Killing Elephants for Chinese Chopsticks: Gabon to Stop the Blood-Ivory Trade

The West African nation of Gabon has become one of the continent's success stories -- peaceful and stable, prosperous with oil but seeking economic diversity, creating new environmental and business opportunities.

But now Gabon has been shaken with such a rise in poaching deaths of its historic population of forest elephants that its president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, is looking east to China and threatening to cut off Chinese contracts unless that nation cracks down seriously on its traditional consumption of ivory.

Long regarded as a leader in wildlife management and preservation, Gabon, along with other African nations, has suddenly found that, despite all its increasing efforts to curb poaching, the slaughter of its prized elephant herds has reached the point of near extinction, should the practice continue unabated at its present growing rate.

Throughout Africa, seizures of illegal ivory have increased to levels not seen for 25 years, after local and world revulsion against elephant slaughter led to major crackdowns starting in 1989. Despite new methods of detecting poachers that include drones and satellite imagery, the killing of the great mammals for their ivory has become the largest part of a worldwide $19 billion illegal wildlife trade.

It is in Gabon that elephant poaching has hit crisis levels, with a dramatic loss of one-third of its forest elephants in the past 10 years. One British zoologist says he fears the elephant is already ecologically extinct. The surge is caused by rising Chinese supply and demand.

In Gabon's Minkebe National Park, an area the size of Massachusetts and Rhode Island combined, the elephant population has been reduced from 22,000 to 7,000. The elephants are killed for their valuable ivory tusks, which are then smuggled mostly to China where they are carved into trinkets or ground to powder for "medicines" thought to have aphrodisiac powers.

Throughout Africa, up to 25,000 elephants were killed last year. They continue to die at the rate of three per hour. Some killings surpass brutality: 41 elephants were poisoned with cyanide at a Zimbabwe national park, creating a fourth-generation death effect -- animals feeding on the elephant carcasses die from the poisoning, then other animals feeding on them also die.

Two aspects of China's growing economy fuel the practice. At home, more Chinese have more money and can buy the ivory, previously purchased by only the wealthy. Abroad, China's massive entry into Africa with construction of dams and roads by Chinese workers has created a network of smugglers who have easy access to poachers.

Indeed, authorities worldwide are now convinced that organized criminal gangs have taken over the illegal ivory trade, creating a scene of blood ivory. They range from insurgent home-grown African groups using the proceeds for political gain to international cartel-level operators who are moving from smuggling drugs to ivory, and outright terrorist gangs financed by elephant poaching.

Famed conservationist Jane Woodall calls the elephant slaughter a "massive tragedy." Organizations from the United Nations and the World Bank to Interpol are engaged in methods to stop the killing, capture poachers, and break up the international smuggling rings.

But it is China, both as market and as supplier of manpower in Africa that assists and takes part in the smuggling -- in one instance, illegal ivory was shipped home to China in diplomatic pouches -- that a desperate President Bongo of Gabon has targeted, willing to risk Chinese aid to Africa to save his country's greatest animal from mass killings.

China protects its pandas, and he is demanding the same zero tolerance from China to stop the slaughter of Gabon's elephants.

Although some Chinese wildlife officials are actively cooperating with international groups, the top levels of China's government give only lip service to the elephant ivory problem. Calls to shut down the licensed factories and shops carving and distributing the ivory are routinely ignored.

Conservationists agree that if China would only join the United States, Europe, and the many African countries actively fighting the illicit ivory trade, the elephant population could be stabilized and grow again.

To do so, China must close 37 ivory-carving factories and 145 shops.

Following an international meeting in London with Britain's Prince Charles and his sons William and Harry in support, President Bongo has cut through the rhetoric and is targeting the source, the Chinese consumer: "We have to educate the Chinese that one set of ivory chopsticks has meant the death of an elephant."