Only 15 per cent (18) of the 117 seizures made between 2000 and 2015 were sent for forensic DNA analysis to determine where the elephants were killed. As a result, many opportunities have been lost, the EIA says, to identify the world’s elephant poaching hotspots.
Those 117 seizures amounted to more than 210,000kg of ivory, which represented an estimated 31,571 elephants – only a small fraction of the number of elephants that have been poached since 2000.
The largest-ever seizure made during the period in question was 7.2 tonnes of ivory in Singapore in 2002, including more than 6 tonnes of tusks and 40,000 carved hankos or name seals. In that case, it’s known that the ivory originated from elephants killed in Zambia, passed overland through Malawi to Mozambique, and was shipped from there via South Africa to Singapore, with China its intended destination. The ivory came from an estimated 900 elephants. One man was fined $3,000 for his role in the operation, but no other member of the syndicate – which included individuals from at least six different countries – was ever convicted, despite a wealth of evidence against them.
Many large-scale shipments are controlled by criminal syndicates who are rarely prosecuted. In 2014, one particular syndicate is believed to have sent 20 containers to mainland China, and none of them was intercepted.
More than 660kg of ivory – 24 elephants tusks – was discovered and confiscated from a public venue in Warwickshire in 2003, along with leopard skins, two elephant skulls, 14 elephant feet and one rhino head. At the time the ivory was estimated to be worth £250,000 on the black market, the horn a further £100,000.
Different types of cargo are used to disguise the shipping of ivory, including plastic waste, timber, seaweed and stone sculptures. Nearly two tonnes of ivory was seized from a residential house in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania in 2013 where it was being hidden among garlic and snail shells for transport. Two Chinese nationals were convicted and sent to prison, but two other, more important suspects fled and are still wanted by Interpol.
The University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology has estimated that 50,000 elephants are being poached every year. At this rate and with an estimated population of 400,000, it says that African elephants could be extinct within 10 years.
Most of the African ivory that is intercepted can be traced back (when the proper analysis has been done) to two main regions – the so-called Tridom protected ecosystem of West Africa which spans parts of Gabon, the Republic of Congo, Cameroon and Central African Republic and the area of East Africa that includes the Selous Game Reserve of Tanzania and the Niassa Reserve of northern Mozambique. This second poaching hotspot is gradually shifting north.
A US national Victor Gordon acquired 400 pieces of carved elephant ivory, said to be worth $800,000, and illegally had them smuggled into the US in 2006, where he sold them as legally obtained items in Philadelphia. In 2014, Gordon was sentenced to 30 months in prison and fined $7,500; he was also ordered to forfeit $150,000 and one tonne of elephant ivory.