By Simon Musasizi, The Observer
The fight to save Africa’s elephants has reached China, arguably the biggest market for ivory – the single most important reason the giant beast is quickly becoming an endangered species.
China recently destroyed six tons of confiscated ivory, raising hopes for progress in the war against illicit trade in the commodity, most of which comes from Africa. The destruction of the ivory took place in Dongguan city in the southern province of Guangdong, a major hub for the ivory trade.
The statistics tell a much deeper story. In 1930, there were between five and ten million wild African elephants; by 1990, when they were added to the list of critically endangered species, only about 600,000 remained. By 2009, the elephants in Africa stood at 500,000. Most fingers have been pointed at China as part of the reason behind this decline. China’s rapid economic growth continues to build a burgeoning middle class that can afford–and is demanding greater quantities for ivory.
Recent surveys indicate that a large portion of China’s population is unaware of the death toll to create ivory and rhino horn products. Many think ivory is grown on trees in Africa; they have no idea that their current demand for ivory is estimated to claim the lives of as many as 35,000 African elephants annually.
“Excess demand for ivory is the root of the elephant poaching crisis. All other efforts to stop the killing of elephants will be useless if the world doesn’t stop buying ivory. China’s leadership could save Africa’s elephants,” said Dr Iain Douglas-Hamilton, CEO of Save the Elephants, in a press statement issued by Brian Adams, WildAid US Communications Director.
In the statement, WildAid, Save the Elephants, and the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), applauded China’s decision as a way of sending out a message to Chinese of how devastating their luxury has had on the African wildlife. In 2013, the NGOs, along with former NBA superstar Yao Ming and actress Li Bing Bing, called on China to raise awareness about elephant poaching, to reduce the demand for ivory, and protect endangered wildlife.
“The demand for illegally-traded ivory negatively impacts Africa’s tourism industry and reportedly contributes to funds used by terror and insurgent groups,” said WildAid’s Executive Director Peter Knights.
WildAid spearheaded a campaign in 2006 to reduce the demand for shark fin soup in China. Through its partnership with Save the Elephants and AWF, similar public awareness tactics are being used to inform consumers of the impact of ivory demand.
“As the largest ivory market in the world, China has a significant role to play in combating the illegal trade in ivory,” said AWF’s CEO Patrick Bergin.
“We commend the Chinese government for taking this important first step and hope it signals their sincere and growing commitment to help end the elephant slaughter in Africa.”
Uganda has faced its fair share of illegal trade in ivory. Last year, cases of confiscated ivory were on the rise, with the biggest catch coming from Bweyogerere, where Uganda Revenue Authority impounded ivory amounting to 1,903kg (worth Shs 6.4bn) in containers destined for Mombasa. The consignment had 832 pieces of ivory, which means that about 416 elephants were killed.
Later, some Chinese and Guineans were arrested with 116kg of ivory at Entebbe airport. Towards the end of 2013, another consignment of about 1,000kg was impounded at Entebbe airport. Earlier there were other several cases around Fort Portal town, which is situated close to some national parks.
According to Abiaz Rwamwiri, AWF Uganda’s communication officer, AWF has launched dual public awareness campaigns aimed at combating illegal wildlife trafficking from the suppliers and the buyers.
“‘African Voices for Wildlife’ is taking place in Africa; the ‘Say No’ campaign is focused in Asia,” he said.
The campaign, which will be popularised through advertisements on billboards, at airports, on buses, among others, will prominently feature Africans expressing outrage, distress and sorrow about the current poaching epidemic and the impact this could have on them and future generations.