The ‘Theatre’ of Wildlife Decimation

Stephen Wiggins Article, Petition 14 Comments

In the war-like ‘theatre’ of organised wildlife crime, versus the authorities and anti-poaching units, where is the current ‘balance’ in this blood filled battle? Ultimately, where are we heading with regard to threatened species?

Elephant Poaching

Based on CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) data, African elephant poaching might be stabilising (2015 data), but not at a level that will allow elephant population numbers to recover.

This is the conclusion of the CITES programme Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE), where the Proportion of Illegally Killed Elephants (PIKE) is estimated from the number of elephant carcasses discovered in the monitored countries.

The MIKE programme operates in a large sample of sites spread across elephant range in 30 countries in Africa and 13 countries in Asia. There are some 60 designated MIKE sites in Africa, which together hold an estimated 30 to 40% of the African elephant population, and 27 sites in Asia.


CITES MIKE Data Eelephants

Figure 1 – (PIKE) trends in Africa with 95 % confidence intervals. PIKE levels above the horizontal line at 0.5 (i.e. where half of dead elephants found are deemed to have been illegally killed) are likely to be unsustainable. The number of carcasses on which the chart is based is 14606 for 2015.

It is estimated that there might be 500,000 elephants left. Back in the early part of the 20th century, there may have been as many as 3-5 million elephants. The decline is cited as due to range loss (since 1979,  elephants have lost over 50% of their range), trophy hunting and poaching for the illegal ivory trade.

Who Buys Ivory? You’d be Surprised,” National Geographic

It’s not just the elephant numbers being poached (it is estimated that 230,000 elephants have been poached between 2009 and 2015), but large males being specifically targeted for their tusks. This targeting of male elephants inevitably skews any elephant’s sub-population sex ratio and the ability of that population to reproduce at a rate to meet attrition to poaching, hunting and ‘natural’ death rates.

So, overall elephant population numbers are still declining and will continue to do so unless there is a step change in their abuse and persecution.

Alarmingly, elephant and rhino poaching is evident in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, with 2015 data indicating a rise in elephant poaching for the first time. South Africa is arguably a well-developed nation, best placed to tackle the scourge of poaching and set an example of leadership. That ‘leadership’ appears to be sadly lacking, but NGOs are trying to assist:

Drones Tested in Kruger National Park to Help Fight Poaching,” Lowvelder, 8 March 2016

Unmanned Drone Solutions, in collaboration with Air Shepherd and The Peace Parks Foundation, founded a joint company a year ago, and has been testing the effectiveness of drones to assist rangers in their anti-poaching patrols.”

So, how has elephant poaching become so prolific and the trade in ivory so widespread when the African elephant is a CITES Appendix I protected species? Well, we need to look at a little history here and CITES’ naïve belief that it could ‘quell’ demand from ivory stockpiles and hence ‘manage’ the elephant poaching issue.

In 1989/1990 CITES introduced a ban on all ivory trade and ‘uplisted’ the elephant to CITES Appendix I status, the highest category where any trade would be closely monitored by CITES with the sanctioning (where appropriate) of all ivory export and import permits.

Prior to the ban, in 1986/1987 CITES registered 89.5 tonnes and 297 tonnes respectively, of ivory in Burundi and Singapore.

However, by 1997 CITES sought to ‘find ways’ (delisting relevant elephant populations by country to CITES Appendix II, where only an export license is required) to meet ‘demand’ for ivory from stockpiles, allowing exports of 47 tonnes of ‘stockpiled’ ivory to Japan from Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. It would appear that from this ill-judged CITES decision in 1997,  “Pandora’s box” was re-opened, with the tacit message to previous ivory trading and poaching syndicates that ‘the game was back on.’

The initial 1997 CITES ill-judged thinking was further compounded in 2000, when South Africa’s elephants were delisted to CITES Appendix II with CITES’ blessing, with 6 tonnes of ‘stockpiled’ ivory permitted for export to Singapore in 2002. In addition, in 2002 some 60 tonnes of ivory from South Africa, Botswana and Namibia was ‘released’ with CITES’ blessing to Japan (were ivory controls appeared lacking, with a reported 25% of traders not even registered).

Elephant poaching in Africa

Figure 2 – Estimated % of elephant population poached in Africa based on CITES data, 2005 to 2011.

In 2008, again to “quell” demand and “reduce prices,” CITES once more (naively in retrospect) blessed ‘stockpiles’ of ivory to be exported. Since 2008, ivory demand and prices paid have risen exponentially (the price of ivory has skyrocketed from USD $5/kg in 1989 to a wholesale price of USD $2,100/kg in China in 2014), contrary to CITES’ quaint belief that the opposite would be true. It is estimated that as much as 450 tonnes of poached ivory might have been trafficked in 2013 alone.

