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Although trade in ivory has been illegal since 1989, according to wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, which manages the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS), the number of large scale seizures of illegally traded ivory is at record high levels: 2011’s 17 seizures (totalling over 26 tonnes of ivory, which means over 2,500 elephants’ tusks) more than doubled the previous record of eight seizures that occurred in 2009.

The reasons for the increase in ivory trade are the demand, mainly from China, and cartels, which are well financed and well organized. “The remarkable surge in recent years reflects the increasing involvement of organized crime syndicates in ivory,” says Tom Milliken, manager of ETIS.

Pointing out that there were zero prosecutions in the 2011 seizures, Milliken thinks the way to combat the illegal trade is to involve cross border investigations to track down the syndicates, which means international co-operation. This doesn’t happen when one country looks at one seizure within its own borders.

China is taking the crime seriously – it has given out 32 life imprisonment sentences for illegal trade in ivory, and it makes about two seizures a day – but in a CBC interview Milliken said he would like to see China play a leading role. “[China should] send law enforcement investigators to Africa so whenever Chinese nationals are arrested with large volumes of ivory, the computers that are seized, the cell phones, the documents that are all written in Chinese, are looked over very carefully for intelligence information to help unravel the identity of these criminal syndicates.”

Educating the public has also been suggested as a deterrent, not for the suppliers but for those in demand of things like ivory chopsticks, sculptures and trinkets who might not be aware of the slow death suffered by elephants, whose tusks supply the ivory – by poisoned arrows, poisoned watermelons, six-inch spikes planted in paths for them to step on, and spears, silent methods so as not to gain the attention of rangers.

ETIS has not finished calculating the 2012 statistics yet, but some numbers don’t look promising. Twenty-two years ago Clint Eastwood broached the morality of killing an elephant when his character in the film White Hunter Black Heart said, “It’s not a crime to kill an elephant. It’s bigger than all that. It’s a sin to kill an elephant. It’s the only sin that you can buy a license and go out and commit.”

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