Africa often makes headlines in international media for poaching, which I deplore and strongly condemn. By 2015, a Minnesota dentist had provoked an international outcry by shooting down the famous Cecil lion in Zimbabwe during a “big game sport hunt”. But we forget that poaching does not only kill animals, it also kills our fellow citizens. A few weeks ago, famed South African elephant advocate Wayne Lotter fell in ambush in Dar es Salaam, killed in cold blood by two hooded men. Wayne Lotter was an icon of the honourable fight for the protection of wildlife in Africa, but let us not forget that every day thousands of people are involved in this cause, sometimes at the risk of their lives.
The trap would be to believe that these events, although repetitive, remain only isolated incidents. One could imagine that they are the act of some scattered traffickers or hunters with the archaic mentality of cowboys. The development of reserves and the strengthening of wildlife protection laws would almost lead us to believe that everything has been done to avoid the extinction of certain species on the African continent.
On 7 September, the NGO TRAFFIC published a study on illegal ivory trade in five Central African countries [i]. This study is overwhelming for two reasons: not only are more and more powerful criminal networks at work, but they benefit mainly from the weak governance of some African countries. While states have actually passed stricter legislation against ivory trade with increased enforcement efforts, small retailers and sculptors are the main victims. However, these initiatives remain insufficient in a context where transnational underground criminal networks increasingly take up ivory trafficking.
One of the factors explaining in particular the virtual disappearance of the local markets where ivory was sold clandestinely is the new takeover of Asian traffickers, essentially Chinese, present from end to end of the chain of this shadow trade. Asia is the central source of demand for ivory, but supply is mainly in Africa. Faced with these transnational crime networks, states must deploy all means to prevent poaching and arrest these criminals. Unfortunately, a member of the NGO, Sone Nkoke, explains that traffickers regularly “benefit from the weakness of state governance as well as from collusion, confusion and corruption of authority”. Without the complacency and corruption of high-ranking people, it is indeed difficult to imagine that such trafficking can take place.
The problem of the illegal trade in ivory is a perfect example to illustrate the complexity of acting in a globalized world. At the local level, states must effectively strengthen their governance and law enforcement, raise awareness and involve local communities in these issues, which are ecological and human disasters. But transnational crime requires, as the name suggests, a global response. Cooperating with Asian countries to dismantle these trafficker networks and incite them to prohibit ivory trade is fundamental to the hope of saving African elephants. Surely, Beijing’s commitment to close its domestic ivory market by the end of the year is going in the right direction.
Protecting African elephants from extinction is therefore more than an ecological issue. It is also a human drama unfolding before our eyes. Poachers and criminals do not hesitate to assassinate our fellow citizens because of the greed of “white gold.” But it is also a matter of political sovereignty: as long as these traffickers are rampant in Africa, they will be a reflection of our failure to enforce and respect the law. Can a State that is not capable of protecting its wildlife be capable of protecting its fellow citizens? Surely, this is a question that all our governments must ask themselves today.
Dr Ibrahim Mayaki, CEO of the NEPAD Agency