Ivory trading nations exposed


(Featured image: Chinese customs officials prepare to destroy confiscated ivory in Guangzhou. Credit International Fund for Animal Welfare, CC BY-NC 2.0)

The twenty-eight countries most responsible for the deaths of African elephants have been revealed in a new report, but other major offenders avoided censure as they failed to provide information or seize any ivory. Three years ago there were just eight, but now the countries most implicated in the illegal ivory trade have grown almost fourfold.

Apart from some elephant range states, such as Tanzania, being major poaching hotspots; or even the predominant ivory consumer state, China; other countries like Togo, Qatar and Vietnam are guilty of being major transit hubs for the illicit flow of ivory. And it’s not just in Asia or Africa, where criminal syndicates operate, but also many European countries like Belgium and Austria are as guilty of contributing to the illegal trade that has seen almost a third of Africa’s population wiped out in just seven years.

In order to determine how badly they fared, the report released by the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS), places countries into categories of Primary or Secondary concern and ‘of importance to watch’. For example, China, Hong Kong, Kenya, Malawi, Malaysia, Singapore, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda and Viet Nam – all countries of primary concern – collectively account for the greatest quantity of illegal trade based on the size and amount of ivory seizures that have taken place over the past decade.

However, the data is somewhat misleading because a country like Kenya gets slapped with the label of primary concern because it prevented many large shipments of ivory from reaching Asia. Kenya therefore gets a bad rap for doing a relatively good job (although Kenya has yet to improve its conviction rate of ivory traffickers).

On the other hand, Laos, which is notorious as a major transit country of illegal ivory flowing from Africa into China, is simply considered ‘of importance to watch’. This is mainly due to the fact that the south-east Asian country failed to report a single seizure since 1989 and therefore cannot be adequately categorised according to the ETIS criteria.

Together with Laos, some of the worst offenders – Nigeria, Mozambique, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, Egypt, and Japan – are distortedly not listed under primary concern because of their unwillingness to provide data or to report confiscated ivory – if, of course, illegal ivory was confiscated at all.

Countries of Primary Concern

Of the group of ten in this category, China remains the main destination country for illicit ivory, and has been in every ETIS analysis since 2002 in spite of positive public announcements, demand reduction campaigns and tougher penalties to crack down on the illegal trade.

Hong Kong, which is regarded as separate to China, functions primarily as a transit intermediary for ivory destined for the Chinese mainland, but the territory also has one of the world’s largest domestic ivory markets. There are widespread allegations that Hong Kong’s domestic market is engaged in large-scale illegal ivory laundering.

Viet Nam serves as a major transit country for ivory destined for China. The report says there is new evidence suggesting that locally ivory is being found for sale in considerable quantities. Of particular concern are a series of villages in the vicinity of Hanoi that reportedly support a growing cross-border market in wildlife products with China with relative impunity.

Tanzania and Uganda along with Kenya collectively constitute the greatest illicit sources of ivory flowing out of Africa. These countries however are making strides in cracking down on the criminal syndicates, but Tanzania remains the largest elephant poaching hotspot in the world, according to the results of the Great Elephant Census.

Secondary Concern

Of the nine countries of secondary concern, Gabon, Congo and Cameroon, are the source of the most significant quantities of ivory from forest elephants. Nigeria has a major domestic market and serves as a significant entrepôt of ivory flowing out of Africa and also serves as a transit hub of illegal ivory to Asia. It has demonstrated a notable unwillingness to prevent the trade and provide ETIS with data.

South Africa surprisingly appears either unwilling or unable to provide ETIS with data “due to lack of a centralized reporting system and the fact that most provinces fail to submit data directly.”

On the other end of the scale, Ethiopia’s “dataset in ETIS is, since 2011, one of the best of any African country.” It is, however, an important air transport hub connecting Africa with Asia.

Thailand was switched from primary to secondary concern simply because there were no large-scale ivory seizures in the period 2012-2014. This has improved the country’s standing in the current analysis, but the country remains one of the biggest gateways of illegal ivory into China.

Importance to Watch

The Philippines, which along with Thailand was part of the original gang of eight, was moved from being a ‘country of primary concern’ to a ‘country to watch’. However, it still has a domestic ivory carving industry focused on the production of religious artifacts.

Of countries of importance to watch not already mentioned, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are two of the world’s most important air transport hubs for illegal ivory between Africa and Asia.

The remaining countries in this group – Japan, Angola, DRC, Egypt, Mozambique and Laos – all have significant domestic ivory markets and contribute heavily in the illegal international trade of ivory flowing out of Africa and into China, but again because of the lack of seizures and/or compliance with ETIS data, they do not get graded beyond ‘importance to watch’.

Off the Radar

One of the most notable aspects of the ETIS report is the absence of the names of countries beyond the twenty-eight where ivory is also illegally traded.

South Sudan, Sudan and Somalia are major players in ivory poaching where the trade has been linked to funding terrorist groups such as Al Shabaab and Lord’s Resistance Army. In Asia, Myanmar and Indonesia serve as transit highways into China but have somehow escaped notice, while in Oceania both Australia and New Zealand have recently been implicated in the illicit trade.

Despite recent moves to close it down, the USA still has the second largest domestic ivory market behind China and is renowned as a hotbed for the laundering of illegal ivory from Africa while many countries in the European Union, such as Germany, Spain and Austria, have recently reported significant ivory seizures.

For some reason, these countries have not warranted categorization even though the report does mention them, which is strange given that countries like Belgium and the Czech Republic also have thriving domestic ivory markets that have been implicated in widespread laundering of illegal ivory, both within their borders and as major exporters of ivory to Hong Kong and China.

Thus, while the ETIS report lists countries according to their level of ‘concern’, the criteria used is limiting and ultimately misleading since some of the worst offenders, in terms of poor law-enforcement and even complicity, are not considered as the key players in the global illicit trade of ivory. At the same time, there are scores of other countries that fail to even make the list. Far greater attention is therefore required in order to begin the process of plugging the profusion of gaps that allow the continued flood of ivory out of Africa.


Originally published by Conservation Action Trust at: http://conservationaction.co.za/media-articles/ivory-trading-nations-exposed/

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