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Fueling World Ivory Trade Spells New Threat to Africa's Elephant Population


An upsurge of elephant poaching in the Democratic Republic of Congo has resulted in the killing of 14 elephants in the past two weeks by militias, the military, and local villagers. Four were felled by an ex-Rwandan Hutu FDLR militia, formerly known as Interahamwe. Three elephants were murdered by the local Mai-Mai militia (PARECO), five by the Congolese military (FARDC), and two by local villagers. From eastern Congo’s Virunga National Park where the slaughter occurred, Emmanuel de Morode, who heads the conservation group Wildlife Direct, says the killing frenzy was also encouraged by a readily available pool of weapons.

“There’s a widespread availability of automatic rifles that make it easy to kill wildlife. But on top of that, there’s been an increased incentive in demand for ivory,” says de Morode.

The Belgian anthropologist has spearheaded efforts to restrain the bushmeat trade in eastern Congo since 1993, helping safeguard Virunga’s renowned gorillas and also the west African gorilla population of Gabon. De Morode says the latest elephant deaths are part of a widespread killing-for-profit campaign across the Congo Basin.

“There’s a belief that the ivory market is going to open up. As a result, certain groups are going in to kill elephants. This isn’t limited to Virunga. It’s believed to be pretty widespread across the Congo Basin. There’s been a massive reduction reported in (Congo’s) Garamba National Park in the last few years. And this is a park that recently had 12-thousand elephants and is now estimated to have less than half of that number,” he says.

Economically, the brutality is being prompted by a liberalization of the world’s ivory trade. De Morode says the killings also coincide with South Africa’s lifting this week of a 13-year moratorium on elephant culling.

“As soon as there’s a sense that that ban on the international trade of ivory is going to be lifted, even before it actually happens, there’s an upsurge in the killing of elephants,” he notes.

In addition, a rising Chinese presence in the region is stimulating the market. The Wildlife Direct CEO says the pursuit of ivory is just one of many African resources which Chinese entrepreneurs send back to Asia to augment China’s vast engine of manufactured goods to sell.

“What we’ve found is that with the increasing commercial activity covering a number of areas, there are a number of infrastructure projects that are developing in the Congo Basin, in particular in the eastern DRC. There are road-building projects that are run by Chinese companies. And alongside that, there are a number of commercial activities, including the purchase of natural resources for the Chinese market – timber, wildlife resources, and of course ivory is very much part of that. And by Chinese entrepreneurs, there’s a spin-off effect,” he suggests.

While a doubling of South Africa’s elephant population between 1995 and the presence signals success for that government’s cooperation with conservation-driven efforts to slow down the ivory trade, Emmanuel de Morode says the debate is still open about whether it is more important to save the species rather than to enlarge the world ivory pool.

“That’s one of the great debates in conservation. There’s no question that the South Africans have done a remarkable job in protecting their elephants and managing their wildlife population. But at the same time, the issues are not just to do with South Africa’s elephants. It’s to do with the species as a whole. And unfortunately, while one has to respect the effectiveness of South Africa’s conservation work, one also has to look at the species as a whole across the continent. And when laws are relaxed in South Africa, it has an impact on the whole elephant population. And that’s why international conventions and international laws exist – to ensure that the safety of the species as a whole is secured,” he said.

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