Illegal ivory trade

A mammoth task

Cambodia is playing a growing role in the international illegal ivory trade

January 24, 2019
A mammoth task
Photo: Fredrik Lerneryd / AFP

In the first days of 2019, researchers at the Royal Zoological Society Scotland (RZSS) made a startling discovery: an ivory trinket taken from a market in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh was made from the tusk of an animal that has been extinct for more than 10,000 years. It was the first time that woolly mammoth ivory had been found in the Kingdom. It may not be the last.

Alex Ball, programme manager at wildlife conservation charity WildGenes’ laboratory at Edinburgh Zoo, said his team had been shocked to find mammoth tusk ivory on sale in Cambodia. WildGenes is leading the DNA analysis of ivory samples from Cambodia’s market in partnership with Fauna & Flora International (FFI).

“It was a surprise for us to find trinkets made from woolly mammoth ivory in circulation, especially so early into our testing and in a tropical country like Cambodia,” he said.

The presence of mammoth fossil ivory attests to Cambodia’s emergence as a hub in the illegal ivory trade, which is becoming more internationally connected. Richard Thomas, global communications coordinator for global wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic, described the find as a double-edged sword.

“On the one hand, the presence of mammoth ivory might reduce demand for elephant ivory,” he said. “But on the other hand, its presence might stimulate the market for elephant ivory.”

Drilling ivory samples in the WildGenes laboratory based at Edinburgh Zoo. Photo: Royal Zoological Society Scotland

The sale of ivory trinkets is far from a victimless crime. Poaching for ivory threatens global elephant populations, claiming the lives of an estimated 30,000 elephants every year.

In 2015, African elephant population estimates stood at 415,000, down over 25% from 2006. The surge in poaching for ivory – the worst Africa has seen in almost 50 years – is likely the main driver for the decline.

China has been consistently identified as the world’s number-one market for ivory since 2002. Beijing’s total ban on the sale and processing of ivory took effect at the end of 2017. Traffic’s 2018 market surveys showed a 30% reduction in the number of stores selling ivory from 2017.

Since China’s ivory ban, consumer demand in the Chinese market has shifted to legal mammoth ivory, supplied by Siberia’s retreating permafrost, which offers up the carcasses of these extinct creatures by the tonne. An estimated 90% of these end up in China or Hong Kong, where tusks of up to four metres sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Mammoth ivory has been touted by conservationists as an ethical alternative to elephant ivory. But the high price of mammoth tusks may come with a devastating cost: market surveys conducted by Traffic in the first six months of 2018 showed that ivory vendors in China are laundering elephant ivory into the legal mammoth ivory market by obscuring differences between the two, which are all but indistinguishable to the untrained eye.

“The presence of both [mammoth and elephant ivory] in trade – one of them legally so – does create significant enforcement challenges,” Thomas said.

This picture shows Chu Chung Shing of Prestige Crafts standing with carved mammoth tusks in Hong Kong Photo: Mike Clarke / AFP

Those challenges have now come to Cambodia. A recent report from Traffic stated that a crackdown in former ivory trade hotspots, including Thailand and China, “seems to have displaced markets to neighbouring countries”. And Cambodia, which was upgraded to the Elephant Trade Information System’s “secondary concern” watchlist in 2016 after a series of ivory seizures, seems to be one of them.

The latest evidence of Cambodia’s growing role in the international ivory trade came in late December last year when officials at Phnom Penh Autonomous Port seized 3.2 tonnes of elephant tusks hidden in an abandoned shipping container – the biggest ivory bust in Cambodia’s history. Just eight months earlier, another 3.5 tonnes of ivory were seized at the port of Maputo in Mozambique. The container of 867 elephant tusks was in the name of a Chinese company, and was reportedly bound for Cambodia.

“The picture is one of [Cambodia] used as a transit point for products en route from Africa to destinations in Asia,”  said Traffic’s Thomas.

Market surveys conducted in 2017 by Fauna & Flora International in ivory outlets across Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville identified Cambodia as a country at risk of becoming a driver in the global ivory trade: in just two years, the number of Cambodian outlets selling ivory had more than tripled, with the estimated value of the products increasing 11-fold to $1.5 million.

If we can use genetics to identify where elephants are being killed for their ivory, measures can be taken to protect those elephants most at risk

Alex Ball, WildGenes

Of 51 shop owners surveyed in Cambodian cities in 2017, 78% stated that Chinese nationals are the main consumers of ivory products, and almost half the shops claimed they were exporting their ivory to China.