According to CITES own Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) figures, the illegal ivory trade has tripled in size since 1998 [and CITES first notion to release ivory from stockpiles after a complete ban in ivory trading]. Ivory seizures from 2011 through 2013 hit record levels totalling 116 tonnes. In 2013, large ivory seizures (greater than 500 kg) totalled 45.2 tonnes of ivory. If we assume that illicit ivory actually seized is only about 10% of the total amount of trafficked ivory, this would imply that the true amount trafficked in 2013 is in excess of 450 tonnes.”

Reported 2014 large seizures totalled 17.9 tons, which is significantly less than 2013, but with deficient data it is not known whether this is a real decline in the illegal ivory trade.”

– Elephant Action League, Blended Ivory, December 2015

Note: It has been suggested that CITES’ Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) is not being kept accurate, with “some of the key countries reporting seizures 18 to 24 months after they occurred.” – “How Long Before CITES Crashes?” Annamiticus, 11 December 2015

And the poachers are getting more ruthless and barbaric in their quest. In January 2016, elephant poachers shot down an anti-poaching helicopter in northern Tanzania. British pilot, Roger Gower was killed (may he RIP)……suspects have since been arrested.


Figure 3 – British Pilot, Roger Gower, killed by flying an anti-poaching helicopter, January 2016, Tanzania.

Every day anti-poaching units face the menace (and pay the ultimate price with their lives) for bravely facing up to the poachers. But the anti-poaching efforts are often privately funded (from donations) as their mainstay, but do valiant and commendable work, such as the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF).

The Elite Anti-Poaching Units and Combat Trackers, 13 March 2016


“We deeply regret to announce that 3 Virunga National Park rangers were just killed in action. The incident took place today, 13 March, in the Park’s Rwindi section, in the area’s ongoing conflict. Park Director Emmanuel de Merode and section chief Innocent Mutazimiza returned from the scene this evening.”

Conservation is War

Rhino Poaching

Petition – Save Africa’s Last Rhinos from Extinction

We have concentrated on the plight of the elephant above, but what of the rhinoceros? White rhinoceros populations are reported at some 20,400, the Black rhinoceros at 5,000. The Northern white rhinoceros stands at a population of just 3, with one male, Sudan left left and he’s under 24 hour armed guard at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya with the last two females, Najin and Fatu.


Northern White Rhino_Sudan

Figure 4 – Last Northern White Rhinoceros, Sudan Under 24 Hour Guard, Ol Pejeta Conservancy

Sudan is not the only rhino in a reserve under guard. But, the guards are often voluntary and ill-matched to the armed brutality of the poachers they face.

SanWild Wildlife Sanctuary is based in Gravelotte, South Africa. The SanWild Wildlfie Trust was established in 2000, with the reserve growing to over 5,000 hectares (12,355 acres, 50 today. SanWild has rescued and released many animals, including endangered cheetah, African wild dog, Sharpe’s grysbok, Cape pangolin, African elephant, Black and White rhinoceros.

However, even when in the reserve, the animals within SanWild’s care are not without threat from poachers. SanWild is calling for trained, ex-military personnel to volunteer for a three month stint to protect ‘vulnerable’ rhinoceros with anti-poaching operations (contact SanWild).

In South Africa rhino poaching might be reducing slightly from 1,215 in 2014, to a reported 1,175 in 2015, but the levels are still unsustainable and are therefore, intolerable.

Deepening Rhino Poaching Crisis in Africa,” IUCN, 9 March 2016

“The number of African rhinos killed by poachers has increased for the sixth year in a row with at least 1,338 rhinos killed by poachers across Africa in 2015, according to new data compiled by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission’s African Rhino Specialist Group (AfRSG).” 

“This is the highest level since the current crisis began to emerge in 2008. Since then poachers have killed at least 5,940 African rhinos” – IUCN, 9 March 2016

The International trade in rhino horn is banned under CITES (apart from ‘legally’ hunted specimens for trophies, supposedly ‘harvested’ from ‘sustainable sources,’ but of course this again sends the tacit message that it’s OK to kill rhino). Despite this CITES control, in 2008 the number of poached rhinos in South Africa shot up to 83, from just 13 in 2007. By 2010 the number of poached rhino had risen to 333, followed by over 400 in 2011…….

Rhino Horn Poaching in South Africa

Figure 5 – Rhino Poaching in South Africa

However, with rhino poachers going unpunished in South Africa and presumably, the same for other poachers of any other species in South Africa, what can be done?

There are campaigns to ‘educate’ the demand side, such as Sir Richard Branson’s nail biting campaign against rhino poaching which is an encouraging sign – rhino horn is made of keratin, similar to horse’s hoof, or indeed a human’s finger-nail, so why kill a rhino for its horn when one can just bite one’s own fingernails and gain the same advantage (ie. none).  

