Last year was the worst year for ivory seizures since an international ivory ban went into effect in 1989. During 2011, authorities seized more than 23 tons of ivory, which represented about 2,500 individual elephants killed.
At the forefront of efforts to track this grim data is Tom Milliken, the elephant expert for TRAFFIC, the group that monitors the international trade in wildlife under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). In that role, the U.S.-born Milliken tracks and analyzes data related to the ivory trade and attempts to raise awareness of the importance of preserving one of Africa’s most iconic species.
Milliken, who has lived in Africa since 1991, attributes the latest spike in ivory seizures to a seemingly insatiable demand for ivory in Asia and the increasingly sophisticated network of criminal gangs that are feeding the market.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Christina Russo, Milliken talked about the factors leading to the continued slaughter of elephants and about the lack of strong law enforcement against ivory traffickers. “The fact that nobody is ever arrested, and there are no prison sentences,” he said of cases where ivory is seized, “just sends them right back into the bush to accumulate more ivory faster because they want to make up for what they just lost.”
Yale Environment 360: Last year was arguably the worst for large-scale elephant seizures since the ivory ban in 1989, with the seizure of more than 23 tons of elephant tusks. Did you see this crisis coming?
Tom Milliken: In one sense, yes. I’ve been running a database, the Elephant Trade Information System [ETIS] for CITES, as the monitoring system for illegal trade. And in every analysis that we’ve done since 2004, illegal trade in ivory has been escalating. The last time we did a major assessment, in 2009, it was escalating at a rate faster and greater than we had seen previously… And there’s nothing that has occurred over the last two years that gives me any hope that things are getting better.
Looking at large-scale ivory seizures in 2011, it’s going off the charts. There were just 13 seizures that generated over 23 tons of ivory. Now, by the time I work in another 800 or 900 seizure cases from the year, it is very likely to show a huge uptick, and that is what I’m really concerned about.
Do more seizures directly equal more poaching?
Milliken: No, not necessarily. Because ivory is not a perishable commodity, it can be stored for a long, long time. And sometimes the seizures that are being made don’t represent recently killed elephants, but a
“The value and price of ivory is up because China is paying more for ivory than other countries were.”
stockpile that has been under lock and key. In many African countries, corruption is certainly an element in this trade; In any number of countries, government stocks of ivory suddenly go missing and end up in trade. Thailand has seized tons of ivory in the last few years. But I have been told by government officials that at least 100 tusks that were in the possession of customs have gone missing, which probably means it was sold on to the market and back in trade.
e360: How much is ivory worth on the black market right now?
Milliken: Well, it’s a question I can’t really answer. Researchers are told stuff, but we are not able to validate it in a real way because nobody is making purchases. But I think the value and price of ivory is up because China is paying more for ivory than other countries were.
e360: How are seizures typically discovered by customs officials? What tips them off?
Milliken: Sometimes there’s intelligence. Sometimes somebody is disgruntled, and they make an anonymous phone call. In China, they have started targeting certain flights, targeting certain types of cargo that are coming into ports in containers for scanning and enhanced law-enforcement evaluation. In Kenya, where we are seeing an uptick in ivory seizures, they have started using sniffer dogs at Nairobi International airport.
We at TRAFFIC have done hundreds of training events all over the world in various languages in the last ten years to sensitize people to ivory trade. I think sometimes this pays dividends. Malaysia, for example, had not made a single ivory seizure since about 2004, if I’m not mistaken. We did a training exercise there last year, and within months, they started seizing and made four or five dramatic seizures of ivory.
e360: Most of these large seizures fail to result in arrests…
Milliken: That’s right…
e360: What does it tell you about law enforcement and the justice system associated with these crimes?
Milliken: Well, first of all, I think these large-scale ivory seizures [involve] organized crime. These large-scale [operations] require an awful lot of money and organized planning to be able to connect producers with induced markets… So it’s not surprising that people aren’t arrested, in a sense, because in container shipping you get layers and layers of people between you and the shipment.
Obviously these criminal syndicates lose an awful lot of money because their cargo has been interdicted. But the fact that nobody is ever arrested — and there are no prison sentences — just sends them right back into the bush to accumulate more ivory faster because they want to make up for what they just lost.
e360: Where is most of the poaching occurring?
Milliken: It is Central Africa. One credible source says there are only five
“After a decade and a half or more of civil unrest”¦ so many areas have been denuded of their elephants.”
places left in the entire Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC] that have more than 500 elephants. This is a huge shock because 15 to 20 years ago people were talking about 100,000 elephants just in the DRC. After a decade and a half or more of civil unrest, there is just a constant attrition of so many national parks and so many other areas have been denuded of their elephants.
e360: Why is ivory so desired in China?
