African witnesses to illegal wildlife trade tell of its devastating impact, after China relaxes ban
- James Mwenda tended to world’s last male northern white rhino. Of China easing its ban on rhino horn trade, he says, ‘It’s sad to see the dark side of humanity’
- Lee White, battling to save the forest elephants of Gabon from ivory poachers, says it’s a fight for the country’s future too
James Mwenda is in Hong Kong this week to deliver a message for a dead friend, fulfilling a promise in the process.
On March 19, the game warden at Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy bid farewell to Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, who was put down aged 45 (90 in rhino years) after a long illness. All that is left of the subspecies are two females – Najin and her daughter Fatu, Sudan’s daughter and granddaughter. It seems that IVF is the species’ only hope.
“His death is the catalyst for my message,” said Mwenda on the phone from the non-profit wildlife conservancy in Kenya’s Laikipia County. “I am giving Sudan the voice he did not have.”
His is a much-needed voice.
Last month, China relaxed a 25-year trade ban on rhino horn and tiger bones, saying it would allow the sale of rhino and tiger products under “special circumstances” that include scientific research, sales of cultural relics, and “medical research or in healing”.
Demand for rhino horn and tiger bone is largely driven by their supposed health benefits.
Traditional Chinese medicine claims the products can do medical magic, from curing cancer to boosting virility, despite no scientific evidence backing the claims.
Rhino horn is made from keratin, the same substance that hair and fingernails are made from.
The WWF says opening Chinese markets for tiger and rhino would have “devastating consequences”.
Mwenda agrees: “That decision by China [to ease the ban] has compromised the whole well-being of our animals … it’s sad to see the dark side of humanity, one driven by greed.”
Mwenda’s first visit to the city is part of Hong Kong Elephant Week (November 12 to 17) organised by The Elephant Foundation (TEF) with support from the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF).
Mwenda will join Daniel Ole Sambu, a Maasai tribesman who works with the Big Life Foundation that coordinates cross-border anti-poaching operations in East Africa, on visits to 14 schools around the city to raise awareness about the cost the ivory trade is having on Africa’s wildlife.
“It’s crucial we visit schools to educate the young, uncorrupted minds. They are future leaders.”
Hong Kong is considered the world’s largest ivory market, and plays a major role in the slaughter of 30,000 African elephants annually, according to the WWF.
An estimated 350,000 African elephants remain, a drop from about 490,000 a decade ago, according to the 2016 Great Elephant Census. Poaching is the main reason for the rapid decline.
Beijing’s nationwide ban on the ivory trade came into effect on January 1 while Hong Kong lawmakers in the same month voted to phase it out gradually, stopping completely in 2021.
Hong Kong recently increased penalties for offences under the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants Ordinance. Before May 1, the maximum punishment under the law, which covers illegal trade in wildlife and animal parts, was a fine of HK$2 million, and two years in prison. The maximum fine was increased to HK$10 million (US$1.3 million) and the maximum prison term to 10 years.
As director of Gabon National Parks, Professor Lee White knows the devastating impact the demand for ivory from countries such as China, Vietnam and, surprisingly, Japan, has had on elephant numbers in the former French colony in Central Africa.
British-born White is in Hong Kong as guest of the Elephant Protection Initiative, an alliance of 19 African countries that hosted a fundraiser last week.
“Gabon has incredible natural resources,” says White. “It has forests and wildlife and 800km of beach with whales and dolphins.”
It also has 50 per cent to 60 per cent of the world’s remaining 45,000 forest elephants, the smaller, less common subspecies of the savannah elephant.
“Scientists in the mid 1980s estimated Gabon had about 60,000 to 65,000 forest elephants,” he says. The country lost a third of its forest elephants between 2004 and 2011, and in Africa as a whole their numbers have fallen by 75 per cent in the past 15 years.
Ivory from the straight-tusked forest elephant is highly sought after by traffickers.
“The ivory is harder, which makes it favoured by Japanese carvers,” says White on his first visit to the city. “When I look at those carvings all I see is a dead elephant … I can even smell its rotting carcass.”
He most likely also sees the destruction of his livelihood.
White is in charge of Gabon’s 13 national parks (88 per cent of the nation’s territory still covered in forest) and their 850 guards.
He joined the parks agency in 2009, two years after it was established. Back then it had about 100 staff, no cars, and one boat. “And that boat was in a car park.
“Today we have over 800 staff, about 175 cars, mostly out in the field so staff don’t have to hitchhike to the national park, about 35 boats, four planes and a helicopter, so we’re a functioning national park.”
The agency also has a lot of weapons.
White’s biggest challenge while growing the parks is battling poachers who operate with the help of illegal gold miners and Baka pygmies, the indigenous people of the forest. And White means battle.
“We’ve become paramilitary. We’ve had to turn biologists into soldiers, policemen and spies.
“I’ve gone from Professor White the scientist to being a sworn-in police officer. That was never my plan in life,” the softly spoken White says.
White says poaching is a complex problem of corruption, organised crime and terrorism. He says he has evidence of money going to Boko Haram, the militant group based in Nigeria.
“You have terrorist groups and you have mafia-type groups and illegal corrupt military groups.”
White says protecting Gabon’s natural resources is a priority.
“If we lose control of the natural resources then we lose control of the country. It’s a slippery slope,” he says, adding there a parallels showing African countries that have lost most of their elephants have fallen into civil war.
“Because rhino, at US$60,000 a kilo for their horns, and elephants at US$2,000 a kilo for their tusks, are the most valuable commodities that the poachers can make the biggest profit, they become the indicators … If the populations are crashing then there will be some serious problems down the line.
“We’re not just trying to secure the future of the elephants but the future of the country. You can’t separate them.”
Both White and Mwenda have had to arm themselves to protect their continent’s wildlife from Asia’s insatiable appetite for ivory and rhino horn.
Mwenda hopes people realise how committed those on the ground are, working around the clock in tough conditions. Sudan, for example, was under 24-hour armed guard to protect him from poachers.
“If we don’t make every effort to protect our wildlife now then future generations will have nothing,” Mwenda warns.