Rhino horn per kilo sells for up to £57,600 ($90,000 USD) in Taiwan – in comparison gold was trading at £23,300 ($36,300 USD)/kilo on gold exchanges on 19 August 2015. In Vietnam prices for rhino horn are as high as $133/gram (£85,300, or $133,000 USD/kilo). It’s clearly madness. Across swathes of Asia, rhino horn is considered to have medicinal properties and is ‘marketed’ as an aphrodisiac. Worryingly, there is an increasing demand from an ‘educated’ and increasingly wealthy middle-class as cures for everything including cancer. In Vietnam, there is anecdotal evidence that this shift in increased demand coincides with the rumour that a high-profile Vietnamese official used rhino horn to cure his cancer. Is there any science to back up the claims made for rhino horn as a human medicine? A TRAFFIC survey identified that buying rhino horn products, at best had “emotional benefits rather than medicinal.”

What action is South Africa Taking to Combat Rhino Poaching?

The South African farm owned by John Hume has the largest privately owned rhino herds in the world. The farm harvests a rhino’s horns under ‘safe and painless’ anesthetised conditions, after which the rhino is released back into the farm’s protection. The rhino’s horn eventually grows back after about two years. The harvested horns are micro-chipped and currently stock-piled in a very secure vault. Under South African law only rhino horn extracted by a permit (concession) Trophy Hunt, can the resulting rhino horn ‘legally’ be exported.

As John Hume’s argues that under the current law “We are basically telling the Vietnamese that it is fine to kill an animal because our tradition of cutting off a rhino’s head to put on a wall as decoration is acceptable. But your tradition of cutting off its horn to use as ‘medicine’ is abominable

To me both activities are abominable (Trophy Hunting and abusing animals for hypothetical medicines), but the South African authorities now appear to be bending over back-wards (manipulating the law) to appease John Hume and his ilk, by seeking to circumvent CITES and self-approve rhino horn harvesting,which is unlikely to stem demand and curtail poaching to also ‘cash-in.’ Of course, that could be the tip of the ice-berg, as South Africa’s ‘canned’ farming industry could also seek to self-approve the supply of lion and big-cat parts to Asia (and forget the need for any ‘canned’ hunting and CITES over-sight).

Trophy Hunting

Of course, the noble trophy hunters are also doing their bit to perpetuate the problem, despite the deluded claims to ‘conservation’ and only “killing the old and injured….” Every year trophy hunters kill on average 105,000 animals, including 800 leopards, 600 lions, 640 elephants, and 3,800 buffalo……….

US Hunters Import 126,000 Wildlife ‘Trophies’ Annually,” Wisconsin Gazette, 8 March 2016



Figure 6a – Magnificent male elephant ‘Nkombo’ by German Hunter Rainer Schoor, Gonarezhou National Park, Zimbabwe, October 2015


SCI_Recorded Kills

Figure 6b – A Sample of Safari Club International’s “Recorded Kills Only” ‘Conservation’ Work, plus 3,238 Cape Buffalo, plus…… 

With increased focus (at the moment) of the proven sustainability of Trophy Hunting to officially authorise trophy importation, there is perhaps some hope that the Trophy Hunters’ ‘appetite’ might abate and allow  some respite. Sadly, this might not be based on the hunters’ realisation that just because a range country has issued ‘legal’ permits (based on revenue and self-interest) for a given kill (sorry “harvest“), does not make choosing the action to kill ‘conservation’ by default.

Range Governments set the hunting quotas for hunting permits at auction to the highest bidder (a Hunting Tour Operator usually). The record for a permit sale was set at £224,000 ($350,000 USD) in 2014, Namibia, for the “right to hunt an endangered black rhinoceros” – the Dallas Safari Club (and the purchaser, Corey Knowlton) had the dubious distinction of holding that auction, the first such Namibian auction to be held outside of Namibia itself. The income (after auction deductions) presumably went straight into the Namibian government’s general coffers, so how much actually went into rhino conservation and where’s the proof?

Apparently, “the rhino taken by Knowlton was an older, non-breeding male specifically selected because of its dangerous, aggressive behaviour. The bull would have been culled regardless of Knowlton’s hunt in order to prevent injury or death to the rest of the herd” – is the view of ‘American Hunter,’ writing in the Daily Caller, 9 March 2016. But of course the rhino was taken in the wild and the exact nature of the “harvest” only verified post-kill, so ‘American Hunter’s’ reasoning looks like the usual convenient excuse of “…the target was an old, male etc…

Dr. Teresa Telecky of Humane Society International explains that DSC’s “old, post-breeding bull” justification is not supported by science:

There is no scientific evidence that male rhinos ever become infertile, no matter how old they are.”


In a December 2015 report, “Blending Ivory” the Elephant Action League (EAL) highlighted just how wide spread the infiltration of so-called ‘legal’ methods of ivory importation (mainly into Hong Kong) is, before the ‘illegal’ ivory is “legalised” and re-exported to mainland China.

‘Legitimate’ Hong Kong businesses and business people participate in and facilitate the laundering of illicit ivory through the ‘legal’ (CITES oversight) ivory market by such means as:

  1. Importing supposedly pre-ban, antique, and trophy hunting ivory;
  2. The manipulation of the ivory registration system within China;
  3. Trading ivory privately and illegally without following the Government’s guidelines and restrictions;
  4. Transfer ivory from pre-existing ‘illegal’ raw ivory stocks-piles (>1,000 tonnes), which are horded and managed by a just a few unscrupulous ‘traders.’

