The Jakarta Post | Hotli Simanjuntak and Ruslan Sangaji,
Banda Aceh/Palu | Archipelago | Wed, March 20 2013, 10:47 AM
Paper Edition | Page: 5
Institutions affiliated with the Aceh Spatial Planning Alliance have urged scientists and conservationists to push the Aceh provincial administration to amend the spatial planning bylaw (RTRW), which they say is potentially damaging and could reduce the region’s forests, threatening its biodiversity.
Aceh is regarded as having the largest biodiversity in Asia Pacific, especially with the Leuser Ecosystem, which is currently a giant laboratory for scientists from across the globe.
The region is also where many wildlife species can be found, such as the rhinoceros, Sumatran tiger, orangutan and elephant.
According to Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) director TM Zulfikar, the Aceh RTRW is loaded with the interests of particular individuals and sacrifices the environment and sustainability of local communities living in the conservation area.
“We reject the proposed Aceh RTRW. Many people wish to take advantage of natural resources in Aceh, such as the forest in Aceh Tamiang, which will be turned into other areas in the planned RTRW,” said Zulfikar.
In the planned Aceh RTRW, the government plans to convert around 1.2 million hectares of forests into a limited forest production zone by converting it into plantation and mining areas and other purposes.
In the draft, drawn up in 2009, Aceh’s forested areas reached 3.57 million hectares, or around 63 percent of the total land area of Aceh. Should the proposed RTRW be accepted by the central government, Aceh could lose up to 2.5 million hectares of its forested areas.
Ian Singleton, from the Sumatra Orangutan Conservation Program, said the change in forest area allocation proposed in the draft RTRW had the potential to shrink major water resources, such as rivers, that irrigated rice fields in Pidie regency, as well as bringing the threat of flash floods and landslides.
Meanwhile, biodiversity experts from 25 Asia Pacific nations are gathering in Banda Aceh, Aceh, to attend a conference on tropical biodiversity protection sponsored by the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC). The meeting is aimed at promoting research as well as raising people’s awareness about the importance of tropical biodiversity and conservation.
The conference is being facilitated by the Aceh provincial administration through Syiah Kuala University, Fauna and Flora International (FFI) and the Strategic Resources Institute, under the theme, “Linking Biodiversity Science to Policy and Conservation Action”.
The conference is taking place from March 18 to 22 and will be followed with a trip to Ulu Masen forest, one of the forests in Aceh that has the biggest biodiversity in the province.
Aceh was chosen to hold the meeting because of its biodiversity reputation.
“There’s no other place in the world like Aceh, where species live in the same area. That’s why we chose Aceh to hold this meeting,” said ATBC secretary Antony J. Lynam.
“One of the biggest problems faced by tropical diversity is the defragmentation and loss of forests. There’s so many cases where deforestation has contributed to the depletion of species like the rhino, tiger and orangutan,” said Lynam.
Separately, Central Sulawesi is also facing deforestation and environmental degradation. The province lost 600,000 hectares of a total of 4.3 million hectares of forest areas in 2012.
Central Sulawesi Forestry Office head Nahardi said critical forests were found in 10 regencies, such as Donggala (147,504 hectares), Poso (118,893 hectares) and Parigi Moutong (99,997 hectares).
Nahardi added that 220,288.33 hectares of the total forested area in Central Sulawesi had experienced deforestation and degradation.
He said the office had initiated several strategies, such as a rehabilitation and conservation program, to reduce the area of critical forests across the province.
- Protect a major ecosystem from destruction (sunsetdaily.wordpress.com)
- Sign the Petition to Stop Aceh Province Governor From Opening Rainforest to Logging (gettingonmysoapbox.wordpress.com)
Environmental activist from Aceh, Rudi H. Putra, Friday (23/2/13) received an international award on nature conservation, “Future For Nature Award” from The Netherlands, which is awarded by the Future For Nature Foundation to young people for their engagements, innovations and strong spirits to protect critically endangered species and conservation areas.
Rudi has been chosen by 10 juries consisting of world’s leading conservation experts coming from different countries. Together with Samia Saif, a Bangladeshi active in tiger conservation, and Dr. Lucy E. King, a British activist of elephant conservation in Kenya, Africa, Rudi has been overcome another 98 candidates from 45 coutries.
Rudi is the first Indonesian winning this award. The award was given at Arnhem’s Burger’s Zoo in The Netherlands, a wild life conservation centre writing it’s success in the breeding of world’s species since 1913.
Jane Goodall, a famous world’s conservationist handed over the award to the recipients. Goodall spent more than 33 years for the protection of the African chimpanzee, and Saba Douglas Hamilton, artist and presenter engaged in the protection of African elephant.
All three awardees gave each a presentation during the event’s highlight. Rudi presented the efforts of protecting rare species in Sumatran Leuser, such as elephant, tiger, rhino and orangutan.
Graduated for Biology in the University of Syiah Kuala in Banda Aceh, Rudi is now studying for his master at the Agriculture Institute of Bogor majoring Tropical Biodiversity Conservation. He spent 13 years in species conservation efforts within Leuser Ecosystem. In this area, he conducted routing patrols to prevent poaching and actively led restoration of forest areas converted into oil palm plantation.
Rudy, who once worked for the Leuser Ecosystem Management Board (BPKEL), a special office managing the famous conservation area. This office is unfortunately dissolved by the Governor of Aceh. Still, the conservation and monitoring efforts are now continued by the former staff of BPKEL, indeed very limited. They collect funds from former employee or from private donation of concerned people.
This action is to prevent poaching and further forest destruction in Leuser. Rudi was appointed as the Chairman of BPKEL Employees Forum established in December 2012, as a platform for the former employees to continue their works to further protect the Leuser Ecosystem.
- Leuser Ecosystem Under Serious Threat (endoftheicons.wordpress.com)
- Large blocks of Sumatra’s endangered rainforest may be put up for mining, logging (endoftheicons.wordpress.com)
- NGOs slam forest concession reactivation (endoftheicons.wordpress.com)
- Conservation group rescues baby orangutan ripped from mom (endoftheicons.wordpress.com)
- Extinction risk as Aceh opens forests for logging (endoftheicons.wordpress.com)
- Pictures: Saving Sumatra’s Orangutans (news.nationalgeographic.com)
A camera trap caught video of a mother tiger and her two cubs in a protected Sumatran forest, the first evidence of breeding in this location, conservationists say.
The footage was captured in Sumatra’s Sembilang National Park. Scientists from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) have documented evidence before of the endangered species in nearby Berbak National Park.
The video of these big cats shows the mother and her two youngsters walking past the camera. Scientists said they estimate the cubs are less than a year old, according to a ZSL release.
“This is the best early Christmas present, and we are absolutely delighted to find the first evidence of breeding in Sembilang,” said Sarah Christie, ZSL head of regional conservation programs, in a statement. “We will continue working with leaders of both national parks as well as the government to ensure the areas are better protected and well patrolled.”
The finding gives scientists some hope; there are only 300 Sumatran tigers, the smallest of the tiger species, estimated to be in the wild, according to the release. Camera traps have also caught video of tapirs and sunbears in the nearby Berbak forest.
Sembilang and Berbak National Park are some of the only places in the world where these tigers remain, according to the release.
The idea that a zoo is the sole or even best repository for learning is risible
By Damian Aspinall
Over the past century, thousands of species have disappeared from our planet, and many more are on the critically endangered list. Yet even as we wantonly destroy nature’s great habitats, and hunt species to extinction, we console ourselves with the thought that we are preserving many species in zoos and wildlife parks.
As the owner and operator of two such parks – Howletts and Port Lympne in Kent – you would expect the Aspinall Foundation, founded by my late father John, to argue that it is sometimes right to keep animals in captivity. Although we do agree that there are times when the interests of the species can be best served by animals being kept in captivity, we believe that it is scandalous that so many zoos around the world remain packed with often miserable animals, kept in unnatural conditions where they remain incapable of breeding, despite frequently being paired biblically, two by two.
In these zoos, lions, tigers, elephants, rhinos and other wonderful creatures exist in these conditions largely, if not solely, for humans to gawp at, on the pretext that they and their children are being educated about the wonders of the natural world. This view may have been partially justified up to the advent of the digital age, and the spread of information via television. Today, the idea that zoos provide the sole – or even the best – repository of learning is risible.
At the Aspinall Foundation, we believe that mankind owes it to nature to re-evaluate the role of zoological institutions in the 21st century and to change the way we think about animals in captivity. The ultimate aim should be to render zoos and wildlife parks obsolete – including our own.
