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Wednesday, 23 October, 2002, 14:56 GMT 15:56 UK
Ivory Smuggling
African elephants on plain   Ifaw
An investigation by Newsnight and the Environmental Investigation Agency has uncovered a huge conspiracy to breach the ban on the ivory trade.

The ban has become one of the great symbols of the victory of conservation over human greed.

The decision, and the sight of piles of elephant tusks being incinerated in the African veldt, did genuinely turn the tide.

Despite this some impoverished African countries are now asking why they shouldn't be allowed to resume exports.

James Coomarasamy revealed how smugglers are moving unprecedented amounts of ivory across continents.

Saving the elephant was one of the great challenges conservationists faced at the end of the twentieth century. Throughout the nineteen eighties, poachers killed around a thousand animals a week for their ivory, and by the end of that decade the world's elephant population had halved.

Some experts were even predicting that if nothing changed by 2010 the elephant could be extinct, and so, an international ban on the ivory trade was imposed.

But now. a combination of increased poaching and the desire of some governments to resume this lucrative business, means that the ban could be overturned. The pressure to do this is coming from five southern African countries, which contain around two thirds of the world's elephants

At next month's CITES conference in Chile where decisions are taken on the trade in endangered species these countries will argue that the worldwide ivory ban has had its desired effect and that their elephant populations are at healthy levels.

But Newsnight has learned that the threat from ivory smuggling may be far greater than the official figures suggest. After a chance arrest in a Zambian national park led investigators to a hitherto unknown smuggling network

There was a notorious poacher who was apprehended in that national park in 2001. He had been caught red-handed, with ivory on him, but instead of being taken to trial he was offered a job in the Zambian wildlife authority as an informant.. In fact what he did was to continue with his poaching activities and he was apprehended a second time and he revealed that there was a container of ivory in the area, in the region that was being prepared for shipment to the far east.

The investigation then moved across the border to neighbouring Malawi, where a special team picked up the trail.

The anti-corruption bureau located this container after we received a tip from Zambia.. The exporting of the ivory involves people in Malawi, two who have already been arrested and are already in police custody and several from the Far East..."

By June of this year, it was clear where the container was heading. Investigators had established a Singapore connection. It was at this point, the international law enforcement agencies swung into action.

It was actually quite a rush job the way it emerged. The container was taken by road to Durban, loaded on a ship and then destined for Singapore. The news only broke internationally the day before the vessel was due to arrive in Singapore, so the secretariat the CITES secretariat together with Interpol contacted the authorities in Singapore and they were able to intercept the shipment as it was offloaded, open the container and find this huge quantity of ivory.

Six and a half tonnes, to be precise. But when the Singapore authorities opened those containers, they' lifted the lid on a network which investigators believe may have transported up to two hundred tonnes of ivory, roughly the equivalent of twenty thousand elephants. That's more than the total amount of ivory seized throughout the world since the ban was introduced in 1989.

The investigations into this ivory smuggling ring in Zambia all pointed to the hub of the network being in Lilongwe a factory which was owned by a company called Allena Curios. When investigators looked at this factory, they found a wealth of documentation and paperwork indicating that a massive amount of ivory had passed through this place since the mid nineties. There were dates, prices, names of people who had been involved in this conspiracy.

Newsnight has seen documents unearthed by the Malawi authorities, which show this company had made eighteen previous shipments to Asia. CITES is investigating.

But the Malawi file shows that many of those previous shipments were linked to the man who ordered the consignment of ivory that was intercepted in June, at least according to the handling agent questioned by the Singapore authorities Could he be the Mr Big behind the network?

We believe we know the true identity of that person and the authorities in both Hong Kong, China, Malaysia and Japan are trying to locate that person"

Whoever he is and he goes by a number of aliases he's believed to operate out of Hong Kong, whose port provides easy access to the lucrative Chinese market. This boat was detained in Hong Kong last week after its crew aroused the suspicions of local customs chief, Gary Kwok.

We started intensive search on the vessel but still after an hour we found nothing.

But then they began looking at a cupboard in the engine room

We found there were three electric wires in the engine room.

When they brought them together, hey presto, the floor of the cupboard slid down.

That revealed the secret compartment inside the engine room and inside that secret compartment we found the seizure of ivory.

Half a ton of elephant tusks, Hong Kong's biggest ever seizure of smuggled ivory which according to the Endangered Species protection officer, was bound for China

There is demand of ivory in Asian countries including places like mainland China, Japan, and they're usually used as handicrafts, chopsticks and stamps.

With its long borders and growing consumer market China is one of the most popular destinations for ivory smugglers. In contrast to some countries along the ivory route, the Chinese authorities have come down hard on those they catch, but the Environmental Investigation Agency still found it easy to buy new ivory there.

We went to a market in Beijing which is famous for antiques and there we saw a few small items on display on tables. When we spoke to traders they would reach under their tables and produce quite large items, which they would show to us when they were sure no one was watching.

The agency secretly filmed what happened next

After, we had a meeting with some of the traders there two groups came to our hotel and offered us ivory items which they said was new ivory which came from Africa and Asian ivory as well. So even in a place like Beijing the trade is still flourishing.

If this international smuggling network worth millions of dollars exists when there is no legal market for ivory, what will happen if the ban is lifted?

Some conservationists argue it would mean a return to the dark days of the nineteen eighties with elephant populations being decimated as poachers sell ivory at will. But the Southern African countries lobbying for the ban to go claim that you can create a legal, leak-proof market.

While Kenya believes that only by destroying ivory can you destroy the illegal ivory trade, South Africa and its neighbours see no reason why they can't sell off their growing ivory stockpiles if strict controls are in place.

The smugglers have proved that the market for ivory undoubtedly exists but, the question that CITES must answer is can it be safely exploited?

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

James Coomarasamy
"Newsnight has learned that the threat from ivory smuggling may be far greater than the official figures suggest."
See also:

04 Oct 02 | Asia-Pacific
14 May 02 | Science/Nature
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