The EAL’s findings are backed-up by a previous report, Out of Africa (Born Free Foundation and C4ADS, August 2014), which identified China as having 37 registered (and countless unregistered) carving factories and 245 retail outlets. A survey of outlets found that most ivory items had no CITES certification.

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.”

Ivory Seizures

Figure 7 – Top 100 Ivory Seizures by Weight (2009-July 2014)

Source: Born Free, Out of Africa August 2014 report, C4ADS Ivory Seizure Database hosted in Palantir

In 2013, 1,913 tusks were seized in Guangzhou province, representing the 1,000 elephant lives taken by poachers to supply the senseless Chinese demand for ivory.

Poaching hot spots

Figure 8 – Major Poaching & Trafficking Hotspots

Source: Born Free, Out of Africa August 2014 report, IUCN data; C4ADS seizure database; Ivory’s Curse

Ivory Trade Routes

Figure 9 – Ivory Trafficking Routes

Source:“Markets of Death, Part One: The Asian end of a grisly business,” Don Pinnock, 15 Feb 2016

In a recent report (“Markets of Death,” Don Pinnock, Daily Maverick), Chinese nationals were clearly identified as the ‘kingpins’ in a network of organised trafficking syndicates, operating by proxy from ‘safe’ havens (such as the Kings Roman ‘resort’) within the ‘Golden Triangle’ of the forested borderlands between Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and China.

The ‘casino’ resorts that populate the triangle are the dens of vice for wildlife, narcotics and human trafficking, but ‘protected’ from hindrance by complicit authorities in the region. Rebel militia keep the ‘order,’ not the so-called authorities. These networks and their militia are well funded and well-armed. I doubt any CITES paperwork ‘irregularities’ in these network’s transactions will keep many of the networks’ members awake at night.

Chinese law prevents the killing and sale of protected species, with Premier Xi Jinping pledging to enact “a near complete ban” on the import and export of ivory. In September 2015, an “historic accord” was signed between the United States’ President Barack Obama and China’s Premier Xi Jinping, agreeing to end commercial ivory sales in the United States and China. We will see if China fulfils its pledge, but the signs and optimism are not good.

China’s Wildlife Protection Law (WPL) is currently undergoing its first major revision in 26 years since it came into force. There was hope that this would signal a crackdown on poaching and wildlife trade. However, the draft amendment to the WPL, currently under public consultation, states that wildlife can be used in the manufacture of Chinese traditional medicine, healthcare products and food for profit.

Petition – Halt Proposed WPL Amendments

It should be obvious to anyone, such a redraft of the WPL in China is intended to facilitate the exploitation of wildlife and ‘legalise’ the trafficking of wildlife. Premier Xi Jinping’s pledge of September 2015 might be a hollow deceit.

How is ivory, rhino horn and other animal body parts ‘legally’ transferred between markets?

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna

Here we enter another elaborate ‘theatre’ where the characters play an important, global part in the over-sight of trade in precious species.

CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) was formed under United Nations auspices in 1973 and now has some 181 signatory nations.

CITES’ protection extends to closely monitoring the import and/or export trade (depending on a given specie’s Appendix I (most critical), II or III listing) in endangered and threatened species. Only the trade in CITES Appendix I species are both import and export transactions monitored by CITES. If the trade is deemed detrimental to a species, the relevant CITES permit is withheld and the shipment thus lacks ‘legal’ certification.

However, prior to 2002, all CITES trade permits were centrally controlled via CITES head office in Geneva, with central collation of all data. However, with budgetary constraints cited, CITES withdrew from central control and instead, adopted a policy of CITES officers overseeing and issuing CITES permit from the exporting country, but also placed responsibility for data collation to in country CITES offices.

Since 2002, this ill-conceived policy change has allegedly allowed fraudulent and corrupt mis-use of the CITES permit system to flourish, with collated data ‘manipulated’ to cover erroneous CITES permit issuance. The opportunity this policy change and retreat from central control handed to those seeking to prosper from wildlife trafficking was immediately grasped. The accusation is that across Africa, the standard fee to obtain an illegal CITES permit is now set at around $5,000 USD.

Petition – “We demand the FBI and INTERPOL to investigate the corruption inside CITES about elephant export permits to China

One example cited of CITES permit ‘misuse’ was a permit for two tortoises was eventually used to sanction the supply of two elephants. Another permit was issued for African grey parrots was used to export four African manatees to China………the list goes on, but a common misuse is to enter a “source code” of captive bred specimen (”C”), rather than the true wild identity of the specimen, “source code W.” This ‘over-sight’ means that wild population decimation is being over-looked and figures masked.

