Botswana and South African police are investigating local elephant poachers believed to be linked to “international organized crime which run sophisticated trafficking networks.”
Detective superintendent Monthusi Ben of the Criminal Investigation Department confirmed this week that they are following leads that may lead to the arrest of a criminal syndicate that specializes in illegal ivory.
Information raised from other sources suggests that the syndicate, which operates from the Chobe area where the biggest population of Botswana elephants is found, maybe linked to international organized crime that runs sophisticated trafficking networks dealing in drugs, arms and other contraband.
Botswana Police and their South African counterparts mobilized the joint operation after it emerged that Botswana ivory is being smuggled into the South African black market from where it is believed to be shipped to China, United States of America and Japan.
“We have mounted joint investigation with our counterparts in South Africa where some of Botswana ivory has been confiscated by the South African Police Service,” Ben told the Sunday Standard.
He said they have not yet arrested anyone but have names of some locals who are believed to be part of the syndicate.
Ben further revealed that they are also investigating a related case in which a middle age woman was recently found in possession of 7 pieces of ivory. He said the woman will be charged after investigations are complete.
In a paper recently published in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Samuel Wasser, director of the University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology says that “compounding the problem, ivory smuggling has become increasingly the province of organized crime, with narcotics and other contraband often being shipped with the tusks. Ivory prices have skyrocketed, Wasser said, and the incentives for killing elephants for their tusks have never been higher”.
Wasser says that Chinese demand for ivory is driving the black market where the material sells for $750 per kilogram, up from $100 in 1989 and $200 in 2004. The high prices have attracted organized crime, which runs sophisticated trafficking networks.
Another report released last month by the conservation group, Care for the Wild International, revealed that the commercial trade in elephant ivory is thriving despite an international ban. The report finds that the U.S. is a major importer of ivory, second only to China.
From 1979 to 1989, about 600,000 African elephants were killed for their tusks, the report says, which is about half of the continent’s elephant population.
International trade in ivory was banned in 1989 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) an international agreement that regulates trade in threatened and endangered species.
However, the report charges that the U.S. has failed to comply with CITES regulations and to enforce domestic laws, such as provisions of the Endangered Species Act, that regulate ivory import and export.
Earlier this year, an illegal shipment of ivory was nabbed in Japan on March 1. Japan is one of the top destinations for poached ivory.
The findings may complicate Botswana, South Africa and Namibia’s case in the next round of CITES slated for next week.
CITES last year approved that exports of 20 tons of elephant ivory from Botswana, Namibia (10 tons) and South Africa (30 tons) be granted the status of trading partner allowed to import the approved ivory.
The ivory exports were agreed in principle in 2002 but were made conditional on the establishment of up-to-date and comprehensive baseline data on elephant poaching and population levels (MIKE-Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants). Botswana has since adhered to MIKE.
The CITES Standing Committee (which oversees the implementation of CITES decisions between the major conferences) determined that this condition has been satisfied and that the exports may proceed.
“The CITES Secretariat will closely supervise these new exports and monitor future trends in elephant poaching and population levels throughout Africa. By basing future decisions on reliable field data, CITES can develop an approach to elephant ivory that benefits States relying on elephants for tourism as well as those seeking income from elephant products in order to finance wildlife conservation,” said the Secretary-General of the Convention, Willem Wijnstekers.
CITES banned the international commercial ivory trade in 1989. Then, in 1997, recognizing that some southern African elephant populations were healthy and well managed; it permitted Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to make a one-time sale of ivory to Japan totaling 50 tons. This sale took place in 1999 and amounted to some USD 5 million.
In 2004, requests by several Southern African States for annual ivory quotas were not accepted by the Conference of the Parties (CoP) to the Convention. Legal sales of ivory derive from existing stocks gathered from elephants that have died as a result of natural causes or problem-animal control.
Today the elephant populations of southern Africa are listed in Appendix II of the Convention (which allows trade through a permit system), while all other elephant populations are listed in Appendix I (which prohibits all imports for commercial purposes).
The Standing Committee also decided that Japan has established sufficiently strong domestic trade control systems to be granted the status of trading partner allowed to import the approved ivory. Recent reports revealing that Japan is a major destination for poached ivory is expected to complicate the CITES deal that the Asian country can buy Botswana, South Africa and Namibia’s ivory.
China, which has also been lobbying to be allowed to buy ivory, has also been caught out by reports that it is the biggest market for illegal ivory.
The director of Wild Life, Trevor Mmopelwa, who is leaving for next week’s CITES meeting, confirmed the investigation. He, however, would not discuss details saying this could jeopardize investigations.