The continuing presence of animals in captivity is, we believe, a sign of mankind’s failure. Of course, we are not anarchists or Luddites. There is certainly a role for such animal collections for at least the next two or three decades. But it can no longer be for the simple collection and display of animals.
Rather, the beating heart of any such institution, anywhere in the world, must be true conservation. This means that the rationale for maintaining collections of wild animals – always, preferably, in wildlife parks with large open spaces – has to be the protection of endangered species, coupled with sustainable breeding programmes and projects to reintroduce them to the wild. The ultimate aim should, wherever possible, be the return of the captive and captive-bred creatures with whom mankind is privileged to share the planet.
The Aspinall Foundation has worked tirelessly to become a world leader in the captive breeding of endangered species. Our animal parks have seen the births of 135 gorillas, 33 black rhinos, 123 clouded leopards, 33 Javan gibbons, 104 Javan langurs and 20 African elephants. Our charity manages conservation projects in Congo, Gabon, Indonesia and Madagascar, as well as providing financial support to partner projects around the world. We are dedicated to helping prevent some of the most endangered species on the planet from becoming extinct.
We do this through restoring, wherever possible, animals to their natural habitats and by protecting those habitats. Between 1996 and 2006, we released 51 gorillas in the Congo and Gabon – into an area of some million acres which had been the first large wilderness area to see gorillas hunted to extinction. In the coming year, the foundation is planning to release from its parks an entire family of 11 lowland gorillas, six Javan gibbons and eight Javan langurs. Three black rhinos have already been released this year, and are all doing well.
The work is not easy, and requires dedication and resources. But it offers a possible blueprint for the future of animal conservation, away from the confines of crowded zoos – which serve better to illustrate the arrogance of man than the glory of the animal world he has done so much to destroy. We believe in the right of animals to coexist on our planet, and that the wilderness is Earth’s greatest treasure. We must all act now to save it.
- Zoos and wildlife parks are no way to treat an animal (telegraph.co.uk)
- London Zoo should close because it is ‘sign of our failure as a species’, says campaigner (standard.co.uk)
- The beasts from Brazil: country aims to clone endangered species (guardian.co.uk)
- Zoos of New Zealand (gorentals.co.nz)
- South Africa Rhino Poaching Leads To 455 Dead So Far In 2012 (huffingtonpost.com)
- Guest commentary: Zoo’s work to save endangered species gets noticed (stltoday.com)
- Top 10 International Zoos And Animal Sanctuaries (essentialtravel.co.uk)
IN LATE August 2009, a tiny, solitary bat fluttered about in the rainforest near Australia’s infamous Christmas Island detention camp. We don’t know precisely what happened to it. Perhaps it landed on a leaf at dawn after a night feeding on moths and mosquitoes and was torn to pieces by fire ants; perhaps it succumbed to a mounting toxic burden placed on its tiny body by insecticide spraying. Or maybe it was simply worn out with age and ceaseless activity, and died quietly in its tree-hollow. But there is one important thing we do know: it was the last Christmas Island pipistrelle (Pipistrellus murrayi). With its passing, an entire species winked out of existence.
Two decades earlier, the island’s population of pipistrelles had been healthy. A few scientists had watched the species’ decline with concern until, after the million or more years that it had played a part in keeping the ecological balance of the island, they could see that without action its demise was imminent. They had done their best to warn the federal government about the looming catastrophe, but they might as well have been talking to a brick wall. The bureaucrats and politicians prevaricated for three years, until it was too late.
While Australians argued about the fate of the asylum seekers who shared the pipistrelles’ home, nothing effective was done to help the bats. Indeed, except for those watching scientists, few seemed to give a thought to the passing of the species, nor what it might mean for Christmas Island or our country.
The pipistrelles’ extinction was painful for me. In an attempt to avert it I met Peter Garrett, then the environment minister, and warned him of the impending loss. I had brought offers of assistance and expertise from the Australian Mammal Society to his attention. The society was confident the species could be saved – at a cost of perhaps only a few hundred thousand dollars. But Garrett was convinced by the orthodoxy that ecosystems rather than species should be the focus of the national conservation effort, and I got the message that nothing would be done. Saving the bat wasn’t an impossible mission: it’s just that the government and the people of Australia, one of the richest countries on earth, decided it wasn’t worth doing.
What really shook me was that it was the first extinction of a mammal in Australia for 60 years, and the first in my lifetime. My original professional expertise lies in mammalogy and palaeontology, and before the pipistrelles’ demise I believed the worst of Australia’s extinction crisis was behind us – that somehow my generation was wiser and more caring, and would not tolerate any more losses of Australia’s unique mammals. It’s now clear that those 60 years were a lull in the storm, and that the pipistrelles’ demise marked the beginning of a new extinction wave.
Australia’s first extinction wave began almost as soon as the First Fleeters stepped ashore, and by the 1940s it had carried away 10 per cent of the continent’s mammal species. In 1791, a convict wrote about the white-footed rabbit rat, saying that it was a pest in the colony’s food stores. The soft-furred, grey-and-white kitten-sized creature was arguably the most beautiful of Australia’s 70-odd native rodent species, yet it was destined to be one of the earliest victims of European settlement. Two hundred years ago it could be found in woodlands from near Brisbane to Adelaide, but the last record of it dates to the 1850s.
The thylacine and the toolache wallaby were the largest creatures to succumb in the first extinction wave. These extinctions were, however, atypical: indeed, one of the most astonishing aspects of the first extinction wave was that its victims included what had been the most abundant and seemingly secure mammals in Australia.
The causes of these extraordinary extinctions were varied. The cessation of Aboriginal burning doubtless had its effect, and until the 1930s bounties were paid by many state governments for the scalps of now-extinct creatures. But the depredations of foxes (which were spreading quickly by the early 20th century) and feral cats, and the wholesale destruction of native vegetation by livestock and rabbits, must have been important causes.
While the causes are disputed, the effect of the first extinction wave is clear: it gutted the biodiversity of the drier parts of the continent, and very few native mammals larger than a rat and smaller than a kangaroo can be found on Australia’s inland plains today. It’s the absence of such species – the so-called critical-weight-range mammals (they weigh between 500 grams and 5 kilograms), which were once among the most abundant of creatures – that has led me to characterise the national parks of Australia’s southern inland as ”marsupial ghost towns”.
The gathering second extinction wave is now mopping up the few surviving medium-size mammals in Australia’s south and inland. It’s not difficult to predict which will be the next to become extinct, for, like the pipistrelles, their decline has been charted for years. There are 15 frogs, 16 reptiles, 44 birds, 35 mammals and 531 plants on Australia’s endangered species list, and among those closest to the brink are three mammals: the central rock rat, the bridled nailtail wallaby and the numbat.
All hang by a thread, and next to nothing effective is being done to halt their slide into oblivion.
The second extinction wave is emptying vast swaths of the continent untouched by the first wave. Australia’s Top End and Kimberley were, until recently, a paradise for medium-size mammals, among them a close relative of the white-footed rabbit rat. The past two decades have seen this fauna all but exterminated in the Top End, even in our most valued and best-resourced national parks.
Perhaps it is excusable that Australians are unaware of the extinctions occurring in distant places such as Arnhem Land and other regions of our far north. But astonishingly, we also seem blind to the perils facing species much closer to home – for example, the sand flathead of Port Phillip Bay. A fish familiar to every Melburnian who has ever dangled a line, its population has declined by 97 per cent over the past decade.
Why should the extinction of Australian organisms concern us? The answer, I think, is almost precisely the same as to the question of why human rights are important, even when they concern people we’ll never meet. First and foremost, it is a matter of values. The demise of a bat may not weigh greatly in the balance of human wellbeing, but it speaks volumes about the human soul.
As with human rights, extinctions raise the question of where we draw the line. If we can stand by as a species of bat is snuffed out, then why not other species as well? Can we really expect poor Indian villagers to heed our pleas to conserve the tigers that menace their livestock if we do nothing to prevent the extinction of Australian species?
At the heart of this nation’s efforts to save its endangered species is a register of subspecies, species and ecological communities that are threatened with extinction. By law, each entity included on the list should have a detailed recovery plan written for it, which when implemented should save it from extinction. These plans classify species on a sliding scale – from vulnerable to critically endangered or extinct. The federal legislation governing these plans states: ”Recovery plans are binding on the Australian government – once a recovery plan is in place, Australian government agencies must act in accordance with that plan.”
