5 things Malaysians should know about the ivory trade

By Patricia Hului


Eggs are not the only thing we poach. Poaching also means illegal hunting, killing or capturing of wild animals. Two animals that have been targets of ivory poaching almost to the point of extinction are elephants and rhinoceroses.


According to Dr Ronald Orenstein, who holds a PHD in Zoology from the University of Michigan and an LLB from the University of Toronto, the reasons behind the illegal trade of ivory are the skyrocketing price of ivory, access to arms for killing these animals, poverty and corruption.


Elephants and rhinoceros poaching began when there was access to forest roads, since there was no point poaching these animals for their horns and tusks unless there was access to buyers.


Since ivory prices rose 900% from the 1960s to 1980s, poor people in countries such as Central Africa and Democratic Republic of Congo opted to poach elephants and rhinoceros as sources of income.


Poaching is a crime that  happens thousand miles away, yet as Malaysians there are few things we ought to know:


1. Many have died because of the ivory trade.


The ivory trade indirectly supports militias and terrorist groups in Central Africa.


At least 72 people died when a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya was attacked by Islamist group al-Shabaab on 21 to 24 Sep 2013. al-Shabaab is a jihadist group based in Somalia.


Orenstein shared that selling of ivory provide roughly USD200, 000 to USD600, 000 a month to al-Shabbab, about 40% of the terrorist group’s income.


“Over 1000 park rangers have been killed in the last 10 years and 183 park rangers killed in one national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” he mentioned in the talk.


2. The beneficial values of ivory are all myths!


So far there is no scientific proof of the medicinal purposes of ivory and yet it’s being touted as an aphrodisiac and even a cure for cancer.


Ivory is made up of keratin, the same component that makes up our hair and nails.
Orenstein said that grinding ivory for medicinal purposes was the same as grinding our own hair or fingernails.


Vietnam recently rose up as new market for ivory, becoming the world’s largest market. Besides being touted as a cure for cancer, it is also being styled as the ‘Rolls Royce’ of alcoholic drinks among the young trendsetters in Vietnam, as well as a bridal gift and memento for high-ranking corporate and government officials.


In Malaysia, ‘Air Badak’ is widely used as traditional remedy for ‘heatiness’. Although it is highly unlikely that the water contains rhinoceros horn as it claims, due to the high price of ivory and low cost of the bottled water, Orenstein said it continues to send a message that ivory has medicinal purposes.


3. Number of elephants and rhinoceros are seriously declining.


Poaching is one of the leading causes for the declining number of elephants and rhinoceroses.


There are three species of elephants; African Forest Elephant, African Savannah Elephant and Asian Elephant.


The number of African elephants is varied; in some countries the populations remain endangered but others are now secure.


According to World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the population of Asian elephant is estimated to have dropped by at least 50% over the last 60 to 75 years.


Orenstein said that three subspecies of rhinoceros have been declared extinct.


The Vietnamese one-horned rhinoceros, the subspecies of Javan rhinoceros was declared extinct in 2010. The last one of its kind was found dead in Cat Tien National Park in April 2010 with a bullet in its leg and its horn removed.


In November 2011, the Western Black Rhinoceros was declared extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).


As for the Northern White Rhino, it is considered Extinct in the Wild (EW) by IUCN meaning the only known living rhino is being kept in captivity. The three remaining rhinos of this kind are kept in the USA and the Czech Republic.


4. Malaysia plays a role in the illegal ivory trade.


Malaysia is one of the “gang of eight” countries involved in the illegal trade of ivory listed by Convention on International Trade in Wild Species of Fauna and Flora (Cites) last year: Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda play the role of suppliers, supplying ivory to consumer countries of China and Thailand while Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia serve as transit countries.


In December 2012, Royal Malaysian Customs confiscated about 2,300 pieces of elephant tusks in Port Klang. The shipment was from Togo and headed for China.


Last year in October, two separate shipments weighing a combined 3.3 tonnes of illegal ivory were seized having already gone through Malaysian ports. One tonne was seized in Hong Kong and the remaining two tonnes in Haiphon.


Malaysia has come up with action plans to combat this issue and is expected to present the results to a Cites standing committee this July.


Orenstein (left) answering questions after the talk.

Orenstein (left) answering questions after the talk.


5. We can help put a stop to this!


Public awareness is very important in stopping elephants and rhinoceros poaching.


Spreading the word to stop buying ivory products is one move we all can do as well as spread the message that ivory is most valuable when it is still attached to the animal.


In some countries, governments of countries such as Kenya, the US, and the Philippines have gone to the extent of burning ivory tusks to spread the message not to buy ivory products.


Orenstein said that about one third of the tusk is buried inside the elephant’s head; and taking out the tusk would leave a wound the size of a human leg in the elephant’s head. This alternative would require months of post-operative care for the elephant after the tusk is removed.


As for the rhinoceros, the horn can grow back but there is not enough rhinoceros around to cater for the demand.


The best way to stop the slaughtering of rhinoceros and elephants for their horns and tusks is to stop the demand for ivory.


Orenstein is also the author of ‘Ivory, Horn and Blood: Behind the Elephant and Rhinoceros Poaching Crisis’. The public talk was held at UCSI University Sarawak campus and was jointly organised by Sarawak Biodiversity Centre and Malaysian Nature Society Kuching Branch.

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