The examples of CITES permit misuse and system manipulation is extensive and alarming, including a CITES approved ‘experimental’ lifting of the ban on ivory trade in 1999 and 2008. Consequently, the sale of illegal ivory reportedly rose exponentially, as did poaching in Africa.

Is any of this alleged fraudulent activity and accusation of corrupt CITES officials in country being pursued by the CITES Secretariat? With CITES, it would seem the usual story of an organisation shackled to indifference and ‘saving face’ by not lifting the lid on this internal can of worms of corruption in its own ranks. But it’s the wildlife that’s paying the price.

All of this, begs the question how much control and truly reliable data does CITES actually have in CITES’ current form? How much credibility can the CITES Secretariat muster to prove it can enforce the Convention it has been charged with, particularly when the battle it’s fighting appears to be being lost?

Despite the flaws, the CITES regulatory system must be better than no system at all (?). But in light of the battle’s ‘balance’ CITES can and must do better. The current performance would seem toothless and inadequate. A disruptive innovation is certainly required, with rigorous overhaul and emphasis on CITES enforcement in all spheres of CITES’ mandated Convention.

To highlight CITES current delusion, CITES had demanded that the 19 countries most heavily involved in the killing of elephants, or the consumption of ivory produce National Ivory Action Plans (NIAP) to show how they plan to tackle the issue.

In 2014, CITES said that from the NIAP actions listed, China has “substantially achieved” 64% of its actions (including “Outreach, public awareness and education”), Hong Kong 50%, Kenya 43% , Malaysia 50%, the Philippines 25%, Thailand 20%, Uganda 25%, Tanzania 21% and Vietnam 62%.

The self-delusion is staggering with China declared to have “substantially achieved” 64% of its NIAP. On what level has China (and Vietnam for that matter) managed to distance itself from being the ultimate destination and centre of illegal ivory trafficking and trade? A 2002 document sourced by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) includes Chinese officials reporting the loss of 99 tonnes of ivory from Government stockpiles. An NGO report in 2013 estimated that 70% of the ivory in China was illicit, and 57% of licensed ivory facilities were laundering illegal ivory.  But CITES thinks China may have “substantially achieved” 64% of its action?  I am sorry, but what planet is CITES on?

Laos (Lao People’s Democratic Republic) submitted their NIAP on 4 September 2015. I don’t see any mention in this NIAP of the Mekong River’s Kings Romans ‘resort’, or other ‘known’ wildlife trafficking ‘resorts’ within the ‘Golden Triangle’ such as the Allure, God of Fortune, Fantasy Garret, Regina, Mong Lah and Boten? None of Laos’ NIAP actions have been declared “substantially achieved” by CITES yet, which gives one some (but not much) hope I suppose.

CITES Conference of Parties (CoP17), South Africa , 24 September to 5 October 2016

At the forthcoming CITES Conference of Parties (CoP17), South Africa , 24 September to 5 October 2016, the CITES Secretariat is due to present the impact of the NIAP, by releasing analysis of the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) seizure data.

But, at the CITES Standing Committee meeting in January 2016, it was reported that some key countries’ submission to ETIS were arriving 18 to 24 months after seizures had occurred! Why, I am not sure, but it suggests that there is a cover up on-going to allow seizures to be conveniently reported, rather than in real-time. Again, this suggests, some degree of ‘theatre’ and play acting here in the “self-assessment” and “self-reporting” regime, bringing the credibility of any ETIS data into question.

I don’t see any equivalent CITES Rhino Trade Information System or indeed, National Rhino Horn Action Plans, or lion, cheetah, tiger etc. focus, which may or may not make a huge difference based on the credibility of CITES efforts with regard to elephants and ivory trade control.

I am sure there are many hard working souls within CITES, but the Secretariat’s effectiveness, robustness and fitness for purpose in face of the ‘opposition,’ must be questioned, and soon.


Figure 10 – CITES Conference of Parties (CoP17) 24 September to 5 October 2016

Hosting the CoP17 event will be  South Africa (which seems to me a bit like holding an anti-burglary convention on the ‘gang turf’ of a notorious den of thieves). The South African Minister for Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa will be welcoming delegates and hosting events at the Sandton Convention Centre, Johannesburg. This is the same Minister that continues to oversee a country that houses some 200 ‘canned’ farms where lions and other big cats are ‘bred for the bullet,’ where wildlife poaching is increasing and prosecutions of those accused of poaching crimes never seem to face trail for their wrong doing. A country that seeks to expand animal exploitation, not reduce it.

Why Are There More Game Farms than Wildlife Sanctuaries in South Africa?

Rhino Hunting is not Compatible with Conservation,” Daily Maverick, 14 March 2016

“….Edna Molewa recently refused to impose a moratorium on the issuing of hunting permits for rhinos.”

She insisted that the legal international trade in live rhino and the export of hunting trophies poses a low risk to the survival of the species in South Africa and should be allowed to continue. In this, she is tragically wrong. There is an extremely close link between legal hunting and poaching, which the minister is unwilling to acknowledge.”