Milliken: Ivory, historically, was a substance from which Chinese artisans would produce magnificent sculptures. But these offerings were only available to the imperial court and the aristocracy in different Chinese dynasties, and perhaps exceedingly wealthy business people. Now, with the phenomenal economic growth that China has experienced, you have more disposable income, more wealth distributed through the population than ever before. So even middle-class people are able to own pieces of ivory. And ivory confers status.
e360: So if you apply the “follow the money” adage to the ivory trade, who exactly is benefiting most?
Milliken: I think the greatest profits are always those middlemen who are bridging Africa and Asia — those syndicate traders who are moving the large consignments. They usually have a ready buyer as soon as they can get it to the end-use locations, so they are able to very quickly turn a profit and not hold onto the stuff. The people who get the least amount of money are probably the poachers, who risk a lot — sometimes their lives — to operate in protected areas in Africa.
e360: Can you describe the profile of the current day poacher? Raoul du Toit, who is working to save rhinos in Zimbabwe, says that poachers are actually quite sophisticated and employ infrared eyewear, automatic weaponry, helicopters…
Milliken: Yes, that is very true. Particularly the “white guy” poachers in South Africa are exceedingly high-tech. The other end of the spectrum are indigent pygmies in Central Africa, where someone gives them a gun and says, “If you come back with ivory tusks, I’ll buy a bag of mealie meal for your family and maybe some clothes for your children.” So this guy goes off, hunts elephants, and hands over the gun and the tusks, and basically gets food. So poaching occurs at a lot of different scales.
e360: What is the process by which an elephant is poached? And since elephants stay close together, are whole families poached at once?
Milliken: The most recent information I’ve been getting is that there are instances now where entire groups of elephants have been found killed with their tusks missing. And this is of course reminiscent of what we saw in the build-up to the CITES trade ban in the 1980s.
We have seen evidence here in Zimbabwe and elsewhere in the region where poison has been used to try to kill elephant groups. Temic [a type of a pesticide] has been put in oranges and put in places where elephants are known to come. Sometimes even waterholes have been poisoned. And once elephants are killed, whether by poison or by gunshots, then usually the poachers have a machete, the tusk is hacked out, and then they carry that away very quickly, leaving the scene of the crime.
e360: Can you explain how conflict and war in Africa affects elephant survival?
Milliken: Well you get both spectrums. Sometimes elephants become the basic food for soldiers in the bush. Uganda almost lost all of their elephants when the Tanzanian army went in to overthrow the Milton Obote regime
“The whole infrastructure of a park can be lost. Law enforcement capabilities and everything can be turned upside down.”
after Idi Amin. And on their way out, they went back to Tanzania through the national parks of Uganda and pretty much just decimated the herds there and took the ivory home… The whole infrastructure of a park can be lost. The law enforcement capabilities and everything can be turned upside down. And people, researchers and elephant conservationists, have to move out or risk being killed. And generally they move out.
On the other hand we have seen where sometimes in conflict you get these “no-man’s lands” where both sides of a conflict are afraid to go… and you end up with these large swaths of land that are essentially unmolested for a long period of time. Suddenly, when peace comes, you go back in there and you’re surprised by the wildlife that you find.
e360: One country that is dealing with a dramatic loss of elephant numbers is Chad. If I’ve read the numbers correctly, there were 40,000 twenty years ago. Now there are only 2,000.
Milliken: Yes, the Chad situation is so difficult because it is part of the Darfur conflict. Traditionally, [militia members] will seasonally go on these long 1,000-kilometer trips through Central Africa, kill elephants, kill rhinos, dry the meat, load up camels, and take the dried meat home. Whole communities just nomadically moving through the landscape and taking elephants and robbing people… And they can outgun the people on the ground trying to protect elephants and are able to come in and just sort of own an area for a while. That is the Chad story.
e360: Which governments in Africa are most committed to protecting and conserving elephants?
Milliken: Eastern and Southern Africa — the savanna areas — is where your wildlife tourism occurs.
e360: Kenya, Tanzania…
Milliken: Yes. And Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia, even countries like Zambia. They realize some economic benefit from having wildlife and having tourists come to see that wildlife. These countries are generally performing better and are more interested in protecting elephants.
e360: Are Asian elephants, and the problems they face, often overlooked?
Milliken: Well the problems in Asia are different than Africa. A big difference is that with Asian elephants, only the males really have ivory. Females have little tiny tushes but they are not really commercially valuable. So that is number one: Your yield of ivory is very, very different.