What a wonderful reassurance! It’s a pity, then, that the system underpinning the promise is as rotten as Miss Havisham’s wedding cake. By their fruit ye shall know them: since the legislation mandating action plans was enacted in 1992, only a single vertebrate species has become so abundant as to merit being taken off the threatened species register. But saltwater crocs are atypical of Australia’s endangered species in that the threat they faced was simple: when the shooting for skins was stopped, the species recovered.
Why are we failing so abjectly in protecting our threatened species? The pitifully slow rate at which recovery plans are being drafted is one factor. In New South Wales, for example, in the past 20 years recovery plans have been completed for only about 10 per cent of all species listed as vulnerable to extinction.
Things get worse. In 2006 the federal government excused itself from the obligation to draft plans for species listed as vulnerable to extinction. As a result, if the environment minister decides for whatever reason not to draft a plan, then it simply isn’t done. And even if a plan is completed, there’s no guarantee that it will receive funding.
Why are action plans so often failing to help species recover? The glacially slow development of the plans, along with the lack of obligation to fund and report back on them, are clearly major impediments. But there are other problems. Some plans do not describe how species might be saved. Instead, they often state that more money is required for research before appropriate action is taken.
Such is the depth of public ignorance about Australia’s extinction crisis that most people are unaware it is occurring, while those who do know of it commonly believe that our national parks and reserves are safe places for threatened species. In fact, the second extinction wave is in full swing and it’s emptying our national parks and wildlife reserves as ruthlessly as other landscapes. This is disturbing: national parks exist explicitly to conserve biodiversity, and their failure to do so is a failure both of government policy and our collective will to protect our natural heritage.
The problem lies not with the parks’ staff, who are often dedicated and skilled at their work. Nor does it lie solely with budgets, although more funding rather than more cuts would always be welcome. Instead, the difficulties are at least threefold. First and foremost, the problem stems from the delusion that the simple act of proclaiming a national park or nature reserve will result in the protection of biodiversity. Parks must be proclaimed and effectively managed if biodiversity is to be protected.
Second, the various government agencies responsible for biodiversity protection have allowed their scientific capacity to erode to the point where it’s hard to be sure how many individuals of most endangered species survive; and third, the attempt to save endangered species involves risks that bureaucracies are increasingly unwilling to take.
The first duty of the bureaucrats these days seems to be to protect their minister from criticism: thus it often seems preferable to let a species die out quietly, seemingly a victim of natural change, than to institute a recovery program that carries a risk of failure.
Australian politics, and the bureaucracy that supports it, is failing in one of its most fundamental obligations: the conservation of our natural heritage. The times also suit cynical self-interest: cash-starved state governments, ever more desperate for income and political support, are rolling back even the inadequate present protections, and economic pressures are making it difficult for not-for-profit organisations that focus on nature protection to make ends meet.
What to do? As this saga of ignorance, folly and malice unfolds, it has become clear that those working outside government have a crucial role to play in conserving our biodiversity. Indeed, I believe that it is action by the private and not-for-profit sectors, working with government, that holds the key to protecting our endangered species in a competent and affordable manner. Australians need to take a look at ourselves.
This is an edited extract from Quarterly Essay 48, After the Future: Australia’s New Extinction Crisis by Tim Flannery, published on Monday by Black Inc
- Were Tasmanian Tigers Unfairly Driven to Extinction? (history.com)
- Farewell, Furry Friends (theglobalmail.org)
- No-extinction targets are destined to fail (conservationbytes.com)
- Knowledge of marine species still largely unknown: New Zealand researcher (nzweek.com)
- Searching for a silver bullet: Measuring biodiversity to inform species conservation (esciencenews.com)
- Biodiversity hotspots in the southwest region of Western Australia (abc.net.au)
Listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List as critically endangered, meaning they face an extremely high risk of extinction in the immediate future, these animals may not live to see the end of the next decade without the a similar effort of human intervention that brought them to the brink in the first place.
Although featured in the list is the little known Sumatran Rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) and well known Sumatran Orangutan (Pongo abelii) missing in the list is also the Sumatran Elephant (Elephas maximus ssp. sumatranus) and Sumatran Tiger (Panthera tigris ssp. sumatrae) to round out the iconic ‘big four’ of the Sumatran jungle, all of which are classified as ‘Critically Endangered’ and found within the Leuser Ecosystem.
Is this really the end of the icons, or is this just the point in history where we turned things around? What we do next matters, what
you do now counts.
- VIDEO: Sumatran tiger to meet his match (bbc.co.uk)
- Sumatran Orangutan Species on the Brink as 3,950 Acre Tripa Peat Swamp Decimated (endoftheicons.wordpress.com)
Returning from the river after bathing, Rosa does her best to stand, (or even lay down), under Sucis feet. Watching a little elephant running is adorable!
The rangers have begun taking her to the river for baths, and she loves it – her Mama (Suci) draws water up her trunk and drinks it, were as Rosa hasn’t got this skill yet, and just pushes her face into the water and blows bubbles with her trunk while trying to drink. Sooo funny to watch. She also lays on her side in the water and kicks around playing, while her mama is trying the bathe. Sounds familiar?
Rosa is slowly gaining some control of her truck, and can pull your hand quite strong apparently trying to eat your fingers. She doesn’t trip on it when she runs now, but does always lay in front of Sucis feet seeking attention when Suci tries to walk anywhere..
The bond between mother and daughter is exceptional, everyone is really impressed with Suci for her patience, and the rangers for their support.
Sumatran Elephants are classified as threatened species, and illegal roading, forest conversion, community encroachment, poaching are all taking a toll on numbers across Sumatra.
You can help Rosa and her baby elephant family by getting involved to help save the threatened forests of Aceh. Aceh has the best forest estate in all of Sumatra.
To make a difference, simply reply to this email of ideas or questions of how you can help. I know you all can, that’s why I’m sharing this with you.
Have a great week everyone, elephant loads of love from Aceh.
South African authorities are beginning to dismantle the sophisticated criminal gangs guilty of killing rhinos.
25 September 2012 | JeVanne Gibbs
This is according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) for Nature’s African rhino programme manager Dr. Joseph Okori concurred by saying “Putting powerful kingpins behind bars for 10 or 20 years will send a strong message to others not to engage in criminal behaviour,” he said.
Under the theme ‘Five Rhino Species Forever’, World Rhino Day on Saturday aimed to mobilise South Africans to take a stand against rhino poaching and the illegal trade in rhino horn.
Acting head of communications of the South African National Parks Paul Daphne said the day highlighted the efforts that are being made to fight the scourge of rhino poaching around the world and reduce the demand for rhino horn.
“It is indeed worrying that we are still losing such a high number of rhinos but the increasing number of successful arrests and steeper sentences such as the combined 58 years imprisonment imposed on two suspected rhino poachers recently is encouraging.”
Gauteng Department of Environmental Affairs spokesman Albi Modise said the South African government views the illegal killing of rhinos in a very serious light and its commitment in addressing rhino poaching remains unwavering.
“It is clear we need to continue working with all stakeholders if this war on rhino poaching is to be won.
It is clear that this is an organised crime. And in dealing with organised criminals we need inputs and action from all South Africans in an organised manner.”
The latest statistics on rhinos poached in the country this year stands at 388, with the Kruger National Park having lost a total of 241 rhinos since the beginning of the year.
The holocaust of the African rhinoceros is accelerating, with the very real possibility that both the continent’s species — white and black rhinos — could be extinct outside zoos in a matter of years. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were several hundred thousand rhinos in East and southern Africa. European settlers described the bush immediately outside Nairobi as stiff with black rhino.
Today, there are perhaps 5,000 black rhinos and 20,000 white rhinos left on the continent, but even these numbers must be considered optimistic; the killing has reached such a frenzied pitch that the only thing that’s certain is that the populations are in free-fall.
The root causes for the slaughter remain the same — demand for rhino horn in traditional Asian medicine,and to a lesser degree, the use of the horns for handles on heirloom-quality Yemeni daggers. But one big thing has changed: Asia has money now. Formerly impoverished factory workers and farmers are, by the metrics of the past, rich. Many can afford to buy rhino horn, even at the currently stratospheric price of$66,000 a kilo. Supposedly, interest in the horn is slackening in China and picking up in Vietnam; but by any measure, the demand continues to climb.