The CoP17 agenda is yet to be released, but let’s hope that following January’s CITES Standing Committee meeting, South Africa’s ‘record’ and Edna Molewa’s and her country’s stance receives due scrutiny and rebuke (but somehow, I doubt it).

In 2008 South Africa began issuing CITES permits for the export of ‘canned’ lion body parts to Asia. In 2008, 50 lion skeletons were exported. By 2011, 573 lion skeletons were exported. In the period 2008 to 2011 this ‘trade’ has encompassed a total of 1,160 skeletons weighing approximately 10.8 tonnes. That is the ‘legal’ trade, plus any poached items that have infiltrated and profited from the ‘trade.’

Since 2011 how many more lion skeletons and tonnes have been exported and who is benefitting? 85% of historical exports of ‘canned’ lion body parts has gone to Loas (between Thailand and Vietnam), reportedly to the ‘Xaysavang Network,’ a trafficking syndicate that also ‘deals’ in the illicit rhino horn trade in South Africa (Williams et al. 2015, pp. 7–10, 59; Environmental Investigative Agency 2014, p. 13; U.S. Department of State 2013, unpaginated). This also begs the question, how South Africa’s recent attempt (November 2015) to manipulate laws and self-approve rhino horn harvesting can be seen as anything other than seeking to profit from trafficking in a seemingly similar, ‘legal’ fashion?

Does this sound like a CITES system to help protect animals, or help South Africa to exploit them?

The CoP17 agenda is yet to be released. Are the CITES flaws and failings in its permit system likely to be addressed do we think? What about reintroducing a complete ban on all ivory trading again, so the true picture can emerge from the opaque fog and the issue tackled afresh? Will a complete ivory trade ban help, because rhino horn trafficking and poaching does not seem to be abating, when the only ‘legal’ rhino trade should be coming via fully ‘sustainable’ Trophy Hunting quotas overseen by CITES?

Petition – Call for CITES to permanently ban all ivory trading via CITES permits

Ban Ivory Trade

European Union Action Plan Against Wildlife Trafficking

In February 2016, the European Union announced an European Union announced an Action Plan Against Wildlife Trafficking within the European Union. However, of course, this does not encompass all of the main routes between Africa and Asia, but a substantial proportion of ivory and wildlife trafficking appears to be routed through Spain (reference Figure 9).


For anyone that wants wildlife such as elephants, rhino, tigers, lions, cheetah, pangolin (etc.) to still be visible in the wild on this shared planet of ours, then the battle is being lost.

The trafficking syndicates are well protected by authorities, as well as armaments, but also alarmingly, by CITES’ ‘inadequacies.’ CITES being a key body that we all hoped would one day wake and have the ability and will to enforce its Convention with rigor. I fear not.

The poachers in country (acting by proxy for the ‘kingpins’) are well-armed and funded, but these proxies can be directly confronted as they prepare to commit their crimes of wildlife poaching by anti-poaching units. However, all too commonly, these anti-poaching units’ mainstay is funded from private donations and reserves seeking to protect their inhabitants. Hardly ‘balanced’ forces.

In the whole trafficking network, the ‘kingpin’ poachers themselves are a formidable force, connected and ‘politically’ protected it seems, but could still be confronted if the will was found (?). To my mind, the actual poachers on the ground targeting wildlife are the weak link, but as soon as one falls, another jumps into to take the ‘opportunity’ it would seem.

Can other affiliations, such as Kenya’s Giants Club (formed by Kenya’s Space for Giants charity) “bringing together political leaders, corporate chiefs and conservationists.” We’ll have to see, but I can’t imagine China willingly participating and offering any respite.

Of course, China is quickly adopting power over African infrastructure and resources, which unless there is a sea-change in China’s attitude to wildlife, can only be bad news for wild and captive species’ populations.

This leaves us (in the current system) with the option of a complete moratorium on all CITES permits facilitating the ‘legal’ trade in animal parts. Such a moratorium would quickly expose any ensuing ‘trade’ as illegal without the ability to obscure and infiltrate any ‘legal’ routes. But, at the same times runs the risk of escalating demand side prices, making theft of stockpiles and poaching and trafficking even more potentially lucrative.

The CITES permitting system and approach has clearly failed (and will continue to do so), not only with ‘irregularities’ and corruption, but with rhino horn and ivory trade flourishing in defiance of anything CITES can seem to control with current resources, plus an apparent lack of will to tackle the issue in country, or at the major known trafficking hubs.

In terms of ivory poaching, the re-opening by CITES of Pandora’s Box in 1997 to appease demand appears to have back-fired spectacularly. Therefore, a complete stop now and a fresh start from an enforcement perspective, not a self-approved/self-assessment in-country perspective is essential. Is this likely to be on the agenda at CITES CoP17 and if so, would it gain the generous full funding required? I doubt either.

