The Other Ivory

The ivory trade – every year it’s estimated to be worth £17bn and responsible for the slaughter of 20,000 elephants. It’s an epidemic never far from my mind or any other animal rights campaigner for that matter.

In April 2018 the UK government announced the trade of items made from ivory to be banned, in what the environment secretary Michael Gove claimed to be “one of the toughest in the world.” 

The ban, which is still to be signed into law, comes after 85% of the public supported the proposed act. I’m concerned why the other 15% said otherwise. Many charities praised the move, WWF chief executive Tanya Steel even claimed the UK stance made it a ”global leader in tackling this bloody trade”.

Media attention, charity demands and public outcry brought forwards the act to further protect elephants from poaching, but as of yet, there is no UK wide ban that protects the other victims of this cruel industry, just talk between the government to extend the proposed ban to all other ivory-bearing creatures.

So, what exactly is ivory and who are the other animals affected by this despicable business?

– TOOTH AND BONE –

To put it simply, ivory is the teeth or tusks of animals – most commonly canine teeth, but in elephants, they are actually elongated incisors. Ivory is hard, dense, and made of dentine – a bony tissue, and wrapped in enamel. Depending on the animal, tusks serve many purposes such as digging, gathering food, defence and combat, giving the animals that have them an evolutionary advantage.

Elephant ivory is the most common form but ivory from other species has also been used for centuries to make a huge range of items, everything from false teeth, piano keys, and religious objects, to buttons and art.

– NARWHAL –

Dubbed for centuries as the “unicorn of the sea”, the unmistakable, spiralled tusk of the mysterious narwhal caused quite the stir among the Europeans, particularly monarchs, while the Arctic was still mostly unexplored.

Queen Elizabeth I is said to have spent £10,000 on one – equivalent roughly to £1.5m in today’s money. Now the average price for a tusk can vary drastically from between £3,000 to £12,000, while rare double tusks can fetch as much as £25,000.

The tusk, no longer considered that of a unicorn, is actually a protruding canine tooth – most commonly found on males. The tusk which has a sensory capability and up to 10 million nerve endings inside, can grow up to 10 feet long!

The IUCN does not consider the narwhal, a relative of the white beluga whale, to be at immediate risk; therefore they are currently listed as “least concern”. However, the impact of hunting and changes in their natural environment means thing could go south. And quickly.

Native Inuit permitted under a Canadian and Greenland permit, have hunted these whales as a source of food and income for centuries. A Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) study found that shops in Japan were selling narwhal tusks as a tonic to treat fever, measles and other diseases, with shop prices varying from £421£724 for 100g.

Ultimately the WWF and TRAFFIC concluded from a 2015 survey, that the effects of climate change mean the hunting of narwhal needs to be monitored and regulated more precisely, but they didn’t consider the current international trade to be a threat to the survival of the species today.

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Narwhal

 

– WARTHOG –

Unlike elephants, the tusks of a warthog are less sought after. The common warthog is identifiable by two pairs of tusks or canine teeth, that protrude from the mouth and curve upwards. The lower pair, far smaller than the upper, become razor sharp because they rub against the upper pair every time the mouth opens or closes.

The tusks that grow constantly throughout the animals lives are used for digging, for combat with other hogs and in defence against predators.

The upper set of tusks are the most common form of warthog ivory, typically being carved and sold to tourists in and around east and southern Africa.

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Common warthog

The common warthog is currently listed as “least concern” on the IUCN red list.

– WALRUS –

With tusks that can grow as long as 39 inches in males, walrus ivory comes from two modified canine teeth located in the upper jaw, just like the warthog.

The killing of these animals is illegal under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act – except for Alaskan natives, who hunt to eat them and use their tusks, bones and hides for traditional purposes, within restrictions by countries with territories in the Arctic. The World Wildlife Federation (WWF) believes an average of 5,406 animals were hunted from 2006 07 to 2010 11, which “equates to less than 3% and 4% of the estimated global populations of each subspecies”.

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Pacific walrus

The Pacific walrus is currently listed as “data deficient” on the IUCN red list, whereas the Atlantic walrus is listed as “near threatened”.

– HIPPOPOTAMUS-

Hippopotamus teeth ivory is the second most common type of ivory. It is cheaper than that of elephants, easier to smuggle and extremely durable. The huge canines grow throughout their lives and can reach 60cm in length, their teeth also don’t yellow with age, unlike other ivories, meaning they are often valued higher on the market.