What to do? Right now, hand-wringing seems the fashion. Animal rights and conservation groups have sounded the tocsin as usual, pleading for still more money to “save the rhino.” But you can’t find enough donor money to counter the cartel-scale financing that’s driving the slaughter. Poachers suborn game scouts and rangers, who provide specific details on the location of the animals; kills are made from helicopters with muffled blades. In the face of such industrial poaching, a few more rehabilitation centers for orphaned rhino calves, a few more scouts patrolling the reserves, aren’t going to make a whit of difference. Nor will the tears of the myriad celebrities and animal lovers who dote on large, charismatic mammals, rhinos included.
Some people who actually work with rhinos on a daily basis, though, have a pretty good idea: sell horn from farmed rhinos through a legal and regulated market. Horns can be detached from tranquilized rhinos quickly, safely, and painlessly. This does two things: removes the poachers’ incentives for killing rhinos, and provides an extremely valuable product which can be sold to aid rhino conservation (Right now, of course, the sale of rhino horn is barred by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species; a variance in the CITES proscription will be necessary to allow legal trade.)
Rhinos are easily raised and bred in captivity, and their populations can be expanded relatively rapidly for introduction into the wild. Today, such endeavors are fruitless — the rhinos are killed almost as fast as they’re released. The dynamic must change at a very basic level, and this will require some deep and painful soul-searching on the part of conservationists. John Hume, the owner of the Mauricedale Game Ranch in South Africa, is the largest private rhino breeder in the country, and few if any people have a better grasp on this issue. He and his staffers observe there is a compelling precedent for changing the rules for rhinos:vicuña.
These wild relatives of the llama were hunted almost to extinction for their ultra-fine wool, which was — and remains — much in demand for luxury garments. From an estimated pre-European contact population of two million animals, vicuña had fallen to about 6,000 when they were first accorded some protection in the mid-1960s. They were listed under CITES in 1975, and all trade in vicuña products halted. Poaching, however, remained rampant, and the future looked bleak — well, non-existent — for this wild South American camelid.
In 1979, however, a conservation agreement was signed by Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Ecuador, and work began on several fronts — including the private sector. Most dramatically, Grupo Inca, a Peruvian textile manufacturer, began the “Shear a Vicuña, Save a Vicuña” campaign — the idea being, of course, that you can remove a vicuña’s wool without killing the animal. Several couture houses jumped on the bandwagon, including Loro Piana, which actively solicited local communities for sheared vicuña wool.
Today, more than 30 years later, vicuñas number close to 350,000. CITES has lifted its ban on vicuña products from Chile and Peru. Haut couturiers have plenty of vicuña wool for their creations. And local farmers and pastoralists, who once poached the animals relentlessly, now utilize them for a sustainable income. Animals are captured, sheared, and returned to the wild
It may seem vicuña and rhinos are apples and oranges, but their situations are analogous. Both species yield products much in demand. In both cases, these products can be obtained without killing the animals. And the people who share the land with both species are the key players in the animals’ survival. Rhinos are not being wiped out in Africa because African pastoralists and petty officials are inordinately cruel. Rhinos are being killed because rural Africans are poor. Participation in a single rhino hunt can mean the difference between starvation and a modest degree of prosperity. The needs of rural communities must be taken into account if the rhino is to survive. That doesn’t mean hand-outs — it means incentives that make living rhinos valuable to local farmers, herders, and bureaucrats.
Similarly, private rhino breeders have the expertise and means to expand rhino numbers. They will do just that if they have the appropriate stimulus, i.e., profit. Private enterprise doesn’t always create a virtuous circle, but in this case it can: the rhino, rural communities, conservation NGOs and rhino breeders would all benefit. When there is plenty of rhino horn on the market, prices will fall, the incentives to kill rhinos will diminish, and the number of rhinos in the wild will increase.
Resistance to this idea will be reflexive. And yes, there is something repugnant about commodifying the African rhino. But we can’t afford normative thinking — yearning for what “should” be because it’s “right.” Things are what they are – and for the rhino, the situation is at DefCon One. Everything that has been tried to this point has failed miserably. We need a new plan.
Thousands of elephants die each year so that their tusks can be carved into religious objects. Can the slaughter be stopped?
IN JANUARY 2012 A HUNDRED RAIDERS ON HORSEBACK CHARGED OUT OF CHAD INTO CAMEROON’S BOUBA NDJIDAH NATIONAL PARK, SLAUGHTERING HUNDREDS OF ELEPHANTS—entire families—in one of the worst concentrated killings since a global ivory trade ban was adopted in 1989. Carrying AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, they dispatched the elephants with a military precision reminiscent of a 2006 butchering outside Chad’s Zakouma National Park. And then some stopped to pray to Allah. Seen from the ground, each of the bloated elephant carcasses is a monument to human greed. Elephant poaching levels are currently at their worst in a decade, and seizures of illegal ivory are at their highest level in years. From the air too the scattered bodies present a senseless crime scene—you can see which animals fled, which mothers tried to protect their young, how one terrified herd of 50 went down together, the latest of the tens of thousands of elephants killed across Africa each year. Seen from higher still, from the vantage of history, this killing field is not new at all. It is timeless, and it is now.
THE PHILIPPINES CONNECTION
In an overfilled church Monsignor Cristobal Garcia, one of the best known ivory collectors in the Philippines, leads an unusual rite honoring the nation’s most important religious icon, the Santo Niño de Cebu (Holy Child of Cebu). The ceremony, which he conducts annually on Cebu, is called the Hubo, from a Cebuano word meaning “to undress.” Several altar boys work together to disrobe a small wooden statue of Christ dressed as a king, a replica of an icon devotees believe Ferdinand Magellan brought to the island in 1521. They remove its small crown, red cape, and tiny boots, and strip off its surprisingly layered underwear. Then the monsignor takes the icon, while altar boys conceal it with a little white towel, and dunks it in several barrels of water, creating his church’s holy water for the year, to be sold outside.
Garcia is a fleshy man with a lazy left eye and bad knees. In the mid-1980s, according to a 2005 report in the Dallas Morning News and a related lawsuit, Garcia, while serving as a priest at St. Dominic’s of Los Angeles, California, sexually abused an altar boy in his early teens and was dismissed. Back in the Philippines, he was promoted to monsignor and made chairman of Cebu’s Archdiocesan Commission on Worship. That made him head of protocol for the country’s largest Roman Catholic archdiocese, a flock of nearly four million people in a country of 75 million Roman Catholics, the world’s third largest Catholic population. Garcia is known beyond Cebu. Pope John Paul II blessed his Santo Niño during Garcia’s visit to the pope’s summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, in 1990. Recently Garcia helped direct the installation of Cebu’s newest archbishop in a cathedral filled with Catholic leaders, including 400 priests and 70 bishops, among them the Vatican’s ambassador. Garcia is so well known that to find his church, the Society of the Angels of Peace, I need only roll down my window and ask, “Monsignor Cris?” to be pointed toward his walled compound.
Some Filipinos believe the Santo Niño de Cebu is Christ himself. Sixteenth-century Spaniards declared the icon to be miraculous and used it to convert the nation, making this single wooden statue, housed today behind bulletproof glass in Cebu’s Basilica Minore del Santo Niño, the root from which all Filipino Catholicism has grown. Earlier this year a local priest was asked to resign after allegedly advising his parishioners that the Santo Niño and images of the Virgin Mary and other saints were merely statues made of wood and cement.
“If you are not devoted to the Santo Niño, you are not a true Filipino,” says Father Vicente Lina, Jr. (Father Jay), director of the Diocesan Museum of Malolos. “Every Filipino has a Santo Niño, even those living under the bridge.”
Each January some two million faithful converge on Cebu to walk for hours in procession with the Santo Niño de Cebu. Most carry miniature Santo Niño icons made of fiberglass or wood. Many believe that what you invest in devotion to your own icon determines what blessings you will receive in return. For some, then, a fiberglass or wooden icon is not enough. For them, the material of choice is elephant ivory.
I press through the crowd during Garcia’s Mass, but instead of standing before him to receive Communion, I kneel.
“The body of Christ,” Garcia says.
“Amen,” I reply, and open my mouth.
After the service I tell Garcia I’m from National Geographic, and we set a date to talk about the Santo Niño. His anteroom is a mini-museum dominated by large, glass-encased religious figures whose heads and hands are made of ivory: There is an ivory Our Lady of the Rosary holding an ivory Jesus in one, a near-life-size ivory Mother of the Good Shepherd seated beside an ivory Jesus in another. Next to Garcia’s desk a solid ivory Christ hangs on a cross.
