Conservationist Richard Bonham has been combating the ivory trade in Kenya for 40 years. Now the ‘white Maasai’ is shining a light on Hong Kong’s dirty little secret, writes John Vidal
Most tourists who walk into Hong Kong’s many licensed ivory stores and carving factories browse the displays of statues, pendants and jewellery and accept the official assurances that it all comes from sustainable sources.
But not the reserved middle-aged man who last month went into a shop in Queen’s Road Central. What started with a few polite questions about the provenance of the objects on show turned swiftly to confrontation. Within minutes he was furious and the owner had threatened to call the police.
Having spent nearly 40 years trying to protect elephants and other African wildlife from poachers, Richard Bonham says he was shocked to see, for the first time, the Hong Kong stores where most of the world’s ivory ends up. The statistics, he says, show that Africa’s elephant population has crashed from 1.3 million in 1979 to about 400,000 today. In the past three years alone, about 100,000 elephants have been killed by poachers and more are now being shot than are being born. Rhinos are on the edge, too.
For a Hong Kong shopkeeper, each trinket is something to profit from. But for Bonham, they tell a story of cruelty, desperation and exploitation.
“I wanted to see for myself. Yes, I was angry. There’s no other word for it. I saw the shops with huge stocks that, despite the import ban, are not dwindling. Yet the [Hong Kong] government has chosen not to recognise or address the lack of legitimacy of their trade.
“The experience of seeing the end destination of ivory was important to me. It completed the circle from seeing elephant herds stampeding in terror at the scent of man, from seeing the blood-soaked soil around lifeless carcasses to whimsical trinkets in glass display cases.”
Bonham is a co-founder of the Big Life Foundation, which, with help from conservation organisations such as Tusk, now employs more than 300 community scouts to protect the wildlife on 800,000 hectares of wilderness in the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem, in southern Kenya, at the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro.
In London last week to receive the Prince William Lifetime Achievement Award for conservation, he produced a Hong Kong government document that showed how the former British colony holds more than 100 tonnes of ivory despite a 25-year-old import ban that was meant to eliminate all stocks 10 years ago. It is proof, he says, that the Hong Kong government knows its traders have been topping up their stocks with “black”, or illegal, ivory from poached elephants, yet does nothing.
Back in Africa, he says, the trade causes carnage and impoverished environments.
“I have watched [the number of] elephants in the Selous Game Reserve, in Tanzania, drop from over 100,000 animals to probably less than 10,000 today and that number is still falling. During a one-hour drift down the Rufiji River three years ago I was seeing up to six different elephant herds coming down to drink. Now I see none – they’ve gone, back to dust and into the African soil, with their ivory shipped off to distant lands. There is a silence on that river that will take decades to fill – if at all.”
But despite the statistics, he says he is upbeat for conservation, at least in the Amboseli National Park, in Kenya, where Bonham lives among the Maasai.
“It’s not all bad news, it’s not too late. We have got poaching there more or less under control. We are seeing elephants on the increase and lions, which 15 years ago were on the verge of local extinction, have increased by 300 per cent. But probably more importantly we are seeing local communities setting aside land for conservancies and wildlife.
“Our recipe has been simple. We are dealing with communal Maasai lands – a 6,000 sq km ecosystem. We have employed 300 guys from the communities and placed them around the park in outposts. They know the people, so it’s a huge informal network. They have a vested interest in stopping poaching. They are all on a salary and incentives.
If they recover a firearm or ivory, each team gets about US$1,000. If they recover bushmeat from hunters they get less.
Since 2011, they have made 1,420 arrests and 3,012 weapons have been confiscated.”
The compensation scheme costs about US$300,000 a year to run, with money coming from Western wildlife groups and the profits from a small tourist lodge that Bonham set up.
The work is a mix of education, development and conservation, he says. Big Life has built schools and the Maasai have been taught to use a global positioning system and bloodhounds to track poachers.
“There are several types of poacher. One group comes over from Tanzania. They are sometimes armed, sometimes bushmeat guys. Then there are gangs from Somalia and guys from the communities. People get shot. I’ve been threatened many times. But my game scouts are risking their lives every day out in the bush. So why should I be any different?
“The communities who live with these wild animals are spurred on by a new awareness and economic incentives made available through conservation. They now own and drive the process; they fight for conservation, not against it. One of our sergeants said to me the other day, when we found an elephant carcass with its face hacked away, ‘When I started this job I was just doing it for the money. Now, when I see this, I get angry … very angry.’” But he accepts his community game scout approach to conservation may not work everywhere.
“What we have done would not necessarily work in other areas, like Tsavo, which is eight times larger than Amboseli.” But it could be applied on its boundaries, he says. “In the long term, I think the only way that wildlife [in Africa] will be protected is with fences.”
