, and they give me cartridges," Pierre said. "I go with porters and spend three or four weeks in the forest," searching for tracks. Sometimes he also imitated the plaintive honk of a lost calf in order to attract its mother. Pierre claimed not to shoot female elephants, but poaching has become a dark lesson in supply-demand economics. Ivory's surging price compelled poachers to kill whatever they could: cows, which grew smaller tusks than bulls, and even calves bearing only small nubs of dentin.
Pierre had been poaching for 25 years, and he had killed scores, if not hundreds, of elephants. With some pride, he claimed to have shot 23 during a single trip – so many that harvesting all their tusks had taken more than a week. "If you've killed the first one and the others have not noticed, you can kill all of them," he said. Pierre used a special machete to remove their ivory – painstaking work that required separating the tusk from the animal's upper jawbone. "If you cut it, you have destroyed it," he said. "They have to be removed right, from the inside. It takes time."
Across Africa, men like Pierre are now killing so many elephants that conservationists have begun calling the trade "industrial." Poachers are both brutal and diabolically ingenious in their craft, mowing down entire herds with cheap assault rifles, burying land mines, and even fashioning homemade shotguns from Land Rover steering columns. In Zimbabwe, poachers recently laced salt licks and watering holes with cyanide, killing hundreds of elephants. In 2011 alone, some 25,000 elephants across the continent were slaughtered – the highest recorded level of poaching since a ban on international ivory trading was implemented in 1989. In 2012, the number was perhaps as high as 50,000. Last year, the most comprehensive survey of forest elephants ever undertaken found that Central Africa's entire population had crashed by 62 percent over the past 10 years. Today poachers are killing so many elephants that they've exceeded the animals' reproductive capacity, leading some conservationists to predict that Africa's remaining 420,000 elephants could be wiped out in little more than a decade.
"There is a real risk that, if substantial action is not taken, elephants will go biologically extinct in Central Africa very soon," J. Michael Fay, a renowned conservationist who has spent decades studying the region's rain forests, recently testified before the U.S. Congress.
In late December 2011, some 100 Sudanese horseback poachers armed with AK-47s and grenade launchers crossed from Chad into Bouba N'Djida National Park in northeastern Cameroon. The raiders, possibly affiliated with Sudan's murderous Janjaweed militia, easily overran the small unit of unarmed eco-guards, then hunted with impunity for months, killing one group of elephants after another. Families were herded together, then systematically shot. Calves died alongside mothers. In some cases, gunmen waited for elephants to return to mourn their dead – and then shot them, too. By April, some 400 of the park's savanna elephants had been wiped out, the worst mass killing in modern history.
The slaughter in Bouba N'Djida is, in many ways, a signal event: The nature of modern poaching has changed. Small-time, subsistence hunters are no longer taking down the occasional elephant. Poachers have become systematic, ruthless, heavily armed. They are capable of overwhelming the porous borders and poor security plaguing many African countries. According to conservation groups, sophisticated criminal syndicates – poachers, middlemen, traders, elusive kingpins – increasingly dominate the trade. Some operations, like that of Pierre and his "command," are modest. Others move tusks by the ton. According to Tom Milliken, ivory expert for the wildlife trade-monitoring group Traffic, many trafficking gangs are "Asian-run, African-based" and now operating "in almost every country where you find elephants." Additionally, according to the UN, wildlife crime, of which ivory constitutes a significant proportion, is now a $10-billion-plus annual business – fourth behind drugs, human trafficking, and arms. This profitability has attracted not just organized crime but African militias and rebel groups: Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army – accused of carrying out mass murder – as well as Somalia's Al Qaeda–affiliated Shabaab terrorist group have been implicated in the ivory trade.
"Up north, it's war," a lieutenant with Cameroon's special forces – which recently had been deployed to fight the hunters marauding on horseback through Bouba N'Djida park – told me. "They are not simple poachers. They have GPS, Kalashnikovs, and rocket launchers. They carried the tusks with helicopters."