Vanity Fair – Agony and Ivory

Vanity Fair Magazine: By Alex Shoumatoff – August 2011

Highly emotional and completely guileless, elephants mourn their dead—and across Africa, they are grieving daily as demand from China’s “suddenly wealthy” has driven the price of ivory to $700 a pound or more. With tens of thousands of elephants being slaughtered each year for their tusks, raising the specter of an “extinction vortex,” Alex Shoumatoff travels from Kenya to Seattle to Guangzhou, China, to expose those who are guilty in the massacre—and recognize those who are determined to stop it.

… In 2008, post-election ethnic violence followed by the global recession halved tourism to Kenya, making the wildlife in the parks even harder to protect. Then, in 2009, one of the worst droughts in living memory hit much of the country. More than 400 elephants in Amboseli died. The Maasai lost many of their cows and are still struggling, while the price of ivory is higher than ever, so increasing numbers of them are risking the misfortune that killing an elephant could bring on their families, according to their traditional thinking, and are getting into poaching. There are brokers just across the Tanzania border who are paying cash—around $20 a pound—for raw ivory and selling it to the Chinese. Or perhaps there is a series of transactions, a series of middlemen, but ultimately what is not being picked up by the Kenya Wildlife Service’s sniffing dogs at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, in Nairobi, is making its way by all kinds of circuitous routes to China, where raw ivory is now fetching $700 or more a pound. Ninety percent of the passengers who are being arrested for possession of ivory at Jomo Kenyatta are Chinese nationals, and half the poaching in Kenya is happening within 20 miles of one of the five massive Chinese road-building projects in various stages of completion.

There had been almost no poaching around Amboseli for 30 years before a Chinese company got the contract to build a 70-mile-long highway just above the park. 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.”

Unfortunately, this problem isn’t limited to just Kenya. 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. But like so many things in Africa, it is impossible to know how many elephants there really are (estimates run from 400,000 to 650,000), how many are being slaughtered for their tusks (figures range from “more than 4,000” to “as many as 60,000” a year), or how much ivory is being smuggled to Asia (over the last 10 years, an annual average of roughly 45,000 pounds has been seized in Asia or en route).

To read the full 8 page article please go to:

Two new articles on rhino horn…

As the price of rhino horn soars to twice that of gold, police have warned museums to take precautions after a spate of thefts.

In the last six months, some 20 thefts of horn have been recorded from museums and auction houses across the UK and Europe, according to the Metropolitan Police Art and Antiques Unit.

Organised criminal gangs are often using “smash and grab” raids and have shown they are willing to use force, the unit said in a statement.

It said the increase has been triggered by a significant rise in the value of rhino horn, used in traditional Asian medicine, which can now reach up to 60,000 pounds per kilo, twice the value of gold.

Several significant seizures have been made recently by customs officers worldwide, and there has been a great increase in rhinoceros poaching in South Africa, it added.

“We advise all museums, auction houses, stately homes or private individuals who are in possession of rhino horns to be extra vigilant and review their security arrangements,” the unit said.

“Consideration should be given to removing rhino horns from public display and storing them in secure locations, informing the public that the items have been removed.”

Reuters, July 8 2011:

Good work by the Hawks and the South African Revenue Service.
South Africa’s elite Hawks have arrested a Thai national at his residence in Edenvale. The suspect had used legal trophy hunts as a cover for acquiring rhino horn, which he sent abroad for illegal use in traditional Chinese medicine.
The South African Revenue Service (SARS) stated that the alleged trader had an “order” for 50 rhino horn sets in his possession when he arrived in the country last month.
The suspect arrested today entered South Africa on Monday 13 June this year when SARS Customs officials searched him and found various documents, invoices, an order for 50 sets of rhino horn, a computer and a cell phone that were detained for further investigation.
He was arrested in connection with several violations of the Customs and Excise Act, most notably section 80 (1), which deals with the “improper use of permits in respect of goods”.
The name of the trophy hunt business involved in the scheme was not provided.
Also noteworthy is that two Thai nationals, identified as Phichet Thongphai and Punpitak Chunchom, were arrested last month Edenvale for trading in lion bones.
The pair is employed by a Laos-based company known as Xaysavang Export Import. They were approached by South African game farmers who wanted to sell lion bones, which are frequently substituted for tiger bones in traditional Chinese medicine.
Britt’s comments:
Would there be any way to find out who these “game farmers” are…?  Also, a way to protect the legal/permitted big game hunters – who legally hunt lion in SA and leave “the bones” which I would assume is all of them except for some floating bones and skull.  How do you then deal with Vietnamese clients who legal obtain hunting permits for the sole reason to come and bring the horn back to their country for medicinal use?