US-Africa summit on wildlife poaching addresses Asian demand

Leaders at US-Africa summit compare notes on elephant and rhino slaughter, and agree curbing demand for ivory and horn is key to survival

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 August, 2014, 8:24pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 August, 2014, 4:30am

Those trying to protect the elephant and rhinoceros populations of Africa often face dangerous criminal traffickers who are bold, enterprising and well-equipped, according to leaders at the US-Africa summit this week.

For that reason, some African heads of state have appealed for more helicopters to protect wildlife ranges, and sophisticated scanners for inspecting cargo for hidden tusks and horns that cost more than gold.

Watch: Poaching in East Africa: urgent action needed to save elephants

But during a discussion on wildlife trafficking, leaders also acknowledged that ending the demand for rhino horn and elephant ivory, primarily from Asia, was essential.

"In the past decade we have seen an alarming trend of increasingly organised, well-equipped and violent criminals turning to wildlife crime," said President Ali Bongo Ondimba, of Gabon.

"Today rhinos are often poached from helicopters by teams with sophisticated communications," he said at a panel discussion with the leaders of Tanzania, Namibia and Togo, along with United States interior secretary Sally Jewell.

The four African leaders, while not necessarily running nations at the epicentre of the poaching crisis, swapped stories about how they had become engaged in a problem that was getting worse.

Last year, 20,000 elephants were slaughtered in Africa, outpacing their birth rate, while in South Africa alone, 1,004 rhinos were killed, a rate of about three a day, Jewell said. "This hugely profitable illicit activity generates billions of dollars in revenue every year, fuelling growth in international criminal syndicates and reversing decades of hard-won conservation gains across the continent," she said.

An alarming trend of … violent criminals turning to wildlife crime

The trade has taken some leaders by surprise, including President Faure Gnassingbe, of Togo, who recounted how he learned last year that a shipment of 1,000 elephant tusks from Togo had been stopped in Malaysia.

"I was really surprised because we don't have that many elephants," he said.

When more tusks originating from Togo were stopped in Hong Kong, he realised that the problem originated elsewhere.

They were being trafficked through his tiny West African nation, home to about seven million people and just over 800 elephants. A search for the criminal led to the arrest of a man who was found with 700kg of elephant tusks, he said.

President Jakaya Kikwete, of Tanzania, described efforts to bolster the capacities of park rangers, who often found themselves in the line of fire and being killed trying to protect animals.

Adding helicopters, drones, and security forces to the nation's wildlife reserves could help, but only if matched by efforts to cut demand in Asia, he said.

"If you are able to stop the market for ivory and rhino horns, definitely you will be able to save these species," he said.

But doing that remains a challenge. Ivory markets in China and Thailand are thriving, and in nations such as Vietnam and China, ground rhino horn is highly prized for its supposed medicinal effects, including the belief that it could cure cancer.