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Hong Kong customs officials intercepted $1.3 million (USD) worth of ivory on Friday in a shipment originating from Tanzania labeled “dried anchovies”. The one and half ton load carried 384 raw ivory tusks ripped from the faces of over 190 elephants. This comes only days after Congo officials arrested three Chinese nationals en route to Nairobi, carrying six suitcases chock full of ivory tusks, and weeks after two Congolese men were found carrying 116 ivory tusks in the northeast of the country. Less than a month ago, Kenyan authorities seized 317 tusks at the Nairobi’s international airport. Of course, there was also the nearly four tons of ivory, worth an estimated $8 million (USD), intercepted by Hong Kong customs, constituting China’s largest ivory bust in 20 years. With these few incidents, among many others, representing only a fraction of the ivory being traded internationally, it is clear the illicit ivory trade is reaching epidemic proportions in 2010.

Largely unreported by mainstream media, the war on Africa’s elephants should sound alarm across the global community. However, reports from southern Africa indicating an overpopulation of elephants, in addition to some African nations’ requests for one-off sales of ivory stockpiles, may be giving the wrong impression of the elephant populations. In reality, the ivory trade is occurring at multiple levels and is far more widespread than one can even imagine.

At the small-scale trade level, we hear reports of individuals risking large fines and jail time just to get their hands on the ivory. For example, one Chinese citizen was sentenced to 18 months in a Kenyan prison last month, after ivory bracelets and ten pairs of ivory chopsticks were found in his luggage. TRAFFIC reports 710 instances in 2009 where Chinese nationals returning from abroad were found to be smuggling ivory products into their homelands. The organization’s ivory expert, Tom Milliken, adds this was “the highest number of reported ivory seizures in a single year by any country in the world.”

As we know, this year’s World Cup was not kind to African wildlife. Many Chinese tourists returning from the event were found illegally bringing ivory products back with them, despite a large joint effort by the National Tourism Authority (NTA), China CITES Management Authority, and TRAFFIC to remind tourists that it is a crime to do so. They distributed 100,000 informational pamphlets to Chinese tourists attending the football matches explaining the illegal nature of endangered wildlife souvenirs.

“Given the harsh penalties for smuggling ivory into China, it seems incredible that some travelers are prepared to risk years in jail doing so—particularly when they can legally buy ivory at home,” explains Professor Xu Hongfa, Director of TRAFFIC’s China Programme. Clearly, the punishments for these crimes are not enough to deter the acts.

At the large-scale level, we now seem to be getting reports of major ivory seizures on at least a monthly basis. In Hong Kong’s latest, the illegal cargo arrived in China via Malaysia. Not coincidentally, the 317 tusks confiscated by Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) last month were also headed for Malaysia. The Southeast Asian country has emerged as a major transit point for much of the world’s illegal wildlife trade.

So far, two men, ages 46 and 48, have been arrested in connection with Friday’s bust. They face charges for importing cargo not accounted for on the manifest, which could land them a maximum fine of $260,000 (USD) and up to seven years imprisonment. Additionally, offenders found guilty of importing, exporting, or possessing an endangered species, or its parts, for commercial purposes could be fined as much as $640,000 (USD) and spend up to two years in jail. However, these are the maximum punishments for such crimes, and it’s possible, and even likely, that the offenders will be dealt a lesser blow. Fines and jail time will only be effective in deterring illegal wildlife trade if the maximums are imposed.

It has been 21 years since trade in ivory was first banned, but current trends have a striking resemblance to those of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, which decimated African elephant populations. The Associated Foreign Press (AFP) reported the time period claiming millions of elephants, leaving the continent with a scant 600,000 by the late ‘80s. In 2004, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reported some 4,000 African elephants being slaughtered for their ivory each year. The alarming surge in recent ivory seizures likely exemplifies a dramatic increase in the annual number of poached elephants since the WWF made that claim six years ago. If this trend is not reversed immediately, we may be forced to imagine an Africa without one of its most iconic species.

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