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Out of Africa

A Huge Global Problem

Today, the ivory trade is operating at its highest level since the 1989 commercial ivory trade ban was approved by Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). 2013 appears to have been the worst year on record, with nearly 50 tons of ivory seized that were linked to organized criminal networks.

African elephants are unlikely to sustain this rate of slaughter throughout much of their range.

On August 27, 2014, Born Free USA and data analysts at C4ADS released a new groundbreaking report, Out of Africa: Mapping the Global Trade in Illicit Elephant Ivory which focuses on the ivory supply chain and the trafficking of ivory from the bush in Africa to retail markets tens of thousands of miles away in Asia. We would like to thank the Giles W. and Elise G. Mead Foundation for their generous support.

This timely exposé comes four months after Born Free USA's and C4ADS' shocking report, Ivory's Curse: The Militarization and Professionalization of Poaching in Africa, which detailed the poaching crisis and its links to violent militias, organized crime, and government corruption.

Out of Africa reveals that, between 2009 and June 2014, there were more than 90 large-scale ivory seizures, collectively weighing almost 170 tons, which bear the hallmarks of international organized crime. At a 10% interception rate, this would amount to approximately 229,729 elephants killed and trafficked in fewer than six years.

A Complex Global Web

A small number of networks appear to dominate the trade, and seizures across multiple countries and commodities often appear to trace back to the same individuals and networks.

East Asian nationals, particularly the Chinese, drive the modern ivory trade. Ivory traffickers are primarily Asian organized criminal networks, spanning Asia and Africa. They operate within a networked black market that has ties to various other forms of illicit activity. Chinese traffickers are present in virtually every single African range state, and operate at nearly every point along the ivory supply chain.

Ivory's Curse showed that poachers make less than 5% of retail profits from ivory. Out of Africa's analysis of the supply chain confirms that much of the rest of profit appears to fund Asian transnational organized crime syndicates.

Illicit ivory nests within the licit international transport system. Professional traffickers currently 'hijack' the logistics and supply chains of major container and shipping companies to move their product tens of thousands of miles at a manageable cost. Successful ivory transactions require 'facilitators' who provide specific capabilities that enable the transport of illegal ivory through legal supply chains. These same facilitators are interwoven into the systems that enable terrorism, drugs, weapons, and human trafficking.

Out of Africa provides a detailed examination of the illicit ivory supply chain, including:

  • Illegal ivory flows primarily in containers through the international shipping system. At least 100 containers may be moving annually, the majority through a small number of chokepoints.
  • A large majority of all of the illegal ivory is accounted for within a small number of transactions; through a small number of ports and airports; and to a small number of criminal networks.
  • Just the three ports of Mombasa, Dar es Salaam, and Zanzibar in Kenya and Tanzania exit the majority of shipments, pointing to the need for more carefully-targeted enforcement efforts.
  • The top three airports in the chain are in Nairobi, Addis Ababa, and Johannesburg.
  • Traffickers able to operate from the forest to the market can earn more than 2,500% in profit margins.

A Suite of Global Solutions

Sadly, there is still scope for the ivory trade to expand. Southern Africa has the majority of the continent's remaining elephants, as well as highly professionalized wildlife trafficking syndicates, which are only now beginning to enter the trade in earnest. If ivory markets are not eliminated, demand will lead poaching operations further south, attacking the Southern African elephant populations. This threat underscores the timeliness and urgency of this Out of Africa report.

Ivory trade is a matter of organized crime. As such, it requires a significant investment of resources if the poaching of elephants and profiteering of ivory are to end. Organized criminal networks must be tackled; intelligence communities must share information; the supply chain (at all levels, but most importantly, the highest points of value) must be broken; and global transport operations must be stymied. Out of Africa provides the blueprint for success by identifying and targeting the key export points for illicit African ivory. The bottom line is that, if we can close down the transit routes that bring illegal wildlife contraband, such as ivory, to their ultimate East Asian markets, we can save the elephants.

The greatest challenge to combat the wildlife trade is a lack of adequate information on how the trade functions. However, Out of Africa seeks to fill that gap, providing actionable insights, and replicable and scalable processes, to help mobilize tangible action for the policy, intelligence, and law enforcement communities. Born Free USA will utilize this cutting-edge report to ensure the protection of African elephants for generations to come.

A Recommendation for the Report

"Tens of thousands of elephants are indiscriminately slaughtered for their tusks each year across Africa, and thousands of heroic park rangers have laid their lives on the line to protect these wild animals. The illegal wildlife trade — including the illicit movement of elephant ivory — funds criminal organizations in Africa including terrorist outfits that weaken national security and threaten regional stability. The Born Free USA and C4ADS report Out of Africa reinforces the complexity of the illegal ivory trade, showing elephant population strongholds, poaching hotspots, and export points that continue to be exploited. It reinforces the need to ensure the American response to the elephant poaching challenge is as robust as possible."

- Representative Peter DeFazio, Oregon's 4th District.

View the full report Out of Africa: Mapping the Global Trade in Illicit Elephant Ivory now.