Government and international organizations have been working hard to protect Africa’s natural resources despite limited funding and instability across the continent. Progress has been made on many fronts, but Asian demand for ivory and other illegal animal products has caused a recent increase in poaching and other illegal activities.


Ivory refers to the tusks of elephants

Ivory refers to the tusks of elephants. Ivory is prized in making ornaments and trinkets and other types of decorations. It is normally seen as conveying wealth and status, and thus most of the demand is generated from wealthier individuals who have money to spend. Rhino horns and other illegal animal products are often used in the same way. Other illegal animal products, such as the internal organs from tigers, are used for “medicinal” purposes.

Hong Kong has become one of the biggest ports for ivory and other illegal animal products being shipped into China, which is believed to be the world’s largest consumer of such illegal animal products. In July, some 2.2 million dollars worth of ivory tusks were seized in a major raid. In August of 2012, over 5 million dollars worth of ivory, rhino horns, and illegal animal skins were seized.

While some African countries have been trying to curb illegal poaching, resources remain scarce and enforcement efforts are sporadic at best. Between poor governance, weak law enforcement efforts, and instability caused by weak economies and widespread conflict, there seems to be little hope that African governments can solve this problem on their own, especially while international demand remains high.

Indeed, curbing demand from places such as China may be the only practical hope.  The largest consumer of ivory is believed to be mainland China. Indeed, the United Nations Environment Program has addressed reducing demand in China as the most pressing area for reducing demand for ivory overall. Demand in Thailand and other Asian countries, however, has also been increasing the demand for African ivory.

Demand for ivory products

Sadly, China’s economic growth seems to be the culprit behind the recent increase in poaching activities. As Chinese consumers have found themselves with increasing amounts of discretionary income to spend, demand for ivory products, and other illegal animal products, has skyrocketed. Ivory products in particular are seen as a way to flaunt one’s wealth. The Chinese government has promised to address the issue, however, progress remains slow.

It is estimated that some 30,000 elephants are killed each year for their ivory tusks. In September, a herd in Zimbabwe consisting of 80 elephants was wiped out when poachers used cyanide to poison watering holes. Local security forces at the time were busy policing the local election, so the poachers used the opportunity to bring in a major haul. The poaching occurred in one of Zimbabwe’s national parks, which have traditionally been among the safest refuges for the animals.

Some African ivory is legally sold

Some African ivory is legally sold. In these cases, healthy populations of elephants can be used to supply ivory. The ivory is then registered and traded. Asian ivory is completely banned due to the fact that Asiatic elephants are endangered, while African elephants currently are not.

Beyond the loss of wildlife, African poaching has been accused of leading to conflict. Rival poaching gangs have taken up arms against each other in order to secure and expand territory. This has resulted in conflicts mimicking drug wars in Mexico, the United States, and elsewhere. For a region already suffering from so much instability, such conflicts run the risk of setting over larger conflicts.