African Ivory Headed for One-Time Auction

Sometime early next year, tons of African ivory will be sold at auction to Japan. Despite the international ban on the trade, South Africa, Botswana and Namibia will be allowed a one-time purge of their stockpiled ivory. Conservationists hope the sale won't reignite widespread demand for elephant tusks.

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Sometime soon, tons of African ivory will be sold at auction to Japan. Despite the international ban on the ivory trade, South Africa, Botswana and Namibia will make a one-time purge of some of their ivory stockpiles. Japan is the only country that has enough safeguards to keep the tusks off the black market. There will not be another auction like this until 2015, if ever, as this year's sale demonstrates handling ivory is a lot like juggling dynamite.

NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports.

GWEN THOMPKINS: If Esmond Bradley Martin has one thing to say to you and me and anyone else who might be listening, it's this.

Dr. ESMOND BRADLEY MARTIN (Conservationist): If I was going to die today, my biggest contribution academically would be to show that except for one small area in India, rhino horn has never been used by Asians for sexual purposes, not at all. But it's in all Western literature and it's also in some Eastern literature, which is a great pity.

THOMPKINS: He would know. Bradley Martin is one of the world's foremost authorities on illegal trade in big-game animals. Apart from the sex stuff, Bradley Martin says people come at rhino horns for a couple of reasons. One might make you well, and the other might kill you.

Dr. BRADLEY MARTIN: There are two main uses for rhino horn: One is for Eastern Asia, where it is used for lowering fever especially for children. So as you know, mothers and parents will spend almost any money at all to cure the child. So it's not a luxury item. The other main use for the last couple of thousand years has been making dagger handles up in Yemen. The daggers are called jambiyyas. And the best handles are made out of rhino horn. It's very prestigious in Yemen.

THOMPKINS: Ever heard of Africa's big five? These are the animals people generally want to see on lawn safari: rhinos, lions, leopards, buffalo and elephants. Under the strictures of international wildlife conventions, hunting of the big five is severely restricted.

In Kenya, hunting is outlawed altogether. But truth be told, commercial big-game poaching has never stopped. Africa's already small black rhino population has been wiped out in some countries, and about a hundred tons of illegal ivory come out of Africa every year - without the elephants, of course.

Mr. JULIAN BLANK (MIKE Program, United Nations): At the regional level, certainly the proportion of illegally killed elephants seems to be much higher in Central Africa, followed by Eastern Africa, followed by West Africa, and the last one is Southern Africa.

THOMPKINS: That's Julian Blank of the United Nations' MIKE Program. MIKE is an acronym for Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants. Unlike rhino horn, ivory has no purpose other than to look good. Before the ban in 1989, every nation truck in tusks.

Japan, for instance, carved more than a million name seals a year out of ivory to use as stamps in place of signatures on documents. Since the ban, the Japanese have been using other materials to make the seals. But they and plenty of other ivory lovers worldwide want to buy more.

Again, Julian Blank.

Mr. BLANK: There is an ample range of views to the effective use of the ban. People say that it is what saved elephants from extinction. And other people would tell you that it's actually what is causing elephant populations to decline in other parts of the continent.

THOMPKINS: In the late 1970s, Africa was home to well over a million elephants and hundreds of thousands of rhinos. But as the bans on rhino and elephant hunting took effect, a massacre to end all massacres wiped out their numbers across the continent. It was like looting a store that has announced it was going out of business.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, at one time, had several thousand rhinos. Today, it has three or four total. Chad, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda have no rhinos left at all.

Mr. PHILIP MURUTHIE (Director, Conservation Science, African Wildlife Foundation): Now, how do you detect poaching? Of course, you see the carcasses.

THOMPKINS: Philip Muruthie directs Conservation Science at the African Wildlife Foundation. He and others say that a perfect storm of political instability on the continent, gross mismanagement of wildlife and massive corruption set the stage for rampant poaching in the 1970s, '80s and early '90s. Nowadays, he says, there are two additional driving forces to be reckoned with - hunger and a taste for the exotic.