Filipinos generally display two types of ivory santos: either solid carvings or images whose heads and hands, sometimes life-size, are ivory, while the body is wood, providing a base for lavish capes and vestments. Garcia is the leader of a group of prominent Santo Niño collectors who display their icons during the Feast of the Santo Niño in some of Cebu’s best shopping malls and hotels. When they met to discuss formally incorporating their club, an attorney member cried out to the group, “You can pay me in ivory!”
I tell Garcia I want to buy an ivory Santo Niño in a sleeping position. “Like this,” I say, touching a finger to my lower lip. Garcia puts a finger to his lip too. “Dormido style,” he says approvingly.
My goal in meeting Garcia is to understand his country’s ivory trade and possibly get a lead on who was behind 5.4 tons of illegal ivory seized by customs agents in Manila in 2009, 7.7 tons seized there in 2005, and 6.1 tons bound for the Philippines seized by Taiwan in 2006. Assuming an average of 22 pounds of ivory per elephant, these seizures represent about 1,745 elephants. According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the treaty organization that sets international wildlife trade policy, the Philippines is merely a transit country for ivory headed to China. But CITES has limited resources. Until last year it employed just one enforcement officer to police more than 30,000 animal and plant species. Its assessment of the Philippines doesn’t square with what Jose Yuchongco, chief of the Philippine customs police, told a Manila newspaper not long after making a major seizure in 2009: “The Philippines is a favorite destination of these smuggled elephant tusks, maybe because Filipino Catholics are fond of images of saints that are made of ivory.” On Cebu the link between ivory and the church is so strong that the word for ivory, garing, has a second meaning: “religious statue.”
THE CATHOLIC-MUSLIM UNDERGROUND
“Ivory, ivory, ivory,” says the saleswoman at the Savelli Gallery on St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City. “You didn’t expect so much. I can see it in your face.” The Vatican has recently demonstrated a commitment to confronting transnational criminal problems, signing agreements on drug trafficking, terrorism, and organized crime. But it has not signed the CITES treaty and so is not subject to the ivory ban. If I buy an ivory crucifix, the saleswoman says, the shop will have it blessed by a Vatican priest and shipped to me.
Although the world has found substitutes for every one of ivory’s practical uses—billiard balls, piano keys, brush handles—its religious use is frozen in amber, and its role as a political symbol persists. Last year Lebanon’s President Michel Sleiman gave Pope Benedict XVI an ivory-and-gold thurible. In 2007 Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo gave an ivory Santo Niño to Pope Benedict XVI. For Christmas in 1987 President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan bought an ivory Madonna originally presented to them as a state gift by Pope John Paul II. All these gifts made international headlines. Even Kenya’s President Daniel arap Moi, father of the global ivory ban, once gave Pope John Paul II an elephant tusk. Moi would later make a bigger symbolic gesture, setting fire to 13 tons of Kenyan ivory, perhaps the most iconic act in conservation history.
Father Jay is curator of his archdiocese’s annual Santo Niño exhibition, which celebrates the best of his parishioners’ collections and fills a two-story building outside Manila. The more than 200 displays are drenched in so many fresh flowers and enveloped in such soft “Ave Maria” music that I’m reminded of a funeral as I look at the pale bodies dressed up like tiny kings. Ivory Santo Niños wear gold-plated crowns, jewels, and Swarovski crystal necklaces. Their eyes are hand-painted on glass imported from Germany. Their eyelashes are individual goat hairs. The gold thread in their capes is real, imported from India.
The elaborate displays are often owned by families of surprisingly modest means. Devotees have opened bankbooks in the names of their ivory icons. They name them in their wills. “I don’t call it extravagant,” Father Jay says. “I call it an offering to God.” He surveys the child images, some of which are decorated in lagang, silvery mother of pearl flowers carved from nautilus shells. “When it comes to Santo Niño devotion,” he says, “too much is not enough. As a priest, I’ve been praying, ‘If all of this stuff is plain stupid, then God, put a stop to this.’”
Father Jay points to a Santo Niño holding a dove. “Most of the old ivories are heirlooms,” he says. “The new ones are from Africa. They come in through the back door.” In other words, they’re smuggled. “It’s like straightening up a crooked line: You buy the ivory, which came from a hazy origin, and you turn it into a spiritual item. See?” he says, with a giggle. His voice lowers to a whisper. “Because it’s like buying a stolen item.”
People should buy new ivory icons, he says, to avoid swindlers who use tea or even Coca-Cola to stain ivory to look antique. “I just tell them to buy the new ones, so the history of an image would start in you.”
When I ask how new ivory gets to the Philippines, he tells me that Muslims from the southern island of Mindanao smuggle it in. Then, to signal a bribe, he puts two fingers into my shirt pocket. “To the coast guards, for example,” he says. “Imagine from Africa to Europe and to the Philippines. How long is that kind of trip by boat?” He puts his fingers in my pocket again. “And you just keep on paying so many people so that it will enter your country.”
It’s part of one’s sacrifice to the Santo Niño—smuggling elephant ivory as an act of devotion.
HOW TO SMUGGLE IVORY
I had no illusions of linking Monsignor Garcia to any illegal activity, but when I told him I wanted an ivory Santo Niño, the man surprised me. “You will have to smuggle it to get it into the U.S.”
“Wrap it in old, stinky underwear and pour ketchup on it,” he said. “So it looks shitty with blood. This is how it is done.”
Garcia gave me the names of his favorite ivory carvers, all in Manila, along with advice on whom to go to for high volume, whose wife overcharges, who doesn’t meet deadlines. He gave me phone numbers and locations. If I wanted to smuggle an icon that was too large to hide in my suitcase, I might get a certificate from the National Museum of the Philippines declaring my image to be antique, or I could get a carver to issue a paper declaring it to be imitation or alter the carving date to before the ivory ban. Whatever I decided to commission, Garcia promised to bless it for me. “Unlike those animal-nut priests who will not bless ivory,” he said.
A few families control most of the ivory carving in Manila, moving like termites through massive quantities of tusks. Two of the main dealers are based in the city’s religious-supplies district, Tayuman. During my five trips to the Philippines I visited every one of the ivory shops Garcia recommended to me and more, inquiring about buying ivory. More than once I was asked if I was a priest. In almost every shop someone proposed a way I could smuggle ivory to the U.S. One offered to paint my ivory with removable brown watercolor to resemble wood; another to make identical hand-painted statuettes out of resin to camouflage my ivory baby Jesus. If I was caught, I was told to lie and say “resin” to U.S. Customs. During one visit a dealer said Monsignor Garcia had just called and suggested that since I’d mentioned that my family had a funeral business, I might take her new, 20-pound Santo Niño home by hiding it in the bottom of a casket. I said he must have been joking, but she didn’t think so.
Priests, balikbayans (Filipinos living overseas), and gay Filipino men are major customers, according to Manila’s most prominent ivory dealer. An antique dealer from New York City makes regular buying missions, as does a dealer from Mexico City, gathering up new ivory crucifixes, Madonnas, and baby Jesuses in bulk and smuggling them home in their luggage. Wherever there is a Filipino, I was often reminded, there is an altar to God.
And it seems Father Jay was right about a Muslim supply route. Several Manila dealers told me the primary suppliers are Filipino Muslims with connections to Africa. Malaysian Muslims figured into their network too. “Sometimes they bring it in bloody, and it smells bad,” one dealer told me, pinching her nose.
Today’s ivory trafficking follows ancient trade routes—accelerated by air travel, cell phones, and the Internet. Current photos I’d seen of ivory Coptic crosses on sale beside ivory Islamic prayer beads in Cairo’s market now made more sense. Suddenly, recent ivory seizures on Zanzibar, an Islamic island off the coast of Tanzania—for centuries a global hub for trafficking slaves and ivory—seemed especially ominous, a sign that large-scale ivory crime might never go away. At least one shipment had been headed for Malaysia, where several multi-ton seizures were made last year.
The Philippines’ ivory market is small compared with, say, China’s, but it is centuries old and staggeringly obvious. Collectors and dealers share photographs of their ivories on Flickr and Facebook. CITES, as administrator of the 1989 global ivory ban, is the world’s official organization standing between the slaughter of the 1980s—in which Africa is said to have lost half its elephants, more than 600,000 in just those ten years—and the extermination of the elephant. If CITES has overlooked the Philippines’ ivory trade, what else has it missed?
