By Associate Professor Andy Johnson.
Amongst many species that are threatened with extinction, the African rhinoceros and elephant and their much sought after tusks are at the forefront of poachers’ intentions. Such species are covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) an international agreement which aims to ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
The Asian market for horn products is insatiable and driven by the belief that these products can cure cancer and enhance one’s libido. Whilst not backed by any scientific evidence, these cultural and traditional beliefs are not about to change. For poachers, an environment that is lacking in both resources and knowledge to effectively disrupt their criminal activities is particularly attractive.
Many of the African countries that are at the frontline of this poaching have a strong political will and community support to address the problem, but they are underdeveloped and currently have limited funding and resources to put towards the necessary enforcement. It really is a losing battle.
Several ways of funding the enforcement effort in these countries have been trialled with varying degrees of success. Reform and modernisation programs for border management agencies, funded by external donors, are generally effective and can go a long way to improving the enforcement situation. The problem is that the benefits tend to be long term and the CITES situation is at a time critical stage with some research indicating that the rhino population could be extinct by 2020.
Noting that ivory legally obtained from animals that have died from diseases or natural causes can in some instances be legally exported, African nations could initiate self-funding initiatives which include the sale of stockpiled tusks that have been seized in successful enforcement efforts. In this regard, large quantities of seized horn are stockpiled including some recent seizures – 1.3 tons of elephant ivory and rhino horn found in Mozambique and 823 pieces of ivory weighing 2903kg seized in Uganda.
Another initiative may be to allow hunters to legally shoot some of these protected species under Government regulated schemes. Proceeds from these initiatives could be put towards further CITES enforcement, particularly to increase the intelligence holdings and make patrols more secure in this hostile environment.
The fact that African enforcement efforts are often poorly resourced is highlighted by Namibian Customs Officer Godwin Mwiliima who relates his experience during a recent CITES patrol.
“Yes poaching in general is taking place in the North Eastern area of Namibia, especially in the Bwabwata and Mudumo National parks. Recently I was engaged in the joint border patrol with Botswana counterpart agencies including Police, Immigration, Forestry, Environment and Tourism (Nature Conservation) and Veterinary Services. We discovered an elephant carcass with clear bullet holes on the ribs and neck. Although the tusks were still intact, there was a strong assumption that it had been shot but managed to escape before eventually dying.
What fascinated me was the response that we got from one of the community members in the close vicinity on the Botswana side as we were trying to investigate the death of the animal in particular and poaching in general. As the team spokesperson advised the community to stop harbouring poachers or strange people and to report them to the Police, one elderly man in the group spoke up and said “what will I gain from conserving or protecting these animals if I don`t get any benefit for that from Government.….”
Godwin further related that security for enforcement officers was a major concern during these patrols. While camping in the African veldt sounds idyllic, it is necessary to post sentries during the night, not so much for the threat from wildlife but the greater threat from the poachers. The limited funding for these patrols doesn’t extend to them being armed.
Poachers, on the other hand, have significant resources with helicopters and night vision equipment regularly being utilised. Recent trends include funding terrorist schemes with the poaching profits, exploitation of women in the cross border smuggling of CITES goods and an expansion of bribery of border management officials to transport the goods across borders for exportation, mainly to Asia.
The situation is getting critical and short term funding issues need to be addressed immediately. Animal activist group SAVE THE RHINO INTENATIONAL reports that in the nineteenth century half a million rhino were in Asia and Africa, declining to 70,000 in the 1970’s. Less than 29,000 remain today. Poaching numbers in South Africa in 2008 totalled 83 with that number increasing to 1004 in 2013.
CITES report that the number of elephants being killed exceeds those being born, leading to a decline in the elephant population. Elephants continue to face an immediate threat to their survival. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were some 10 million elephants roaming across Africa and that number fell to 1.2 million by 1980 and to about 500,000 currently. More than 20,000 elephants were poached across Africa in 2013.
Even with limited funding increases, the use of a more effective intelligence-led risk-managed operational effort and greater security for the personnel undertaking the frontline patrols would be progress in what seems to be currently a losing battle.
Footnote: Godwin Mwilima was recently awarded the Charles Sturt University Dean’s Award for Academic Excellence.
Associate Professor Andy Johnson has over 37 years with Australian Customs. Andy has conducted training in maritime enforcement, risk management, intelligence, investigations, border protection and operational management in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Pacific and Australia.