The lessons have been learned over a lifetime on the frontline of conservation. Bonham’s parents came from a now extinct generation of British colonial wildlife guards. His father, Jack, was one of Kenya’s first game wardens and lost a leg to an elephant; his mother was the daughter of another warden. He himself is now known as Enkasi – “the white Maasai”.
“My first wildlife memory, at the age of five, was hanging on to my father’s shorts watching him shoot what at that time was considered vermin. It was a black rhino. For a very young kid to see his father shoot a rhino left a very strong impression. There was this huge dead animal.
My wife’s grandfather, also a colonial game warden, was given the task to shoot 1,000 rhino in one small area to clear land for settlement. That was only 60 years ago. Today a large part of my life is spent protecting the last eight remaining rhino from this very same population.
“It is extraordinary how things have changed. It was such a different world in those days. A game warden’s job then was anti-poaching and protection but a huge part of it was dealing with problem animals, like rogue elephants. There was only one form of control then, and that was lethal. You shot them.”
These days, he and his teams avoid killing where possible but predators such as leopards, lions, cheetahs and hyenas are a constant problem.
It’s a mystery to wildlife conservationists and animal welfare advocates how, with such high demand from mainland tourists (many of whom have little awareness of the poaching crisis in Africa), the total amount of “legal” ivory in Hong Kong has changed so little in the last three years. According to Hong Kong government statistics, the total stood at 116.5 tonnes in 2011, 118.7 tonnes in 2012 and 117.1 tonnes last year. In that time, the number of holders of licences to possess ivory increased from 431 to 447. So, why isn’t this stockpile going down?
The change from 2011 to 2012 is explained by the government as “a net increase of 2.2 tonnes of registered ivory from non-commercial to commercial purpose”.
It’s an open secret that many tourists who come to Hong Kong smuggle ivory products back home. Fines and penalties for ivory trafficking remain low: six-month sentences were handed down by a Hong Kong magistrate to 16 Vietnamese ivory traffickers caught red-handed at Chek Lap Kok airport in June.
Ivory-buying tourists are indirectly fuelling the global illegal wildlife trade – the fourth largest type of illegal trafficking, after those in drugs, arms and people. Furthermore, the sale of an ivory trinket from a store in Mong Kok, Sheung Wan or North Point could be financing terrorist militias in Africa, such as al-Shabab, Boko Haram or the Lord’s Resistance Army.
The Hong Kong government, which says it still has 18 tonnes of seized illegal ivory from the 28 tonnes it began incinerating in May, could do so much more to raise awareness about this urgent issue. It could start by legislating for a complete ivory trade ban, to help save the magnificent African elephant before it’s too late.
Alex Hofford is founder of Hong Kong for Elephants and a wildlife campaigner for WildAid.
“An elephant can trample a crop in 10 minutes. This year we have had four people killed by them. We try to scare them. We have guys out at night. We use bangers and paintball guns to shoot chilly bombs. When one hits an elephant, they get a whiff and a sore nose. But they realise that big bangs are not dangerous. They learn.
“I am not optimistic [generally] about the elephant or the rhino. But there are solutions. The whole reason it is happening is because ivory is so valuable. You will never succeed with law enforcement on its own.
You must get the price down. There’s a lot of temptation.” According to Bonham, one elephant’s ivory can fetch as much as US$10,000.
“In the 1980s the market for ivory was Japan, Europe and the EU. The Bloody Ivory campaign educated people and the market fell.
“Kenya is passing a new wildlife act making killing an elephant much more serious. That helps. But you have to get the price to drop. Policing is not enough. It has to come from both ends. China, Kenya – everyone must act.”
Guardian News & Media
Hong Kong continues to be a hub for the illegal ivory trade
It is a little known fact that the blame for the elephant poaching crisis of the 1980s, which resulted in the global ivory ban of 1989, can be laid squarely at the feet of Hong Kong’s ivory traders. And they’re still at it.
Although it has been proven that Africa lost 100,000 elephants from 2010 to the end of 2012, no one in authority in Hong Kong is questioning how the city’s ivory traders are still able to dip into stocks that should have been depleted long ago. (Traders were allowed to keep and use any stocks of ivory they had when the 1989 ban came into effect.)
Local concern groups have recently been staging protests outside some of the stores that still openly sell ivory in the city – ivory that is almost certainly sourced from elephants killed illegally since 1989. A quick carbon-14 test to verify the age of the ivory would probably confirm this.
I met Richard Bonham, of the Big Life Foundation, while he was in Hong Kong a few weeks ago, and was happy to share with him the data I have been collecting on the city’s dirty little ivory-trade secret, so he could take them to a wider audience. Looking at the graph I shared with Bonham (see page 30), it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that local ivory traders are topping up their supposedly legal stocks from somewhere.
The city’s ivory traders appear to be making fools of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. Of course, much of the ivory smuggled into Hong Kong is bound for the mainland, but it seems probable that a substantial amount remains in the city, to be sold to tourists.
This article can be found in the following link: http://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/article/1659309/asias-world-city-epicentre-ivory-trade