And because of selective hunting in the ivory trade through millennia, you have a very high instance of tusklessness amongst Asian male elephants. This is obviously an adaptive survival [characteristic]. The net result is that there is very little ivory yield from Asian elephants.
But the second major difference is that human population densities are so much greater than anything we see here in most parts of Africa. Countries like
“I think that for many Africans, in a very personal way, the animal is a totem for their family lineage.”
India, China, and Vietnam — a country that has 87 million people now — it’s not surprising they have only 150 elephants left. Most elephants are in small pockets… And these islands of elephants are increasingly surrounded and cut off by human development and human population. Most elephant killing is not for ivory; it’s for conflict. It’s elephants in your fields, or elephants threatening your children on the way to school.
e360: Can you paint a broad stroke of the African people and what the general tone there is on elephant poaching?
Milliken: To be very frank and honest, your average African is more concerned about health, education and welfare — basic survival needs. Because we live on a continent that has some of the poorest people in the world. But Africans are a very tolerant people and they have co-existed with wildlife at densities that have been lost on almost every other continent. So I think that within the African character, there is this basic recognition of the value of nature around them.
As Africa develops and people want more roads, more development, and everything that we want, of course there is greater conflict with elephants. But I do think that Africa, definitely the political leadership, regards elephants as a bit of a flagship for the continent, like lions. These are the emblematic creatures that everyone associates with Africa. And I think that for many Africans, in a very personal way, the animal is a totem for their family lineage and for their tribes. And I think that links people to wildlife in a very tangible way.
e360: Twenty years ago, after the invory ban went into effect, did you really imagine things would get worse, rather than better?
Milliken: I came to Africa just at the end of the worst elephant carnage that Africa had seen since the turn of the century. The big-game hunting had all stopped by the later part of the 19th Century… But after World War II it started again. And really from the mid-70s through the ‘80s, that was the heyday of the ivory trade.
But what I’m seeing now, the big change is how many Asians are living in Africa and are part of the African landscape. When I came here in ‘91,
Thailand is running the world’s largest unregulated ivory market with impunity.”
a capital city in Africa would have a single Chinese restaurant. Some places wouldn’t have any. Now a capital city probably has 25 Chinese restaurants. I think that is emblematic of how many Chinese, and how many Asians, are here in Africa. And as a result of that, you now have people who are able to rapidly connect the end-use market with the supply at the source, and that is the principal reason we are seeing this escalation.
These syndicates I talk about, this organized crime, this is Asian-run/African-based organized crime. And this is a phenomenon we haven’t witnessed before in the history of Africa. You have seen your European and Middle Eastern entrepreneurs set up and trade ivory at different times in the history of Africa. But this is the first time, in a wholesale way, where you have Asian traders who are highly organized, who are in almost every country where you find elephants, who are actively involved in the procurement of ivory and its shipment to Asian destinations.
e360: In your mind, do you have an optimal plan to save this species?
Milliken: Well, for almost every elephant that is killed in Africa its ivory is ending up in one of two places: China or Thailand. China, I think, is engaged. China is seizing ivory and doing lots of good things — but they have to do a lot more. And they definitely need to be aggressively involved on the African continent with their citizens here, promoting a zero tolerance of involvement in ivory trade and other endangered species trade.
I think they need to complement that by making law-enforcement officers available to African colleagues, so that when Chinese nationals are arrested here in Africa with ivory, the interrogation and the review of cell phones and computer documents and correspondence can be done by law-enforcement professionals who live and work in the Chinese language… I think so much intelligence information is lost because no one in Africa has the ability to understand what it is they have just seized.
China also needs to get very active in funding… China is a hugely wealthy country now. They are putting lots of development money into Africa, but almost nothing into wildlife conservation and building capacity for wildlife professionals.
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With Thailand, the government is dragging its feet. The government may seize something before it comes into the country, but the name of the game in Thailand is: Get the ivory into the country and then our government won’t ever touch it… When you go into the marketplace, ivory is found in abundance. We do these surveys and we’ll identify around 25,000 ivory products for sale in a single survey!… Thailand is running the world’s largest unregulated ivory market with impunity.
I think the CITES parties and the U.S. government could call out Thailand and say, “Look, CITES is very specific about what needs to be in place if you’re allowing domestic trade in ivory. And Thailand doesn’t meet any of the criteria.”…
Honestly, it’s been going on for years, and the toll of dead elephants just keeps mounting. I think we need to take off our gloves and really go for it now.