It has been estimated that in 10 to 15 years, these threatened species will be extinct in the wild without significant intervention and a change in the current level of species decimation.  What event on the near horizon gives us hope that any such intervention is likely to manifest itself?  A ‘disruptive innovation’ is desperately required, or at the very least, those organisations and authorities tasked with wildlife trafficking prevention to actually enforce regulations and prosecute, which first means stopping the endless reporting, talking, misuse and deceit.

The time for concerted action against the illegal and abusive taking of wildlife for profit and frivolities is long overdue, with species populations in decline free-fall:

Wild African lion (Panthera leo)  – Only CITES Appendix II listed – 20,000 estimated, or less – Lions are purpose bred in ‘canned’ farms (some 7,000 held in South Africa, but numbers exempted from wild population counts) and poached to supply Asian demand for hypothetical medicines and potions from lion body parts.

Wild African elephant (Loxodonta Africana) – With many exemptions (?) CITES Appendix I listed – 500,000 estimated, or less – Poached for Ivory.

Tiger (Panthera tigris) – CITES Appendix I – 2,154, or less – Poached for Asian demand for hypothetical medicines and potions from tiger body parts, but with  the tiger’s scarcity (and CITES appendix I ‘protection’)  lion and other big cats are being  targeted as an ‘alternative.’

Tiger soup

Figure 11 – “Indian Tigers in Chinese Soup,” Deccan Chronicle, February 2016

The growing popularity of tiger penis soup in China has become a disaster for Indian tigers. According to top conservationists and scientists in Wildlife Institute of India (WII), 71 per cent of tigers poached in recent years are male and poachers have now started zeroing in on tigers for their penis. Chinese believe that the soup can enhance male libido and its demand is only growing day by day in  Chinese market.”

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus ) – 10,000, or less – CITES Appendix I, but with trophy hunting quotas in 2015 for Botswana: 5; Namibia: 150; Zimbabwe: 50.

White rhino (Ceratotherium simum) – 20,409, or less. Poached for rhino horn.

Southern white – Ceratotherium simum simum, population 20,405

Northern white – Ceratotherium simum cottoni, population 3

Black rhino (Diceros bicornis) – 5,055. Poached for rhino horn.

Eastern (Diceros bicornis michaeli), population 799

South Western (Diceros bicornis bicornis), population 1,957

South central (Diceros bicornis minor), population 2,299

Pangolin (Manis …..) – Various native countries, but its status varies between “Vulnerable” and “Critically Endangered” – The pangolin has the dubious ‘honour’ of reputedly being the most trafficked animal in the world. Poached for its scales, as an Asian cure for cancer (unbelievable), with demand in China being met by imports as China’s own pangolin species verges on extinction through excessive hunting.

For example, the Chinese Pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) ‘critically endangered’ – Wu et al. (2002) estimated populations of the Chinese Pangolin in China to be 50,000-100,000, in 2004 Wu et al. estimated pangolin populations generally within and close to China have declined by 88.88 – 94.12% from levels in the 1960s. Interviews as part of on-going research in China indicates this species is present but very rare in the border areas of Guangxi and Yunnan provinces (P.L.B. Chan pers. comm. 2013). On Hainan Island, extensive field research between 1997 and 2013 and interviews with hunters suggest the subspecies here, M. p. pusllia, is commercially extinct, as a result of past and on-going hunting pressure.

Leopard (Panthera pardus) – “There are no reliable continent-wide estimates of population size in Africa” – IUCN Red List – CITES Appendix I, but with trophy hunting quotas in 2015 for Ethiopia: 50; Mozambique: 120; Namibia: 250; Tanzania: 500; Zambia: 300.

And so on….

Is money the answer? Not exactly. Without global enforcement upon the trafficking networks, pouring money into anti-poaching measures at the font line is not going to work in isolation (in my opinion).

With the current ‘balance’ strongly favouring wildlife trafficking continuing unabated, from my chair, 10 to 15 years before threatened species’ extinction looks depressingly optimistic.


  1. Blended Ivory,” Elephant Action league, Washing D.C., 30 December 2015 “EAL publishes today a report on its undercover investigation in mainland China and Hong Kong in an effort to expose the areas where illegal ivory opportunistically enters the legal ivory market, and where China’s legal trade system and legal businesses are exploited to launder illegal ivory onto the legal market. The investigation was performed over a 10-month period in 2015. EAL investigators conducted two field missions to Hong Kong and four field missions to mainland China using various stories to garner meetings with ivory traders and other industry insiders.”
  2. Out of Africa,” Varun Vira, Thomas Ewing, and Jackson Miller, Born Free Foundation and C4ADS, August 2014
  3. Markets of Death, Part One: The Asian end of a grisly business,” Don Pinnock, 15 Feb 2016
  4. Markets of Death, Part Two: Blood Permits – how cheating officials undermine wildlife regulations,” Don Pinnock, 26 Feb 2016
  5. Markets of Death, Part Three: How China’s taste for wildlife feeds a killing frenzy,” Don Pinnock, 3 Mar 2016
  6. How Long Before CITES Crashes?” Annamiticus, John M. Sellar OBE FRGS, 11 December 2015
  7. Species+ –
  8. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species –
  9. The Economics of Poaching, Trophy and ‘Canned’ Hunting,” IWB, 2 September 2015


Appendix 1 – Relevant Species Numbers

White rhino (Ceratotherium simum) – Classed as “Near Vulnerable” by the IUCN(4).

