While the ivory wars of the 1980s more than halved the African elephant population in a short decade, we're seeing a resurgence of poaching today that is proving bloodier than ever. Aided by the convenience of modern technology, transport and commerce, illicit trade in ivory to feed the escalating demand in Asia threatens to repeat the elephant holocaust of 30 years ago.
According to a new report released by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) titled "Making a Killing: A 2011 Survey of Ivory Markets in China," elephant ivory -- or "white gold" as it commonly referred to by Chinese investors and collectors -- has quickly become a new source of capital for criminals involved at every link on the global trade chain -- from elephant poaching to ivory smuggling and selling in the market.
IFAW's report reveals widespread abuse of China's ivory control mechanism and large amounts of illegal ivory available for sale in shops, factories and online. The increasingly difficult-to-control market, the high-profit, low-risk nature of illegal ivory trading and a growing demand for ivory products in China are key drivers of elephant poaching across Africa.
Earlier this year, a tragic killing spree in Cameroon's Bouba Ndjida National Park found half of Cameroon's elephants dead and slaughtered for their ivory. Last month, Sri Lankan authorities seized around 350 illegal elephant tusks weighing nearly 1.5 tons in Colombo port, marking the single biggest ivory haul in the island nation. This follows an unprecedented surge in ivory seizures that occurred in 2011. Altogether, it has been reported that an astounding 5,259 elephant tusks -- totaling more than 23 tons -- were seized worldwide last year alone, representing the lives of at least 2,629 dead elephants.
Although the rampant poaching of elephants is taking place abroad, this issue hits extremely close to home for Americans as well. Elephants are a mainstay of American entertainment, social, and even political culture, but most people don't realize that the U.S. is believed to be the second largest ivory market in the world. A 2008 report by IFAW titled "Killing with Keystrokes" uncovered nearly 4,000 elephant ivory listings as part of an investigation into Internet wildlife trade, with most of the sales taking place on eBay's U.S. site. Consequently, eBay voluntarily instituted a ban on the sale of ivory products not only within the U.S. but worldwide.
This troubling epidemic can no longer be ignored and must be accepted as a global issue that can only be solved with global involvement. The U.S. took the first steps toward confronting this challenge head-on on May 24, when the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led by Sen. John Kerry, held a hearing to examine the global security implications of elephant poaching in Africa.
The hearing -- which included testimonies from Iain Douglas-Hamilton, renowned elephant conservationist, and John Scanlon, Secretary-General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) -- acknowledged that the illicit trade in wildlife is not only a serious global environmental crime with profoundly negative impacts for endangered species protection, ecosystem stability and biodiversity conservation, but it is also a real and increasing threat to national and global security.
On behalf of IFAW, I call on concerned people around the world to demand that their governments oppose any further international trade of ivory, tighten the regulation and control of all ivory markets, and help range states protect elephants where they live. Furthermore, as individual consumers we should say "no" to ivory.
As Sen. Kerry remarked during the hearing, "It is said that the elephant never forgets. Well, nor should we."
Fred O'Regan is President and CEO of the Massachusetts-based International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).