The war on elephants
How the very existence of Africa’s elephants is threatened by poachers, traffickers and Asia’s appetite for ivory
By Alastair Leithead, BBC News Magazine, April 28, 2016
Every year in Africa between 30,000 and 40,000 elephants are poached for their ivory, and it’s thought there are only 400,000 left.
Even accounting for the newborns, this rate of killing calls into question whether these amazing creatures will still be around in a generation, especially as Africa’s ever-increasing population is reducing the space for them.
Master, Alex and Alan are at the bottom of the chain – the ones responsible for the killing and the destruction – but like illegal drugs, if there wasn’t a market they wouldn’t be paid, and neither would those at every stage along the trafficking route to Asia.
Organised crime runs the ivory industry.
“Corruption is probably the single biggest cause of the increase in elephant poaching,” says Esmond Bradley Martin, who has spent decades talking to traders and traffickers and investigating smuggling routes around the world.
“Most ivory now is going out of Africa through Dar es Salaam and Mombasa, so there’s corruption in those ports as well. Then it has to be shipped over to Asia – mostly Vietnam and China – so there’s corruption all along the line. And it’s obviously increased significantly.”
Many of the complex networks crossing the continent lead to the Kenyan port of Mombasa, which for the past few years has been the hub of African ivory smuggling.
Peter, as he asks to be known, works for a shipping company at the port, doing the “clearing” – receiving containers for export and ensuring their documents are all in order.
Exporting ivory is illegal, but he admits turning a blind eye and helping to smuggle tusks out of the country.
Most of the ivory leaving Kenya originates somewhere else, so a bribe has to be paid to customs officials at the borders on the way in.
“They camouflage it by saying it’s sugar, tea leaves, or any other goods that we import into the country,” he says, nervous to talk to the BBC because of a recent crackdown in Mombasa.
Peter becomes involved when the sealed container arrives at a warehouse at the port to await shipment to another country.
“Someone comes and tells you, ‘We have goods, this is a special consignment, it has to pass through without being checked,’” he explains.
“So we talk to the guys at the port, and they let it go through.”
But it’s a costly exercise.
“Ten thousand dollars (£6,900) is the minimum, because it’s not just one person who gets the money. There are different levels: security guys, officials, even guys in my company who have to be given something.
The last big haul uncovered in Mombasa was in 2013, and Peter says that happened only because security officials weren’t bribed enough.
He then describes a big shipment which left at the end of last year heading to Hong Kong.
“It was passing through Dubai port. I don’t actually know how much the ivory was worth – but it was a 40-foot container, and it got through,” he said.
The ivory is getting through because people are prepared to pay for it. Stopping the men with arrows and the corrupt officials is just one part of the solution – the other is destroying the hunger for ivory.
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