The perfect poacher's storm threatening endangered species

Thumb_angus-walker

The CITES meeting is now under way in Bangkok.

For many campaigners time is running out to save the African rhino and elephant from ultimate extinction.

The World Wildlife Fund estimates 25,000 elephants are being killed by poachers every year, almost 700 rhinos last year, 100 rhinos this year so far.

An endangered east African black rhinoceros
An endangered east African black rhinoceros Credit: ITV News

I've been talking to a number of experts on the fringes of the CITES conference.

One told me that any population being reduced by 6% a year faces unsustainable losses, the African elephant is being decimated, in the true sense of the word.

10% are being killed every year.

It's wise to remember that the wildlife conservation groups have an agenda and axes to grind so can we take what they say as independent evidence?

But the UN is issuing warnings, there is consensus that magnificent animals which have been on the planet for millions of years look as though they could be wiped out in a matter of decades.

Millions care about this issue. The membership of wildlife groups dwarf the numbers of paid-up members of mainstream political parties. WWF claims it has five million supporters.

Why is this crisis affecting Africa's wildlife worse now than it was in the 80's when we heard similar warnings of imminent extinction? There now seems to be a perfect storm.

Human technology has given the poachers: night sights, more powerful weapons and cheaper, faster communication with criminal gangs.

So although the elephant and rhino have faced similar poaching crises in previous decades, it can be argued that now it is far worse.

A seized haul of ivory under guard
A seized haul of ivory under guard Credit: ITV News

Another factor to bear in mind; China now has so many links with Africa.

Millions of journeys are being taken between Africa and the booming Chinese cities where the demand for ivory and horn is strong, from a wealthy, growing middle class.

Organised Asian crime syndicates can travel back and forth arranging the poaching, using the regular flights to ship it back for sale.

Never before have the traditional consumer and the source been so closely connected.

China does have strict penalties, there are arrests and Chinese customs officers are making hundreds of seizures.

But what experts say is that they are not seeing a deterrent effect.

Poaching levels are at crisis levels and increasing. There's too much money to be made and demand is rising.

Reducing demand is difficult when ivory and horn have been sought after symbols of wealth for thousands of years. Myths still surround the medicinal properties of horn.

Delegates at the CITES meeting in Bangkok
Delegates at the CITES meeting in Bangkok Credit: ITV News

So calls for a complete ban on the widely abused legal ivory trade in China will continue.

A government-controlled market for ivory was set up to try to undermine the illegal trade.

Research seems to show that in fact any market for ivory increases demand and allows "cover" for smuggled ivory.

If shops can sell it with official approval then it sends a mixed message to consumers and, it's argued, undermines enforcement.

The statement of intent to ban the domestic trade in Thai elephant tusks from Thailand's Prime Minister was welcomed here at the CITES meeting, but cautiously.

There is no clear timetable. Today's Bangkok Post carries an editorial, warning that the ban will simply drive the trade underground.

What I've seen during my reporting from China, Thailand and Vietnam in recent weeks is widespread abuse of existing laws aimed at controlling the trade in ivory and rhino horn.

Flouting of regulations around legal markets. Demand for rhino horn medicine rocketing in the case of Vietnam, where it is seen a cure for anything from cancer to a hangover.

What can CITES do? In many ways it has done all it can, the elephant and rhino are already classed as "appendix 1", listed as endangered and trade in their parts strictly controlled or outlawed.

Yes, sanctions on countries failing to abide by the terms of the treaty they signed up to can be imposed, but that process takes months.

When you get 178 counties under one roof then frequent compromise can often be the only way through disagreement.

It's really down to how sovereign states enforce their own laws and reduce demand, that takes determination by individual countries to overcome cultural traditions and requires a huge investment in policing.

Corruption is also a major problem; how many badly paid customs officers can refuse the easy money offered by smuggling gangs?

CITES only meets every two or three years and so no wonder, given the crisis levels of poaching, the clear breaches of the existing bans and widespread corruption, campaigners are saying this meeting is the last chance to save the elephant and the rhino.