Not just rhinos: Hornbill horns fetch stunning prices in illegal wildlife trade

From her base in southern China, ALERT member Alice Hughes provides this commentary on the appalling impacts of the illegal wildlife trade on one of Southeast Asia's most magnificent birds:

While the exploding illegal trade in rhino horns and elephant ivory is squarely in the global spotlight, the “golden ivory” of the Helmented Hornbill is fetching up to five times the market price of true ivory.  As a result, hornbill populations are plummeting across Southeast Asia.

More valuable than ivory

More valuable than ivory

Unlike other hornbill species, the Helmeted Hornbill has a solid 'horn' (known as a "casique") on the upper side of its beak that can weigh up to one-third of the bird's body weight.

And given its semi-translucent, golden color, the hornbill's horn has become a prized item for the wealthy.  At a cost of US$4-8 per gram, a single casique can bring around US$1,000.

Just in West Kalimantan, Borneo, an average of 500 birds a month were killed in 2013.  Yet only around 6% of these killed birds were confiscated by authorities. 

Under CITES -- the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species -- it is illegal to sell any part of a Helmeted Hornbill.  But that has had little real impact. 

In just a few minutes on the Internet here in China, one can easily find open sales listings for Helmeted Hornbill casiques. 

China is by far the biggest consumer of illegal Helmeted Hornbill parts, where the valuable casiques are often carved up and sold by the gram -- to be used for decorations or traditional 'medicines'.

Carved hornbill beaks illegally sold on the Internet.

Carved hornbill beaks illegally sold on the Internet.

Many of the poached birds are likely to come from protected areas, such as Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra, Indonesia, given that the species is rapidly losing much of its remaining forest habitat. 

In June, a poaching ring involving around 30 hunters was broken up in northern Sumatra.  Most of the killed birds were destined for China, according to the arresting authorities

In a recent report, an official from the Environmental Investigation Agency said, “There is little to no awareness about these birds.  Few buyers know what they are, let alone the impact the purchase of these products creates.”

For this spectacular species not to follow in the wing-beats of the passenger pigeon, swift action is needed.  The Helmeted Hornbill should be a high priority on the global conservation radar.

Nineteen rangers killed trying to save forest elephants

Elephants are not the only thing being slaughtered in Equatorial Africa.

Epic slaughter of wildlife and brave park guards

Epic slaughter of wildlife and brave park guards

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, 19 park rangers have been murdered so far in 2015 -- and in just two national parks.

The rangers aren't being killed by poor subsistence hunters.  Those responsible are heavily-armed gangs of illegal poachers in search of forest elephants, which are gunned down or snared for their valuable ivory tusks.

Ivory today is fetching record prices in Asia, especially in China and various southern-Asian nations -- the dominant consumers of illegal ivory -- where it is used for carvings and other ornamental purposes. 

The 19 park rangers have all been killed in just two protected areas -- Garamba and Virunga National Parks -- two of the oldest national parks in Africa. 

It has been estimated that two-thirds of all forest elephants -- which are confined to the dense rainforests of Central and West Africa -- have been slaughtered in the last decade.

Record ivory prices are not the only reason for the demise of elephants.  Vast networks of new roads -- totaling over 50,000 kilometers in length from the mid-1990s to mid-2000s -- have been bulldozed into the Congo rainforest by commercial loggers. 

This has opened up the rainforest to a tsunami of hunters, leaving few safe places for the elephants to hide.

For the increasingly beleaguered forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, cadres of poorly-paid park guards are often the only thing standing between the last forest elephants and oblivion.

We should tip our hats to these brave warriors who are drawing a line -- and often laying down their lives -- to save imperiled wildlife.

And while we're remembering their courage, we should also continue to pressure the dominant ivory-consuming nations, including China, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Laos, to finally clamp down on their illegal ivory trade -- which is exacting far too high a price on the world.

