By Ochieng’ Ogodo
Kenyan and Tanzanian ports accounted for the largest seizures of illicit ivory from Africa by the close of last year.
This happened against a backdrop of 2011 recording the largest number of large ivory seizure globally, reflecting the sharp rise in illegal ivory trade underway since 2007
Although official confirmation of the volume of ivory involved in some cases was not yet been registered, it was clear this was a dramatic increase in the number of large-scale seizures, over 800 kg in weight took place in 2011—at least 13 of them.
According to TRAFFIC-a joint programme of IUCN and WWF-this compares to six large seizures in 2010, whose total weight was just less than 10 tonnes. A conservative estimate of the seizure weight in the 13 largest seizures in 2011 puts the figure at more than 23 tonnes, a figure that probably represents some 2,500 elephants or possibly more.
The most recent case in these that came to light was of 727 ivory pieces discovered on December 21 concealed inside a container at the port of Mombasa, and was destined for Asia.
“In 23 years of compiling ivory seizure data for ETIS, this is the worst year ever for large ivory seizures—2011 has truly been a horrible year for elephants,” said Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC’s Elephant expert in a press release of December 29.
If the records of hundreds of smaller ivory seizures are compiled, 2011 could pass as the worst year ever for elephants in the database.
“The escalating large ivory quantities involved in 2011 reflect both a rising demand in Asia and the increasing sophistication of the criminal gangs behind the trafficking. Most illegal shipments of African elephant ivory end up in either China or Thailand,” said Miliken
From the seizures, the smugglers appeared to have changed from using air to sea freight as in the early 2011, three of the large scale ivory seizures were at airports, but later in the year most were found in sea freight.
“The only common denominator in the trafficking is that the ivory departs Africa and arrives in Asia, but the routes are constantly changing, presumably reflecting where the smugglers gamble on being their best chance of eluding detection.”
In 2011 six of the large seizures, Malaysia was a transit country in the supply chain, a role that TRAFFIC first drew attention to in 2009.
In early December, Customs in Malaysia seized 1.4 tonnes of ivory concealed inside a shipping container from Kenya to Cambodia.
Once inside Asia, the documentation accompanying an onward shipment is changed to make it appear as a local re-export, helping to conceal its origin from Africa.
“That’s an indication of the level of sophistication enforcement officers are up against in trying to outwit the criminal masterminds behind this insidious trade,” said Milliken. “As most large-scale ivory seizures fail to result in any arrests, I fear the criminals are winning.”