Sad news featured on BBC today:
Esmond Bradley Martin, 75, was found with a stab wound to his neck at home in the capital Nairobi on Sunday.
The former UN special envoy for rhino conservation was known for his undercover work establishing black-market prices.
An influential conservationist, Martin was fearless in his pursuit for truth and justice. He traveled to a China, Laos, Vietnam, and other locations posing as a black market dealer, taking secret photographs of ivory whilst in the presence of gang members. He was instrumental in providing accurate reports of the illegal ivory and rhino horn trade to the UN and conservation groups, and gets a lot of credit for pushing China to ban ivory.
A US citizen, he first went to Kenya in the 1970s to begin his reports to combat the rise of ivory trading. He died there in his home, likely the unfortunate victim of robbery rather than a premeditated revenge killing.
Tributes from groups like Save the Elephants have been released in the press and on social media.
Some good news to start 2018: Preliminary studies are showing the ban on ivory in China is working well.
From the BBC:
“Wildlife campaigners believe 30,000 African elephants are killed by poachers every year.
State media said there had already been a 65% decline in the price of raw ivory over the past year.
There had also been an 80% decline in seizures of ivory entering China, said Xinhua.
The ban was announced last year and came into effect on Sunday, the last day of 2017.”
Happy New Year!
If you’ve read this blog or follow elephant-related news, you know one sticking point of banning ivory sales is what to do with antiquities on the market. The UK has allowed sales of antiquities if either they are carved prior to 1947 or if they have a government certificate dating them prior to 1990, which is the year the international ivory trade was banned.
The big problem, of course, is that it isn’t terribly difficult for a seller to forge a certificate or lie about the age of ivory, and the consumer would likely be unaware they were buying illegal goods. It is difficult even for experts to date ivory.
There has been a campaign to ban all ivory sales in the UK, and after years of hard work, it paid off. From The Guardian:
The UK government has bowed to campaigners and will ban the sale of ivory regardless of age, according to a new consultation.
The UK is the biggest exporter of legal ivory in the world and shutting down the trade will help prevent illegal ivory being laundered by criminals. More than 50 elephants are killed by poachers every day on average and the population of African elephants plunged by a third between 2007-14 alone, leading to warnings that the entire species could go extinct…
The government was put under pressure by a wide range of campaign groups and prominent individuals including the former Conservative leader William Hague, the primatologist Jane Goodall, Stephen Hawking and Ricky Gervais. Within the Tory party, the foreign secretary Boris Johnson and the former environment secretary Owen Paterson have pressed for a complete ban.
This news was a surprise to many, as the UK has always been very protective of its right to sell antique ivory, seeing ivory as important artifacts in its history as an empire. But, as the U.K. is scheduled to host a 2018 international conference on protecting wildlife, it was time to act.
Video: YouTube, IFAW
Sadly, as one ivory market gets strict, another gets lax. China has banned ivory sales but Laos is now happy to offer ivory to Chinese tourists looking for a way around the ban. According to a report by Save the Elephants, the ivory market in Laos has surged. Laos is an economically poor country, and people aren’t as concerned about an elephant’s welfare as their bottom line. I did a daytrip from Thailand to Laos and most of the markets sold counterfeit goods, so it doesn’t surprise me that markets are also now selling controversial ivory.
The demand for ivory must shrink for the supply to dry up – China has been effective at reducing their ivory market supply, but they must continue to try to change the culture, which unfortunately still prizes ivory as a sign of wealth, luck, and high social status.
From ABC news:
The report on Laos said ivory goods are sold openly there, including in the capital Vientiane, and that law enforcement is lax, despite the country’s pledge to curb wildlife trafficking. Researchers said the cheapest ivory item that they saw was a $3 ring, while a pair of polished tusks was the most expensive at $25,000. They also noted that wholesale prices of raw ivory in Laos dropped by more than half between 2013 and 2016, attributing the fall largely to the Chinese economic slowdown.
From The Guardian:
“Reported cases of killed elephants in Myanmar have increased dramatically since 2010, with a total of 112 wild elephant deaths, most of them in the past few years. In 2015 alone, 36 wild elephants were killed, according to official figures from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The figures for 2016 are feared to be even worse.”
Myanmar, a poor country with plenty of government crises, has not devoted time and money to invest consistently in conservation. Although they did stop logging operations in 2014, they have been unsuccessful in protecting wildlife such as elephants from poachers.
With China banning the ivory trade, Myanmar has become a popular spot for Chinese to go to buy ivory and other elephant products such as the teeth, skin, and the penis. Most of these parts are used for “medicinal” purposes, although there is no solid scientific evidence rhino, elephant, or tiger parts really help treat illnesses. Any relief the patient feels after ingesting or rubbing such ointments onto the skin is likely only an expensive placebo effect that harms the environment.
Myanmar unfortunately has become a country where African elephant parts go to the market too. Groups such as TRAFFIC are trying to strengthen Myanmar border patrols to stop illegal wildlife trading.
Photo: taken at Elephant Nature Park
Oxford biologist Fritz Vollrath is working on creating a synthetic ivory. Similar to mother-of-pearl, the goal would be to look, feel, and act like the natural substance yet be manmade.
It is a lengthy process of trial and error.
From Smithsonian Magazine:
Under the microscope, ivory reveals its molecular structure: a three-dimensional collagen scaffolding filled with hydroxyl apatite minerals and water. Vollrath aimed to understand this distinct makeup well enough to improve upon the plastic-based substitutes that currently exist with a truly “biologically inspired” replica. “We’re still struggling to understand why it’s such a tough material,” Vollrath said. “It combines two kinds of material, mineral and collagen. Neither of them are great materials by themselves, but if you mix them up … it becomes something different.”
If successful, the project will still take years to become acccessible to the general public. Then, of course, comes the question: will synthetic ivory help or hurt elephants? The hope is that synthetic ivory would drive down the price of real ivory and poachers would no longer find their work profitable and get out of the business. But, there is concern that synthetic ivory would simply make it easier for real ivory to hide and be sold in the marketplace, thus maintaining or driving up demand for elephant tusks.
In any case, Vollrath hopes his research gives us insight into what makes elephant tusks so strong and so unusual in the natural world.
Photo taken at my local zoo
My quick review of the book “Ivory’s Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants” by John Frederick Walker:
It’s an in-depth look at ivory from Ancient Egypt up to modern times. He explains his point of view well (i.e. pro-culling and having a regulated ivory trade) but dismisses the other point of view (ivory ban) far too readily. As we know elephants are fast on the path towards extinction; this book seems out of touch with the direness of the situation.
I give it three out of five stars. I think this book is worth reading for the historical background on the ivory trade. I found the ivory trade’s close ties to human enslavement particularly sad and eye-opening.
(Photo taken in Thailand)