THE ELEPHANT MONK
The ivory carvers in Phayuha Khiri and Surin are the most famous in Thailand and the targets of most investigations there into the illegal ivory trade. Phayuha Khiri is so dedicated to ivory that in the town center, where one might expect to see a fountain, there’s a circle of four great white tusks. It takes me only minutes on the main street to realize I’ve seen this place before: Tayuman, Manila’s religious-supplies district; only here, instead of crucifixes and images of the holy family, are life-size images of famous monks, small images of the Buddha wrapped in plastic, and bracelets and other religious items bagged by the dozens. Vendor after vendor on both sides of this long street is a Buddhist wholesale outlet. The only people I see shopping during my visits to Phayuha Khiri are small knots of orange-robed monks.
I track down the village’s head ivory dealer—Mr. Thi, who’s wearing an amulet on an ivory necklace and an ivory belt buckle—tour his shops and carving operation, and also visit his McMansion-size home. Mr. Thi tells me that Phayuha Khiri’s carving industry was founded by a monk who liked to carve ivory amulets. Standing in his shop, I look over his shoulder and see a painting of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god, and beside him a Happy Buddha. Monks, I discover, give out amulets in return for donations. The better the donation, the better the amulet. Amulets blessed by certain monks are even more valuable.
The Elephant Monk, Kruba Dharmamuni, who used to be the Scorpion Monk and still displays a life-size statue of himself as a scorpion in his temple, wants to take me ivory shopping in Surin. Once upon a time Surin was home to the king of Siam’s royal elephant catchers, but today government-subsidized elephant keepers, mahouts, live a shadow of their old lives, dependent on their animals’ ability to kick a soccer ball or hold a paintbrush and create a “self-portrait” on an easel for tourists. Vendors selling ivory rings, bangles, and amulets line the entrance to Surin’s tourist park.
“Ivory removes bad spirits,” the Elephant Monk tells me. He wears the brown robes of a forest monk and chews steadily on betel-infused maak, which he spits out in great blood-like wads. He also wears ivory. Around his neck is an ivory elephant-head pendant suspended from ivory prayer beads representing the 108 human passions.
The elephant is a symbol of Thailand and is revered in Buddhism. According to legend, a six-tusked white elephant entered the right side of Queen Maya the night she became pregnant with Siddhartha Gautama. The Elephant Monk believes he was an elephant in a past life and is well-known among mahouts. He tells me he has 100,000 followers around the world, though during my visit to his temple only a few show up. They kneel before him with offerings and receive an amulet he has blessed.
Many Thais wear amulets, sometimes dozens, to bring them luck and protect them from harm and black magic. Bangkok’s amulet market is huge, with countless vendors selling tens of thousands of small talismans made of materials such as metal, compressed dust, bone—and ivory. High-end amulets can fetch $100,000 or more. There are magazines, trade shows, books, and websites devoted to amulet collecting. Amulets hang from the rearview mirror of almost every Thai cab. Ousted Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra credits his Buddhist amulet with saving him in assassination attempts, and the Thai Army has distributed amulets to its border soldiers to ward off Cambodia’s black magic.
The Elephant Monk’s main income is from amulets, and he offers a strange variety, including images of himself and of the Buddha as well as amulets made with plastic-encased bits of bone from the skulls of dead pregnant women, pure corpse oil, soil from seven cemeteries, tiger fur, elephant skin, and carved ivory. Business is good enough that he’s building a new temple, Wat Suanpah, modeled in part after Thailand’s popular tiger parks—often front organizations, critics say, for the illegal tiger trade. The Elephant Monk suffered similar controversy when a recent television exposé reported that he’d starved an elephant to death for its skin and ivory, but he says it died of natural causes and he was only holding an elephant funeral. Besides, by shopping in Surin, he tells me, he can find all the elephant ivory and skin he needs. Before the exposé, he took in about one million baht ($32,000) a month from his gift shop, the Internet, and foreign travels. Now he’s down to about 300,000 baht a month. But, he says, in just three days in Malaysia or Singapore he could sell his followers one million bahts’ worth or more.
Thailand has a small, natural population of Asian elephants, an endangered species long off-limits to international trade. Inside Thailand, however, the rules are less rigid. Mahouts and others may sell the tusk tips of live domesticated elephants and the tusks of ones that died of natural causes. For years international ivory traffickers have capitalized on this, smuggling in African ivory to mix with Asian ivory.
Conservationists refer to this as the “Thai loophole.” But there’s a far bigger loophole enjoyed by every country in the world. African ivory brought into a country before 1989 may be traded domestically. And so anyone caught with ivory invokes a common refrain: “My ivory is pre-ban.” Since no inventory was ever made of global ivory stocks before the ban, and since ivory lasts more or less forever, this “pre-ban” loophole is a timeless defense.
Thailand’s ivory market has been evolving. “Ivory traders are stockpiling,” says Steve Galster, director of the Freeland Foundation, a Bangkok-based nongovernmental organization (NGO). “Since CITES has a history of relaxing trade bans, they feel it’s a safe gamble.”
Thailand, like the Philippines, has another commodity traffickers value: corruption. A ton of seized African ivory disappeared recently from a Thai customs warehouse. When I ask to see the rest, customs officers refuse and suggest that journalists stole it. Only when I say I heard otherwise am I told the truth: Customs officers are believed to have been the culprits. Corruption is so bad in the Philippines that in 2006 the wildlife department sued senior customs officers for “losing” several tons of seized ivory. Chastened, the customs office turned its next big ivory seizure over to the wildlife department, which soon discovered that its own storeroom had been raided. Piles of tusks had been replaced with exact duplicates made of plastic.
The Elephant Monk’s favorite carver, Jom, lives on a dirt road in a place so remote that I blink when I realize that the vegetable stands in front of Jom’s house are actually glass jewelry cases filled with ivory Buddhist figurines. On the outside of one case is a bumper sticker bearing the Elephant Monk’s face. Most of the ivory is Thai. “That is African,” the Elephant Monk says, pointing to a piece that’s especially white.
“If I could get you African ivory,” I ask Jom, “could you carve it?”
“Dai,” he replies.
“No problem at all,” his wife agrees.
And that was all it took to get the Elephant Monk to talk smuggling. He tells me to cut the ivory to fit into my suitcase, holding out his hands to show me how long to make the pieces. That’s what his followers do, he says. When I arrive at the Bangkok airport, his assistant will pick me up and drive me to him. He has followers in immigration, but if anything goes wrong, I should say I’m bringing the ivory to his temple. Religion, apparently, will cover me.
Because this is about faith, and because faith requires suspension of disbelief, ivory traded for religious purposes doesn’t garner the aggressive scrutiny it might if it were carved into, say, chess pieces. God’s ivory has its own loophole.
CHINA’S IVORY FACTORIES
Inside the Beijing Ivory Carving Factory it smells and sounds like what it essentially is: a vast dentist’s office. The whir of electric drills on tusks fills the air. Ivory dust lies heavy on windowpanes and doorframes and even coats my teeth as I make my way among men and women bent over images that repeat the religious and mythological motifs I find throughout China, such as Fu, Lu, and Shou, the gods of luck, money, and long life; the Happy Buddha; and Guanyin, Buddhist goddess of mercy, a Madonna-like figure who doubles as a fertility goddess and who sometimes holds in her arms a male child, the “giving sons” Guanyin, popular under China’s one-child policy. No matter where I find ivory, religion is close at hand. “Chinese people believe in the concepts these figures represent,” the head of the Daxin Ivory Carving Factory in Guangzhou tells me.
At the time of the ivory ban, Americans, Europeans, and Japanese consumed 80 percent of the world’s carved ivory. Today in the heart of Beijing, dealerships offering Maseratis, Bentleys, and Ferraris rub shoulders with Gucci and Prada. Nearby is the Beijing Arts and Crafts Emporium, whose first-floor ATM dispenses 24-karat gold bars. Up the escalator, past galleries of jade and silk, the main ivory boutique sparkles like a snow-covered Tiffany’s. One of the first items I notice is a carved ivory Guanyin behind glass with so many zeros on its price tag I have to ask for help—1360000.00 (about $215,000).
By all accounts, China is the world’s greatest villain when it comes to smuggled ivory. In recent years China has been implicated in more large-scale ivory seizures than any other non-African country. For the first time in generations many Chinese can afford to reach forward into a wealthy future, and they can also afford to look back into their own vibrant past. One of the first places many look is religion.