Mr. MURUTHIE: There is also another kind of new sort of poaching of the common hoofed animals. Things like Thomson's gazelle, the common zebra, giraffe. You see the heads, and you see the hides. You heard of the bushmites(ph) trade, the illegal bushmite trade that is feeding our cities.

THOMPKINS: Increasingly, Africans are eating elephants, too. Moses Litoroh coordinated the Elephant Programme at the Kenya Wildlife Service.

Mr. MOSES LITOROH (Coordinator, Elephant Conservation Programme, Kenya Wildlife Service): This is war. The poaching wants war. I mean, you are coming across people that are - they will kill you. They are, you know, armed with automatic fire power. So you are going to lose men like in any battle.

THOMPKINS: Earlier this year, he says, there was a battle on the northern coast of Kenya, near the border with Somalia.

Mr. LITOROH: We lost three rangers, three of our rangers. We lost lives whether we kill five of them, and these were bandits from Somalia.

THOMPKINS: So who is the biggest importer of ivory and rhino horn? That would be China.

Esmond Bradley Martin has followed the ivory trail from the kills to the marketplace. He says the poachers make about $25 to $30 a kilo for ivory. But after it changes hands a few times, a kilo of ivory can go for 5 to $600, and the Chinese are willing to pay.

Dr. BRADLEY MARTIN: A few years ago, I was working up in Khartoum in Sudan and there are craftsman there are making ivory. I found 50 shops selling ivory - all illegal - and (unintelligible) I estimate 75 percent of the buyers were Chinese. Now I photographed them and published them.

THOMPKINS: Twenty years ago, China was in the market primarily to sell carved ivory, mostly to foreigners. Now as their economy booms, more and more Chinese are buying ivory for themselves.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

THOMPKINS: One of the surest ways to track elephants is to follow the, well, you know what. That's how the experts do it. Here at Masai Mara, Kenya's protected wildlife savanna, an elephant has died.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

THOMPKINS: As the carry-on birds pick at the remains, rangers remove the tusks and send them directly to ivory store houses maintained by the Kenya Wildlife Service. Ranger David Otieno(ph) says that after a few days, they slide out like loose teeth.

Mr. DAVID OTIENO (Ranger, Masai Mara): You know when it dies, it rots from -you can even just shake them to remove.

THOMPKINS: But there's a hard truth for wild animals outside the Masai Mara and other government-protected sanctuaries in Kenya, a truth that even spills over to other areas of Africa.

Outside the protected sites, they are widely resented. An elephant can eat an entire maize crop in one night, and a lion can eat any number of domestic animals night after night after night. They and the rest of the big five are also known to kill people.

NIMBY is the rule here - Not In My Backyard.

Dr. MICHAEL NORTON-GRIFFITHS (Ecologist): Every wild (unintelligible) at these has blue jeans, a Mercedes and sends their kids to Harvard. You're not going to get that if your ranch is full of zebras and (unintelligible).

THOMPKINS: Ecologist Michael Norton-Griffiths is among a growing number of conservationists who want more legal hunting in Africa and in Kenya in particular. He says limited hunting, along the lines of what is now happening in southern Africa, Tanzania and Uganda, gives value to wild animals when they venture outside of protected sites and on to private property, a value that they would not normally have.

Dr. NORTON-GRIFFITHS: If you go on to somebody's ranch and try and kill a cow or drive a cow away, you will end up dead. You'll look like a porcupine. There'll be so many spears at you. Why? Because that cow has value. You go on to a guy's property and take an impala, and the guy will say thank you, great. Take some more. They won't stop you in any way because those animals have no value at all. In fact, they have a nuisance value.

THOMPKINS: In some parts of Africa, for instance, hunters pay thousands of dollars to kill one elephant. Some of that money goes toward conservation and some goes into the hands of local communities.

That kind of money, Norton-Griffiths says, transforms an elephant from a pest to a prize. But that is exactly what has other conservationists worried, that in an upcoming auction, 60 tons of stockpiled African ivory to Japan. As the massacres of the past suggest, there is such a thing as too much value and potentially a whole new wave of poachers looking for piles of you know what.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Nairobi.

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