China's unprecedented economic growth in the last three decades has created a new monster: “the suddenly wealthy Chinese,” whose lust for ivory is causing the death of at least 100 elephants a day in Africa's slaughter jungles
Elephants used to mingle with the Maasi tribe in southern Kenya. Believing that they also have souls, the Maasi people revered them as almost humans. In a sense, they provided the largest creatures living on earth today with a safe haven where they are rarely hurt nor killed.
Their neighboring tribes would even go so far as to say that elephants were once humans themselves. That they have become elephants is but because of their vanity. Even so, none among the tribes people would dare to lay their hands against any of the elephants. For doing so would eventually mean being accursed themselves.
But that is not so anymore. The elephants' flashy tusk are now meant to be the target of most, if not all, of African poachers, whose business ultimately boils down to that of satisfying the lust of human vanity thousands of miles away from home.
So laments a concerned member of the Maasi tribe, “In the last few years, everything has changed. The need for money has changed the hearts of Maasi.”
Kenya's tourism business suffered a great blow in 2008 when it was cut into half by the local post-election ethnic violence and the global economic woes. Then also came the worst droughts to ever hit the country in living memory. All of a sudden, many Kenyans, the Maasis included, found themselves stripped of their rather scarce sources of living. Aside from losing their jobs, many of their cows died. And so were their crops. Life, which for centuries has known nothing but abject poverty, only became much more difficult since then.
Then came an “opportunity,” with the sudden rise of the price of ivory. It's a risky business, though. Should any one dares to venture into it, as their tradition informs them, it would mean misfortune on the family. But their empty stomach constantly compels them to break what their tradition forbids. For this reason, many of them have decided to join the growing army of poachers elsewhere across the vast African continent.
There had almost been no poaching around the more than 39,000-hectare Amboseli National Park (which used to be home to about 1,200 elephants) in the last 30 years. That was so until a Chinese construction company started building the 70-mile long highway just above the park in 2009.
As investigative journalist Alex Shoumatoff puts it, “Since the road crews arrived, in 2009, four of Amboseli’s magnificent big-tusked bulls have been killed, and the latest word is that the poachers are now going after the matriarchs—a social and genetic disaster, because elephants live in matriarchies, and removing the best breeders of both sexes from the gene pool could funnel the Amboseli population into what is known as an 'extinction vortex.'”
The second most popular in the country, the Amboseli park is located across the Kenya-Tanzania border, and is easily accessible to both tourists and ivory brokers. Right there, elephant tusks are sold at somewhere around US$20 per pound, which, for the poverty-stricken Africans, smells like a fortune.
Last year alone, elephant rich areas in Africa witnessed the arrest of more than 150 Chinese citizens for smuggling ivory.
But this sad story goes beyond the Kenya-Tanzania border. Shoumatoff notes that “across the continent, in their 37 range states, from Mali to South Africa, Ethiopia to Gabon, elephants are being killed, some believe, at the rate of around 100 a day, 36,500 a year.”
This figure, however, is too conservative at any rate, Shoumatoff admits. While it is nearly impossible to get to know the exact number of elephant population in the continent, some say that they run from 400,000 to 600,000, with as many as 60,000 of them being slaughtered yearly for ivory's raw material – their tusks.
But it's not only poverty that encourages Africans to join the notorious army of poachers. Shoumatoff notes of an Al-Qaeda affiliate African youth militia called Al-Shabaab, “has been coming over the border and killing elephants in Arawale National Reserve. Ivory, like the blood diamonds of other African conflicts, is funding many rebel groups in Africa.” To which Kenya Wildlife Service director Julius Kipng’etich adds, his country “is in the unenviable position of sharing over 1,700 kilometers of border with three countries with civil wars that are awash with firearms: Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan.”
Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times confirms this to be the case, referring to Africa's notorious armed groups like the Lord's Resistance Army and the Darfur's janjaweed, “hunting down elephants and using the tusks to buy weapons and sustain their mayhem.” Organized crime syndicates, officials say, are linked up to these groups to move the ivory around the world, “exploiting turbulent states, porous borders and corrupt officials from sub-Saharan Africa to China.”
The business of poaching elephants and ivory deals, however, is not the outlaws' monopoly. As Gettleman is quick to note, only in April this year, guards of the Garamba National Park in Congo reportedly spotted a Ugandan military chopper attempting to hunt elephants within the vicinity.
“They were good shots, very good shots. They even shot the babies. Why? It was like they came here to destroy everything,” laments Paul Onyango, Garamba's chief ranger, who for 30 years have never grown tired in fighting poachers.
Twenty-two elephants were then killed, while the Ugandan soldiers spirited away more than US$1 million worth of ivory, according to Congolese officials, who also noted that the Ugandan military is America's closest ally in Africa.
China's Suddenly Wealthy
But why is there such a kind of booming underground business in Africa?
If the great African elephanticide of the 1970s and the 1980s was driven by Japan's economic boom, Shoumatoff and Gettleman agree that it is China's “suddenly wealthy” that is to blame for today's massive elephant slaughters. As Shoumatoff describes them, they are the middle-aged Chinese “who have just made it into the middle class and are eager to flaunt their ability to make expensive discretionary purchases.”
Back then, Africa's elephant population was greatly reduced from official estimate of 1.3 million to some 600,000. Kenya had it down to 15,000 from 150,000. Today, it has been officially declared to be twice as that.
An astounding 70% of this illegal ivory trade is now happening in mainland China, catering to vast majority of middle-class Chinese lust for ivory who have so far pushed its price to a staggering US$1,000 per pound. So that ivory chopsticks, cups, rings, combs, bookmarks, which are traditional symbols of wealth and status, are selling almost like hotcakes in China. Even high-ranking Chinese military officers, says Gettleman, are guilty for their fondness for ivory trinkets as gifts.
Robert Hormats of the US State Department must have been right when he said, “China is the epicenter of demand. Without the demand from China, this would all but dry up.”