A massive police operation against illegal wildlife traders in 14 African countries has exposed a booming trade in contraband ivory by global syndicates of well-armed criminals.
More than 200 people were arrested and nearly two tonnes of elephant ivory were seized across Africa in the biggest-ever series of raids on wildlife smugglers, Interpol says.
The rapid growth in ivory trafficking, fuelled by a dramatic surge in Chinese demand, was highlighted this year when more than 400 elephants were slaughtered by poachers in a national wildlife reserve in Cameroon.
The international ivory trade has been banned since 1989, yet it continues to expand. More than 23 tonnes of illegal ivory were seized worldwide last year, making it the worst poaching year on record.
The soaring rate of wildlife poaching is linked to the growing presence of Chinese investors and workers across Africa. In Kenya, the biggest conduit for smuggled ivory, about 90 per cent of ivory traffickers arrested at airports are Chinese, officials say.
A new study by a wildlife conservation group shows that the vast majority of smuggled ivory is going to China, where ivory is known as "white gold" and has tripled in price in the past six years. Despite attempts to ban the trade, ivory objects are routinely sold on Chinese auction websites, prized for their investment value.
Interpol says the latest wildlife operation was conducted by more than 320 law-enforcement agents over the past three months at African markets, ports, shops and border crossings, and at roadside inspections.
It was supported by Environment Canada, which provided training to African police in wildlife law and investigative techniques. The intelligence gathered in the operation will identify links between the poachers and the global smuggling networks that are collecting millions of dollars from wildlife trafficking, Interpol says.
The high rate of poaching is threatening the future of many endangered and protected species. In the latest operation, police seized lion and cheetah pelts, crocodile and python skins, live tropical birds, turtles, and more than 20 kilograms of rhinoceros horn, along with the ivory.
Police also seized an array of weapons, including AK-47 and M16 automatic rifles that are normally used in warfare – a hint of the sophisticated firepower of the well-armed smuggling gangs.
In a similar police operation in China this year, thousands of endangered animals were seized. "Combine the two operations and it seems clear that there is a global effort underway to tackle this issue," said Adrian Hiel, a spokesman for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), a conservation group that assisted in the China and Africa police operations.
"The sad fact is that it's a losing battle right now," Mr. Hiel said. "The penalties are generally so small for trafficking in wildlife – as opposed to arms, drugs or people – that it can be incredibly lucrative and safe, compared to other trafficking options."
According to the IFAW study of the Chinese ivory market this year, the vast majority of ivory traders in China are illegal, and even the legal dealers are abusing the ivory control rules. Smuggled ivory is easily laundered through China's network of licensed dealers, the study concluded.
The growing strength of the Chinese currency, combined with the rapidly rising price of ivory in China, has allowed traffickers to make huge profits by purchasing ivory in Africa and selling it in China, the conservation group says.
"The track record is clear: China is where the vast majority of the demand exists, and it is sucking up all the ivory it can get its hands on," Mr. Hiel said.
"Most people in China do not realize that elephants are killed for their ivory. Ivory is seen as a prestige item that reflects well on the owner. And increasingly ivory is seen as a store of value – an investment tool."