 

Growing concerns over 'Lawless Laos' -- paradise for poachers & smugglers

Dr Alice Hughes, an associate professor at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden in southern China, shares her worries about rampant illegal activities in nearby Laos -- where wildlife smuggling flourishes unchecked by any legal enforcement.

A caged loris ponders its fate

A caged loris ponders its fate

Worry about Laos

While most Asian countries have at least begun outwardly to condemn the illegal trade of endangered species, Laos has not recorded a single illicit-wildlife seizure in over 25 years.

As a result, the E.U. law-enforcement agency Europol recently coordinated the largest-ever crackdown on international illegal wildlife trade -- which in four months seized over 1,300 elephant tusks destined for Laos.

As a landlocked conduit from Thailand and Cambodia, Laos offers an ideal staging post for the import of imperiled wildlife species and products into China and Vietnam.

Notably, Laos is home one of the world’s biggest international wildlife traffickers, the notorious Vixay Keosavang.  Vixay has so little fear of capture that wildlife shipments worth millions of dollars are sent directly to his home.

Though Laos claims it lacks the resources to screen imports, it is clear to many that officials profit from the rampant illegal trade -- as evidenced by a recent 'coffee bean' shipment intercepted in Bangkok, Thailand in April.

Thai customs officials had been alerted to the bogus shipment prior to it’s arrival.  But when Thai officials requested permission from the Laotian embassy to check the shipment, embassy officials denied their request and demanded its immediate release. 

Fortunately, Thai customs officers ignored the demand -- and discovered some 700 elephant tusks, totaling over 4,000 kilograms in weight, with an estimated value of US$6 million.

Intercepted ivory headed for Laos

Intercepted ivory headed for Laos

While revealing that corruption reaches right into heart of the Laotian embassy in Thailand, this shipment was only opened because of a new Thai military regulation issued in March. 

Prior to this, all shipments through Thailand had to be passed straight on to their intended destination -- undoubtedly resulting in the transport of thousands of threatened species that were illegally killed or captured.

The new Thai regulation has rapidly netted a number of major wildlife seizures.

And despite the mass interceptions of elephant tusks, to date this has not resulted in a single arrest in Laos.

Until rampant corruption is confronted and lawless Laos follows the official stance of its neighbors, it will continue to be a critically weak link for the enforcement of region-wide anti-trafficking efforts.

It's time to get tough.  Lawless Laos is a paradise for wildlife smugglers -- and a key conduit to China and Vietnam, the world's biggest consumers of illegal wildlife products.

Is China finally cracking down on its deadly trade in illegal ivory?

Dr Alice Hughes, an Associate Professor at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden in southern China, has been tracking discussions in China about the country's massive trade in ivory -- a trade that has led to an epic slaughter of elephants across Africa and AsiaShe shares with us her views of recent developments there.

Mass slaughter of elephants in Kenya.

Mass slaughter of elephants in Kenya.

The history of the Chinese Ivory trade is not what might be expected by outsiders. 

In 2002 the ivory trade in China was virtually nonexistent.  However, Chinese government regulations put in place that year classed ivory trade and craft as “intangible cultural heritage”, which came to threaten the future of elephants globally.

Over the past decade, ivory prices have risen by nearly 800 percent -- and have tripled in just the last few years.  Demand in China has boomed, fed by small annual releases of seized stock and a weak licensing system -- with around 60% of licensed traders found to be in violation of the law. 

Beyond that, there are an estimated five illicit traders for every licensed trader -- leading to a profound lack of transparency that has essentially prevented trade reporting and law enforcement.

That the Chinese government announced on May 28 to “phase out” the ivory trade in China is a good omen -- with the government symbolically crushing over 600 kilograms of seized ivory in Beijing. 

But what this means in reality depends entirely on which measures to limit the domestic ivory trade will actually be implemented.

The government's announcement to halt ivory imports earlier in the year (26 February) added little to existing policies.  And for the recently announced phase-out to have a real impact will require banning all legal trade in ivory, and strict enforcement.  This is likely to be unpopular with China's growing middle class and senior officials.