White rhino species numbers are now estimated at just 20,409(5).

Southern white – Ceratotherium simum simum, population 20,405

Northern white – Ceratotherium simum cottoni, population 3(13)

Black rhino (Diceros bicornis) – Classed as “Critically Endangered” by the IUCN(6).

Black rhino species numbers are now estimated at just 5,055(5):

Eastern (Diceros bicornis michaeli), population 799

South Western (Diceros bicornis bicornis), population 1,957

South central (Diceros bicornis minor), population 2,299

Note: Namibia and South Africa were allowed a CITES quota of 5 adult male black rhino each in 2015 (see Resolution Conf. 13.5, Rev.CoP14)(2) for “hunting trophies” of this species, despite this species being listed as “Critically Endangered(6)” and under CITES Appendix I protection  since 1977.

African lion (Panthera leo) – Classed as “Vulnerable” but borderline “Endangered” by the IUCN(7).

According to Wild CRU(8) has stated:

“[African] lions are in crisis. Because lions are uniquely visible to tourists there is a false impression that they are not endangered. The opposite is true: they are disappearing in plain sight. From an estimated population of 200,000 across Africa a century ago, and 30,000 a decade ago, as few as 20,000 lions may now roam free in the entire continent. Their numbers have been devastated by loss of habitat and wild prey, poaching, conflict with farming communities, unsustainable legal hunting, and emerging threats including the use of lion bones in traditional Asian medicine. Lions are being killed daily in Africa.”

According to IUCN Red List of Threatened Species(7), African lions are “Vulnerable” but borderline “Endangered” where the IUCN concludes:

“With this in mind, we have greater confidence in the estimate of fewer than 20,000 lions in Africa than in a number over 30,000.”

“This qualifies the lion as Vulnerable, but it is of great concern that the vast majority of the population is inferred to have declined at a rate that meets the criteria for Endangered. Since our sample populations were all monitored, we suspect an even greater average rate of decline for unmonitored unfenced populations across much of Africa, since lack of monitoring could suggest lack of conservation effort.”

The number of lions in South Africa is also ‘confused’ by lions held in ‘canned’ hunting farms. According to government and private sectors sources(9), it is thought there are about 200 farms and breeding facilities holding somewhere between 6,000 and 8,000 predators in captivity. The vast majority held, possibly as many as 7,000 of these, are lions. Other species held include cheetah and leopard as well as a host of exotic animals such as tiger, jaguar and puma.

Furthermore, Ian Michler of Blood Lions has suggested that many ‘canned’ lions have been genetically muted through poor breeding management and these ‘mutated’ lions could never be released into wild populations for fear of genetic contamination. So, it could be easily argued that the inclusion of genetically mutated ‘canned’ African lions in with wild, pure African lion (Panthera leo) population estimates clouds the true picture and vulnerability of the species.

African elephant (Loxodonta Africana) – Classed as “Vulnerable” but “Endangered” in Central Africa by IUCN(12).

The World Wildlife Fund(11) has stated:

“Despite a ban on the international trade in ivory, African elephants are still being poached in large numbers. Since 1979, African elephants have lost over 50% of their range and this, along with massive poaching for ivory and trophies over the decades, has seen the population drop significantly. Back in the early part of the 20th century, there may have been as many as 3-5 million African elephants. But there are now around 500,000.”

According to IUCN Red List of Threatened Species(12), African elephant populations are generally declared “Vulnerable” but “Endangered” in Central Africa. It should also be noted that these ‘current’ assessments are based on data only up to and including 2007.

Notes and References

(1)        CITES – Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora;

Note: CITES protection falls into three distinct categories:

Appendix I lists species that are the most endangered among CITES-listed animals and plants.

Appendix II lists species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled.

Appendix III is a list of species included at the request of a Party that already regulates trade in the species and that needs the cooperation of other countries to prevent unsustainable or illegal exploitation.

(2)        CoP17 – Conference of Parties to CITES, South Africa, 24 September to 5 October, 2016;

(3)        Species+ –

(4)        IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, White rhinoceros, published 2012

(5)        Save the Rhino

(6)        IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, Black rhinoceros, published 2012

(7)        IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, African lion, published 2015

(8)        Wild CRU – Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford

(9)        Blood Lions

(10)      Traveller 24 News, Interview with Ian Michler, 25 August 2015 –

(11)      World Wildlife Fund

(12)      IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, African elephant, published 2008

(13)      “Extinct in the Wild – The last male Northern white rhino,” IWB, 19 September 2015