Click here to read our September 2011 story "Orphans No More."
Despite an international ban, the global ivory trade is flourishing. But some small groups are doing big things—and two of them are making a huge difference.
The first is the Last Great Ape Organization (LAGA), a wildlife law-enforcement nongovernmental organization (NGO) born nine years ago to combat bush-meat trafficking. Based in Cameroon, where more than 300 elephants were massacred in early 2012, LAGA also focuses on stamping out ivory trafficking. It coordinates undercover investigations and sting operations, provides legal support through the prosecution stage, and publicizes convictions in the media.
“Most of our work is a fight against corruption,” says founder Ofir Drori. “And there’s corruption at every level.”
Case in point: Working with the Cameroonian government, LAGA is now building a case against several individuals believed to have been involved in moving 4.3 tons of carved ivory to Hong Kong from Cameroon via containers with false compartments. The traders were based in a posh residential area, says Drori, near embassies and NGO headquarters.
“For that operation to exist,” he says, “dozens of corrupt generals, magistrates, and mayors must have been involved in order to ensure that it worked. It just shows you how organized the ivory trade is.”
Now Drori is broadening the battle, partnering with NGOs in three other African nations to promote similar law-enforcement activities. “We’re still not winning against ivory trafficking,” he says. “We’re not even close. But in the countries we work in, on average, we are getting one trafficker behind bars each week, most of them for trading ivory. How many are put behind bars in Europe? One or two a year?”
One group in Europe that focuses on ivory traffickers is the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency, a small but influential NGO that’s been exposing international crimes against wildlife since 1984. In 1987 its landmark use of undercover filming techniques to document ivory smuggling played a pivotal role in establishing the worldwide ban two years later. And in 2002 EIA helped investigate the largest ivory seizure since the ban went into effect— more than seven tons of African ivory bound for Japan were seized in Singapore.
Today, says Executive Director Mary Rice, ivory demand in China is the biggest driver of the global market. China favors a legal ivory trade, which Rice believes would only increase smuggling. At a CITES meeting on July 24 she testified: “EIA believes that the international ivory ban has not failed. Unfortunately the ban has not been properly implemented, with rampant illegal trade continuing...often seemingly ignored by local authorities. This has been fueled by one-off legal sales, which have...stimulated major new consumer demand in China and other Asian countries.” (There have been two legal sales: one in 1999 to Japan, the other in 2008 to Japan and China.)
At the heart of the matter, says Rice, is most countries’ political reluctance to challenge China. Those that supported the nation’s bid to buy ivory in 2008, she says, “need to hold themselves accountable, realize their mistake, and take immediate remedial measures. Which means saying no to any further ivory sales.” —Jeremy Berlin
Here are some other organizations doing important work to combat the illegal ivory trade:
Save the Elephants: savetheelephants.org
Big Life Foundation: biglifeafrica.org
International Fund for Animal Welfare: ifaw.org
SOS Elephants: soselephants.org
Buyer Beware: Tourists help finance the illegal ivory trade. In some countries, it’s easy to buy ivory souvenirs like jewelry, chopsticks, and religious figurines. But no matter how small the trinket, it comes from the tusks of an elephant. And bringing these objects back with you is illegal in almost every country in the world.