“We don’t all only think of money,” Xue Ping corrects me as we sip tea in his Buddhist art gallery inside the Grand Hotel Beijing. During a 2007 pilgrimage retracing the Buddha’s life from Nepal to India, the advertising executive had a vision: The Buddha challenged him to do good with his life. He returned home and in 2009 founded a company he called Da Cheng Bai Yi (transmitting great heritage), dedicated to supporting China’s great masters in five art forms: lacquer, lacquer carving, porcelain, thangka scrolls, and ivory carving. Xue tracked down 62-year-old Li Chunke, one of only about 12 national master ivory carvers in China. Xue built Li an ivory-carving studio in Beijing’s arts district, rented him an apartment, and opened this stunning new gallery. Nothing in it is for sale. Xue is Li’s only customer.
“The elephant is a good friend of man,” Li says. “When elephants die, they want to leave man something behind as a good deed to have a good next life.” Li carves ivory to honor the elephant’s gift. As Buddhists, Li and Xue abhor killing. Their ivory comes from the government, they explain, and so is supposed to be from elephants that died of natural causes.
Just as some Filipino priests baptize ivory images, Buddhist monks perform a ceremony called kai guang, the opening of light, to consecrate religious icons. “Ivory is very precious,” Xue tells me, “so to be respectful of the Buddha one should use precious material. If not ivory then gold. But ivory is more precious.” It is a version of the same message I heard from Filipino Catholics: Ivory honors God.
In every shop and factory I visit in China, a substantial portion of the inventory consists of religious carvings, including many of the most valuable pieces. Among the high-end buyers are military officers—surprisingly well paid in China—who give ivory to superior officers and companies that give carvings to other businesses and government regulators to influence them. “We call it the back door,” a representative of the government’s China Arts and Crafts Association (CACA) explained. And so ivory is used the way a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue might once have been, except that if the gift works, then ivory blesses its giver as well as its recipient.
At a gallery in Guangzhou, Gary Zeng shows me a photo of a 26-layer “devil’s work” ball on his iPhone. The 42-year-old Zeng has just bought two of these ivory balls from the Daxin Ivory Carving Factory, one for himself and one on behalf of an entrepreneur friend. He’s come to this retail store to see whether he got his money’s worth. I climb into his new Mercedes, drive to his double-gated community, and watch as he hands the less expensive ball to his three-year-old for National Geographic’s Brent Stirton to photograph. It will become a centerpiece in a new home Zeng is building, to “hold the house against devils,” but for a moment the $50,000 ball is simply a very precious toy. I ask Zeng why young entrepreneurs like him are buying ivory.
“Value,” he replies. “And art.”
“Do you think about the elephant?” I ask.
“Not at all,” he says.
On the corner of one of the most popular ivory-selling streets in China, outside the Hualin International Buddhist jewelry arcade, a four-story electronic billboard runs a video announcing to passersby a hot new investment opportunity: Sales of Buddhist jewelry and related religious products have reached $15.8 billion a year and are growing by 50 percent a year. “There are nearly 200 million Buddhism believers in China,” the sign declares. Inside the building two stores deal exclusively in ivory carvings. Down the street other galleries offer Buddhist ivory carvings—some legal, some not.
Everything about China’s ivory industry is poised for growth. The government has licensed at least 35 carving factories and 130 ivory retail outlets and sponsors ivory carving at schools like the Beijing University of Technology. Most telling of all, as in the Philippines, Chinese carvers such as Master Li are training their relatives—they’re investing in their own blood.
THE JAPAN EXPERIMENT
In 1989, after ten years during which at least one elephant died every ten minutes, President George H. W. Bush unilaterally banned ivory imports, Kenya burned its 13 tons of ivory stocks, and CITES announced the global ivory ban, which began in 1990. Not all countries agreed to the ban. Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Malawi entered “reservations,” exempting them from it on the grounds that their elephant populations were healthy enough to support trade. In 1997 CITES held its main meeting in Harare, Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe declared that elephants took up a lot of space and drank a lot of water. They’d have to pay for their room and board with their ivory. Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia made CITES an offer: They would honor the ivory ban if they were allowed to sell ivory from elephants that had been culled or had died of natural causes.
CITES agreed to a compromise, authorizing a one-time-only “experimental sale” by the three countries to a single purchaser, Japan. In 1999 Japan bought 55 tons of ivory for five million dollars. Almost immediately Japan said it wanted more, and soon China would want legal ivory too. If Kenya’s Daniel arap Moi is the father of the ivory ban, then Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is the father of its first rupture.
Before it would allow another ivory sale, CITES demanded the results of the Japan experiment: Had the sale increased crime? Specifically, had elephant poaching or ivory smuggling gone up? To find out, it launched one program to count illegally killed elephants and another to measure ivory smuggling. For a science-based organization, it was an odd way to conduct an experiment. CITES had approved the sale and had then set about constructing a way to gauge its impact, which is a bit like pushing the button to test the first atomic bomb and then building a device to measure the explosion.
It’s easy to kill an elephant (lately poachers in Kenya and Tanzania have been using poisoned watermelons), but it’s hard to locate dead bodies, and it’s taken CITES years to get the counting program running. CITES officials refuse to issue a formal estimate of the elephants killed annually for fear that any number, which would derive from 2007 population estimates and limited 2012 poaching data, will “become embedded as hard truth in the public psyche.” Still, according to Kenneth Burnham, official statistician for the CITES program to monitor illegally killed elephants, it is “highly likely” that poachers killed at least 25,000 African elephants in 2011. The true figure may even be double that. Meanwhile, last year saw an estimated 34.7 tons of illegal ivory seized globally. Using an Interpol rule of thumb that says seized contraband equals 10 percent of actual smuggling, and assuming that each elephant carries 22 pounds of ivory, that weight equates to 31,500 dead elephants. “The point is this,” says Iain Douglas-Hamilton of Save the Elephants, “tens of thousands of elephants were killed last year. And the figures are going up drastically.”
Quantifying the illegal ivory trade is difficult too. Smugglers don’t file sales reports. To estimate smuggling activity, CITES uses ivory seizures as a proxy. Even as a proxy, seizures are tricky. They accurately tell you only the bare minimum of illegal activity going on in a country, and there’s a lot they can’t tell you. More ivory seizures in one year can mean that smuggling has increased, or that law enforcement is working harder, or both. Fewer seizures can mean what you might hope, but they can also mean that law enforcement is on the take. Big-time smugglers have connections in local wildlife departments, customs offices, and freight-forwarding and transportation companies that enable them to move multi-ton shipments from one country to another. (In the Philippines, for example, ivory traders I met accused customs officers of seizing illegal ivory only when someone hadn’t made a payoff.) Worst of all, a seizures-based system rewards countries for confiscating ivory, when what they really need to do is follow smuggled ivory up the demand chain to the kingpins, a reason good investigators consider seizures to be bad law enforcement.
To audit ivory seizures, CITES engaged Traffic, an NGO that monitors global wildlife trade. Traffic is not an independent auditor, however. It is a subsidiary of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which, like many NGOs, have research projects and offices in ivory-trafficking countries, complicating Traffic’s ability to render independent judgments. Traffic based its new ivory-seizures monitoring program, the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS), in Africa’s leading pro-ivory-trade country, Zimbabwe.
From the beginning, Traffic boasted that its ETIS database extended back to the 1989 ivory ban, but countries were not asked to report ivory seizures to ETIS until 1998. For a decade its data came from random Traffic surveys, and it had scant data on seizures by key countries, such as Japan (20 cases in a decade), Thailand (21 cases), the Philippines (5 cases), and China (2 cases). Even after ETIS was up and running, many governments rarely bothered to report their seizures, so when it was time to judge the Japan experiment, Traffic’s database was heavy on cases from the U.S. and European Union (more than 60 percent) and light on cases from where it mattered: Asia (less than 10 percent). ETIS had no good baseline to judge the effects of the Japan sale.
CITES might have taken a holistic approach to the Japan experiment, combining reports of international NGOs, whose undercover investigators found an increase in illegal ivory trade after the Japan sale, with data from Traffic, whose ETIS statistics did not show a definite correlation between the Japan sale and seizures. It might have recognized the limitations of ETIS—whose core metric, seizures, is, after all, controlled by the countries being evaluated. Since CITES also had problems calculating how much elephant poaching was going on, it might have declared the Japan experiment inconclusive, or even a failure.
A failure is what China considered it. In a 2002 report China warned CITES that a main reason for China’s growing ivory-smuggling problem was the Japan experiment: “Many Chinese people misunderstand the decision and believe that the international trade in ivory has been resumed.” Chinese consumers thought it was OK to buy ivory again.
