By ENVIRONMENT CORRESPONDENT
Weak governance, corruption and shifting trade dynamics are significant factors seriously undermining the control of ivory trafficking throughout five countries in Central Africa, according to a new TRAFFIC study has been launched.
In the first comprehensive assessment of ivory trade in the region in nearly two decades, investigators from TRAFFIC visited major cities across Cameroon, Central African Republic (CAR), Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Gabon in 2007, 2009 and 2014/2015.
The investigators posed as buyers at known and newly identified ivory markets and workshops throughout the Congo Basin, interviewing everyone that they encountered connected to the ivory industry. In addition, discussions were held overtly with major stakeholders, including government officials in the five countries.
The illegal and unregulated domestic ivory markets in (each of) the five Central African countries have been one of the main sources fuelling ivory trade in the region, as well as in West and Southern Africa and beyond (especially to Asia) in recent years.
The report’s findings show that open ivory markets in the region are disappearing, largely due to increased enforcement and competition with underground criminal networks. In its place, high-level corruption and poor governance are helping enable sophisticated international trade.
Corruption, Collusion and Weak Political Pressure
Current legislation prohibits domestic ivory trade in all countries except Cameroon. However, according to the report “there is a loose and ambiguous interpretation of the law in all countries, not only by the authorities in charge of enforcement, but also by many other actors…enforcement efforts are hampered by corruption, often involving high-level governmental officials, insufficient human and financial resources, mismanagement and weak political will.”
In DRC, one ivory trader interviewed claimed to have a relative in the army who supplied him with raw ivory. He also alleged that the main suppliers are government officials and, to some extent, UN peace keepers, who have the ability to move around the country frequently.
Also in DRC, researchers recorded well-informed claims that the FARDC, the country’s official army, was one of the main groups responsible for elephant poaching in Virunga National Park, with the ivory exported by the non-State “Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda” (FDLR) to whom the army would sell arms and military equipment.
Open Ivory Markets Shifting Underground
Throughout the multi-year investigation, market research showed that the region’s open illegal ivory markets are disappearing or going underground, often in the face of increasing pressure from authorities conducting frequent law enforcement operations.
TRAFFIC investigators recorded less than 1 kg of ivory products openly displayed in 2014/2015 within CAR, Congo, Gabon and Cameroon, compared to around 400 kg in 2007, and more than 900 kg in 1999 between all four countries.
The one exception was the ivory market in Kinshasa, DRC, where over 400 kg of ivory products were recorded in 2015. DRC, however, has recently committed to stronger enforcement against the illegal ivory market in Kinshasa, a milestone which TRAFFIC and WWF supported last month.
Carved ivory items were said to be bought by a mixture of African and non-African buyers: the former mainly acting as middlemen for foreign buyers. In 2014/2015 80% of foreign buyers were ethnic Asians, especially Chinese but also Malaysians and Vietnamese.
In earlier studies, in 2007 and 2009, other nationalities were more regularly mentioned as buyers including French, Japanese, Koreans, Lebanese, Portuguese, Russians, Spaniards, and US Americans, according to the report.
Rising International Criminal Networks
“The generally positive news contained in this report about the decline of Central African ivory markets needs to be weighed against the fact that, throughout this sub-region, there are still many issues to be addressed and underlying trade dynamics may be shifting beyond local markets,” according to Sone Nkoke of TRAFFIC and lead author of the report.
A common theme heard throughout the sub-region were allegations concerning Chinese citizens operating within organized criminal networks as key actors in the ivory trade. The sharp increase in raw ivory prices locally in recent years was ascribed to “high demand and limited supply owing to the shift to exportation through transnational ivory networks and syndicates with greater financial resources.”
The study found that “ivory trade in the region is shifting from an open domestic retail trade of worked ivory to underground transactions with a focus on the export of raw ivory to foreign markets, especially China.”
Among other key issues identified was the lack of robust and transparent mechanisms in place to ensure effective management of stockpiles in all the target countries. In Kinshasa, DRC, the investigators found raw tusks and worked ivory pieces in unsecured government offices—signalling a high potential for leakage into the local market. In Bangui, Central African Republic, the investigators were unable to perform a stockpile survey in 2015 as the storage facility had been looted by rebels.
“Real concerted efforts are needed to address the serious decline in elephant populations throughout Central Africa: this is no longer just a wildlife issue, but an ecological disaster strongly driven by highly-organized crime syndicates. Criminals involved in international ivory trade are regularly exploiting weak State governance, and official collusion, confusion and corruption,” said Sone Nkoke.
“Clearly Central African countries face significant governance and enforcement challenges in regulating elephant poaching and ivory trafficking. They urgently need to ramp up their efforts to implement a range of commitments that they have made at multiple international fora over the last ten years,” said Paulinus Ngeh, Director of the TRAFFIC Central Africa Regional Office. “Such efforts will need to be continuously and transparently monitored for quality and action.”
Central African States have pledged commitments to stop elephant poaching and illegal ivory trade under CITES, the African Union Common Wildlife Strategy, and other regional strategies, as well as under the United Nations fora on combatting corruption. Follow-through on these commitments is crucial to sustain wildlife in the region.
Full report: Ivory Markets in Central Africa – Market Surveys in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Gabon: 2007, 2009, 2014/2015