Since the announcement on May 28, changes within customs and international trade procedures have commenced.  But there have been no clear statements of plans to deal with China's domestic trade.

Until China takes strong internal measures to reduce domestic supply and demand -- and develops better strategies to police its porous borders for illegal ivory -- the fate of the world's wild elephants will remain precarious.

 

Wildlife poaching: Conservation on the borders

Dr Alice Hughes, a researcher at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanic Garden in southern China, tells us about an important conference that was recently held there.

Pangolins in peril  (photo by William Laurance)

Pangolins in peril (photo by William Laurance)

A recent conference on transboundary conservation held at Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanic Garden drew international attention following an inspiring closing address by Britain's Prince William.  The event focused on the massive illegal cross-national trade in wildlife.

The closing of the conference highlighted the threats to Southeast Asian biodiversity, driven by the illegal trade of species of all sizes -- not just big species such as Elephants and Rhinos.

One animal at particular risk is the world's most trafficked animal, the Pangolin, with all six species in Asia now globally threatened with extinction.  The trafficking along one particular route is now so prevalent that it has been labeled “the Pangolin express”.

The legal trade of certified products from CITES -- the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species -- lists species such as the Pangolin as a key priority. 

Another concern is ivory, which has led to the widespread slaughter of Elephant species in Africa and Asia.  Legally traded ivory has provided a loophole for its illegal trade, with studies showing that almost 60% of certified traders violate regulations and these loopholes prevent and weaken enforcement efforts.

Bushmeat has changed from being a subsistence activity to provide food for the poor, to an internationally commercialized industry to serve the demands of the rich.  As a result hunters, using lethal technologies such as high-powered rifles and cable snares, go to increasing lengths to procure valuable bushmeat.

These transnational issues in the trade in endangered species and the lack of enforcement in their trade threaten the future existence of many vulnerable species on regional and global scales.

Better education to limit demand, and increased enforcement to restrict trade -- including a complete ban in the trade of CITES-listed species -- will likely be needed to change trade patterns and save imperiled wildlife.

 

China imposes serious prison time for wildlife offences

China is overwhelmingly the world's biggest consumer of illegal wildlife products.  Now, Chinese citizens caught buying banned species could spend serious time in the clink.

Happy hanging onto its own skin (photo by Priya Davidar)

Happy hanging onto its own skin (photo by Priya Davidar)

This is welcome news to those who've watched massive poaching of elephants and rhinos in recent years to supply China's voracious appetite for ivory and rhino horn.  Other exploited species include tigers, pangolins, and many species of sharks, which are killed to make shark-fin soup.

In total, some 420 rare or endangered species will be protected under a reinterpretation of Chinese law by the the National People's Congress.  Those caught breaking the law could be sentenced to over 10 years in prison, depending on the offense.

This latest measure comes on the heels of other Chinese-government efforts to discourage the domestic trade in illegal ivory.

ALERT hasn't hesitated to criticize China for predatory practices, but it's also important to laud China's efforts when important progress is being made.  Credit where credit is due.

China acknowledges role in global elephant slaughter

The last few years have been devastating for elephants, with a global slaughter being fueled by a burgeoning demand for ivory. China, which accounts for much of this demand, is finally beginning to acknowledge its role and take steps to limit trade in ivory products.

Time to stop the slaughter--forest elephant shot in Gabon (photo by Ralph Buij).

Time to stop the slaughter--forest elephant shot in Gabon (photo by Ralph Buij).

In this week's issue of Science, Shiyang Huang and Qiang Weng highlight the burgeoning trade in illegal ivory in China, and detail the government's efforts to combat this black market

The good news is that, despite their belated response, Chinese authorities seem to be taking the threat seriously--recently confiscating and destroying 6 tonnes of ivory. In China, a decisive government action like this could potentially send a strong signal to illegal traders that the days of open trade in 'blood ivory' are coming to an end.

These are just the first steps, as the demand for ivory in China is huge.  Let's hope the Chinese government continues to show leadership on this high-profile international issue.