Additional undercover surveys of 38 large-scale ivory outlets revealed that a majority of shop owners used shipping containers as their primary means for smuggling ivory in and out of Cambodia – 60% and 73%, respectively.

According to a report compiled by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency, over half of the ivory seized in Cambodia comes from Mozambique, indicating a clear need not just for closer cooperation with countries exporting to the Kingdom, but greater understanding of where the seized ivory has been harvested – and it is here, said WildGenes’ Ball, that the same techniques that had identified the mammoth ivory taken from Phnom Penh’s capital could provide a solution.

“Understanding where the ivory is coming from is vital for enforcement agencies looking to block illegal trade routes,” he said. “If we can use genetics to identify where elephants are being killed for their ivory, measures can be taken to protect those [elephants] most at risk of [being targeted].”

To this end, RZSS and FFI are seeking to jumpstart DNA analysis on the ground in Cambodia with a conservation genetics laboratory at the Royal University of Phnom Penh – the first one of its kind in the Kingdom.

“Currently the lab functions purely as a research lab,” explained Regine Weckauf, illegal wildlife trade project leader and technical advisor for FFI. The aim, she said, is to develop the facility into a forensic lab whose results will inform enforcement along trade routes and used as evidence in Cambodian courts to prosecute offenders.

But for this to work, said Reckauf, the Cambodian government and civil society groups must continue to work towards establishing a clear set of procedures for trafficking cases.

“We are developing protocols right now, but ultimately appropriate structures also need to be put in place surrounding the seizure and confiscation of illegal products,” she said.

Data from Traffic

Cambodia has taken several crucial steps towards clamping down on the illegal sale of ivory.

Trade in elephant ivory is prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or Cites, which Cambodia agreed to in 1997, effectively banning the import of elephant ivory, the sale of which had been prohibited since 1994.

In 2001, Cambodia’s Forestry Administration formed a wildlife crime investigation and counter-trafficking unit made up of Forestry Administration (FA) officials, military police and staff from its supporting organisation, the international environmental non-profit Wildlife Alliance.  (The Forestry Administration did not respond to requests for comment.) In the ten months between August 2017 and June 2018 alone, this Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team conducted nine operations targeting ivory shops, which resulted in the confiscation of ivory tusks and carvings – cases that are now proceeding through the judicial system and may result in convictions, a rarity in the past.

In 2014, Cambodia was instructed by the Cites Secretariat to prepare a National Ivory Action Plan (Niap) as part of its international responsibility under the convention to address illegal ivory trade.

The latest Niap progress report states that “significant progress has also been made towards legal and judicial action against transcontinental smuggling of wildlife” in connection with the landmark December 2016 seizure of 1.3 tonnes of African elephant ivory as well as some 130kg of pangolin scales and 80kg of tiger bone in Phnom Penh Autonomous Port. This demonstrated a step forward for inter-agency cooperation in Cambodia, which Traffic’s Thomas notes can have a “significant deterrent effect on ivory traffickers.”

The Cambodian government set another benchmark in June 2018 when it ratified a law prohibiting domestic trade and possession of ivory from African elephants, punishable by one to five years in prison and/or fines of up to $25,000, effectively adding the species to its endangered list alongside rhinos, pangolins and the already-protected Asian elephant.

This legislation, if properly implemented, should mitigate the domestic ivory trade in Cambodia, said Nick Marx, director of wildlife rescue and care programmes at Wildlife Alliance.

“Whether this will make a significant difference to elephant populations, only time will tell, and will depend on law enforcement being implemented in [elephant] range countries and elsewhere.”

In addition to these measures, Cambodia’s latest Niap report set a goal of halving the number of shops selling carved ivory items in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville by August 2019 from 2017 rates.

Progress towards this goal will be discussed at the forthcoming Cites Conference of Parties meeting, scheduled for 23 May to 3 June 2019 in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Also tabled for discussion is a proposal on listing woolly mammoth as a protected species, which would introduce controls on trade. Listing the mammoth, an already extinct species, would break new ground for the Convention, said Thomas.

While an increase in significant ivory seizures and the new lab are a step in the right direction, Wildlife Alliance’s Marx said the burden cannot be borne by civil society groups alone.

“It is ultimately up to the government in Cambodia and elsewhere to ensure this happens,” he said.

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