CITES ignored China’s warning and placed its faith entirely in the ETIS statistics. “The data we have from ETIS is that there is no correlation between decisions made atCITES and the illegal trade,” Willem Wijnstekers, CITES secretary-general, would later assert in anticipation of more CITES-approved ivory sales. Tom Milliken, director ofETIS, would likewise suggest that the Japan sale had worked: “It is encouraging to note that the illicit trade in ivory progressively declined over the next five years.” But Milliken didn’t know what the illicit trade had done; what he knew was his seizure statistics. Nevertheless a judgment was made, and the future of the African elephant may forever be clouded by the moment when CITES, lacking the data to evaluate the impact of its first ivory sale, endorsed a second.
By 2004 China had forgotten its concerns and petitioned CITES to buy ivory. In March 2005 CITES sent a team of three people, including Milliken, to China for five days to evaluate its ivory-control system. The team returned “more than satisfied” and predicted that China’s system could “eradicate, or at least significantly reduce, illicit trade.” They also noted, however, that two successive ETIS reports had found that China was the single most important reason the illegal ivory trade was increasing. The CITES secretariat therefore refused China’s request to buy ivory.
But ETIS could be manipulated. It scored countries not only on ivory seizures weight but also on law enforcement. It was possible to game the ETIS system by reporting lots of small seizure cases, such as a tourist wearing ivory earrings. “Tom Milliken told me to make raids on Chatuchak [a Bangkok market] to get my cases up,” a frustrated Thai official told me. In 1999, the year of the Japan sale, China had reported seven ivory seizures to ETIS. Soon after it petitioned CITES, China was reporting dozens of cases a year to ETIS, most the personal effects of tourists. Recently it has been reporting hundreds of cases a year. This past February China made public one of its big ivory-enforcement efforts of 2011, involving 4,497 personnel and 1,094 vehicles and leading to 19 cases. It had resulted in the confiscation of 63.5 pounds of ivory, the weight of an overfed poodle.
In July 2008 the CITES secretariat endorsed China’s request to buy ivory, a decision supported by Traffic and WWF. Member countries agreed, and that fall Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe held auctions at which they collectively sold more than 115 tons of ivory to Chinese and Japanese traders.
As a test for whether ivory sales increase crime, the Japan experiment was flawed. As a prognosticator for China, it had deeper problems. Japan is an island nation with a narrow primary use for its ivory: signature stamps called hanko. China shares borders with 14 countries; it has a vast coastline, a booming economy, ten times the population, a separate system for ivory-loving Hong Kong, extensive investment in Africa, and uses for ivory ranging from sculptures to cell phone covers. After Japan bought ivory, China said its smuggling problem went up. Now China itself was entering the ivory business. CITES urged the world not to worry.
DEVILS LURK IN DETAILS
Meng Xianlin is executive director general of China’s CITES management authority, making him China’s top wildlife-trade official. He attended the 2008 ivory auctions in southern Africa. Over sheep tripe and noodles near his Beijing office, he shares a startling secret with me: The African auctions had not been competitive. Before they left for Africa, the Japanese team of buyers flew to Beijing, where they made a strategic suggestion. Since Japanese use primarily medium-size, high-quality tusks for hanko and Chinese prefer either large, whole tusks for big sculptures or small pieces for decorative touches, the Japanese proposed that each country bid on separate types of ivory and keep all the prices low. The prices they paid were so low, Meng tells me, that an official from Namibia, which had held the first auction, followed the Asian delegations from country to country hoping for evidence her country had been cheated.
Still, to the CITES secretariat, the auctions had been a success. They’d raised $15.5 million, most of which was supposed to go to African conservation projects. And while an average price of only about $67 a pound for the ivory meant that the Africans had less to spend on conservation, it also meant, according to CITES, that China could now do its part for law enforcement by flooding its domestic market with the low-priced, legal ivory. This would drive out illegal traders, who CITES had heard were paying up to $386 for a pound of ivory. Lower prices, CITES’s Willem Wijnstekers told Reuters, could help curb poaching.
Instead the Chinese government did the unexpected. It raised ivory prices. Through its craft association, CACA, the government charged entrepreneur Xue Ping $500 a pound, a markup of 650 percent, and imposed fees on the Beijing Ivory Carving Factory that brought the company’s costs to $530 a pound for Grade A ivory. China also devised a ten-year plan to limit supply and is releasing about five tons into its market annually. The Chinese government, which controls who may sell ivory in China, wasn’t undercutting the black market—it was using its monopoly power to outperform the black market.
Applying the secretariat’s logic that low prices and high volumes chase out smugglers, China’s high prices and restricted volumes would now draw them in. The decision to allow China to buy ivory has indeed sparked more ivory trafficking, according to international watchdog groups and traders I met in China and Hong Kong.
And prices continue to rise. According to Feng You Min, sales director at the Daxin Ivory Carving Factory, the price of raw ivory has risen to 20 times the price paid in Africa. The genie cannot be returned to her bottle: The 2008 legal ivory will forever shelter smuggled ivory.
There is one final flaw in the CITES decision to let China buy ivory. To win approval, China instituted a variety of safeguards, most notably that any ivory carving larger than a trinket must have a photo ID card. But criminals have turned the ID-card system into a smuggling tool. In the ID cards’ tiny photographs, carvings with similar religious and traditional motifs all look alike. A recent report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare found that ivory dealers in China are selling ivory carvings but retaining their ID cards to legitimize carvings made from smuggled ivory. The cards themselves now have value and are tradable in a secondary market. China’s ID-card system, which gives a whiff of legitimacy to an illegal icon, is worse than no system at all.
Just before elephants were discussed at an August 2011 CITES meeting, China orchestrated the expulsion of all attending NGOs. It was an extraordinary act. Among those expelled were representatives of the Born Free Foundation, the Humane Society International, the Japan Federation of Ivory Arts and Crafts Associations, the Pew Charitable Trust, Safari Club International, and me (for the National Geographic Society). Traffic’s Tom Milliken was allowed to remain to deliver his latest ETISresults. The reason for the expulsion, Meng tells me, was a report by a small but influential London-based NGO, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which had sent undercover Chinese operatives into China. EIA alleged that China’s ivory-control system was a failure, that up to 90 percent of the ivory on the Chinese market was illegal, and that the 2008 auctions had resurrected the illegal ivory trade. Meng was outraged. Yes, he said, 80 percent of EIA’s report was true, “but they should have come to us first.”
Last year CITES made a startling admission: “The Secretariat continues to struggle to understand many aspects of the illegal trade in ivory.” This past April, Tom Milliken confessed something to the BBC that was eerily reminiscent of China’s warning after the Japan experiment: “Did allowance of legal ivory to go into China exacerbate a situation? One could probably argue now, with hindsight, that indeed it did. It created perhaps an image in the minds of many potential Chinese consumers that it was OK to buy ivory.”
Meng chuckles as I pour him another bottle of beer. He tells me that after the African ivory arrived in China, a strange sound could be heard coming from one shipment. It took some time to discover the source. During the bidding South Africa’s ivory had looked the best and the whitest. Now some tusks were splitting open. “You could hear it cracking,” Meng says. To get a good price, he speculates, the South Africans had bleached their ivory white, and now dehydration was causing the tusks to crack.
Even more precious than the savanna elephant’s white ivory is the yellow ivory of the smaller, forest elephant. “This is the best,” the Daxin Ivory Carving Factory’s Feng tells me, holding up a chunk of forest elephant tusk. Carvings made from forest elephant ivory sell out so quickly that customers have been commissioning them. The only carved image he has left to show me is an old one of Chairman Mao with a crack in it. Trouble is, forest elephants don’t live in any of the countries where China legally bought ivory. They live in central and western Africa, including in Cameroon, the country raided by Muslim poachers earlier this year.
In March CITES will meet again to discuss the future of the African elephant.
- Religious Ivory Demand Killing Elephants by Thousands, Report Says (news.nationalgeographic.com)
- Behind National Geographic’s “Ivory Worship” Investigation (newswatch.nationalgeographic.com)
- Ivory Ban Fails to Stem Surge in Elephant Poaching (ipsnews.net)
- Dot Earth Blog: A Story Exposes How the Chinese Government is Fueling Elephant Slaughter (dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com)
- AVA should vote against ivory trade (todayonline.com)
- Legal Ivory Trade Resumption up for UN Debate (abcnews.go.com)
- Calls to resume legal ivory trade (bigpondnews.com)
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