Unregulated hunting of not only their teeth but bones and skin too, coupled with habitat loss and increased human-hippo conflict have lead to a decline in hippo numbers in Africa. At current rates, of just 115,000130,000 across 29 African states, these animals could disappear within a century. While researching I found out this number represents little more than a quarter of Africa’s 400,000 elephant population, quite shocking when you think about it!

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Hippopotamus

The hippotamus is currently listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN red list.

– SPERM WHALE –

The sperm whale is the largest of toothed whales and the largest of all toothed predators. Mature males average 52ft in length but some can reach as much as 67ft, with the head accounting for onethird of the animal’s whole length. Their sheer size means they have few natural predators, although calves and weakened individual can succumb to orca attacks.

Over the years orcas have also been a source of ivory – although nowadays it is rare for both species to be hunted in this way. Instead, sperm whales are typically hunted as food and they are now considered as “vulnerable” on the red list. In the days of the ”whaling era” (which occurred between the 17th and 20th centuries) it is believed as many as 1,000,000 of these whales were killed, poached for their blubber, oil and meat.

Orca, on the other hand, have not been massively hunted, however, they are still killed for the meat, skin, and internal organs. Capture for entertainment and habitat pollution is considered to be two big threats that endanger this species. As of 2017, they are listed as “data deficient” by the IUCN, something I was surprised to read.

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Sperm whale
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The Gorillas of Rio Muni – The challenge of ape conservation in Equatorial Guinea

On Wednesday evening I attended an interesting lecture about ape conservation at Bristol Zoo. The hour-long talk was hosted by Dr Gráinne McCabe, a Biological Anthropologist specialising in primate behaviour and ecology, and the Head of Conservation Science at the zoo.

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The Conservation Education Centre @ Bristol Zoo

It was only the second time I had attended such a sit-down discussion, the first being the wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan ‘Animal Families and me’ tour back in October of last year. I try not too, but I often feel a little bewildered by the other people who attend these talks – they’ve all been on such marvellous adventures! I overheard one woman sitting a couple of seats away from me talking about a recent weekend away bird watching in Finland, and another woman behind me was planning a trip to Tanzania in the coming months.

Dr McCabe spent most of the hour talking about the zoo’s newest conservation project: Protecting the western lowland gorillas for Rio Muni in the African country of Equatorial Guinea. The zoo has fourteen conservation projects running at the moment, most focused in Africa, a couple in the UK, one in the Philippines and one in Costa Rica. The projects are chosen either because that is where the zoo’s conservation team have the most expertise, it is a species the staff are particularly passionate about, or the certain animal is already kept at the zoo as part of a breeding program; like the western lowland gorilla.

Traditionally the gorilla project was focused in Cameroon, but the zoo has recently been looking for a new site to expand their project, and it was the national park of Monte Alén that caught their eye.

– WESTERN LOWLAND GORILLA: SOME FACTS –

The western lowland gorilla is critically endangered, one of two subspecies of western gorilla and the most numerous/widespread of all gorilla species. Populations can be found in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Equatorial Guinea as well as in large areas in Gabon and the Republic of Congo. The exact number of them is unknown due to their habitats being some of the densest and remote forests in Africa, but it is believed to be around 362,000 instead of 150,000 as previously thought. Shockingly 80% of the population are thought to live outside of protected areas.

They are of slightly smaller size than the other subspecies of gorilla and can be identified by the grey-brown coats and auburn chests. They also have smaller ears but wider skulls and more pronounced brow ridges.

– THE BUSH MEAT AND PET TRADE –

Equatorial Guinea is made up of two islands and a mainland portion, Monte Alén national park is in the mainland. The park is known for its beautiful forests and rich biodiversity but the population of species is drastically declining because of bushmeat hunting. The primary threat to wildlife in the country! Bushmeat, especially that of apes, sells at a higher price than standard meat available in supermarkets. Dr McCabe claimed that it is not an alternative protein source because of a lack of protein, but rather because it’s considered a luxury item and status symbol.

Smaller species such as monkeys, rats, porcupines, pythons and dwarf crocodiles are readily available and are more common because the poachers have already out hunted the larger animals. This meat isn’t being sold for much either, a python, for example, may only be worth £6 or £7.

Another huge problem is the pet trade. Gorillas and chimpanzees are taken from the wild as juveniles and sold in markets or along the side of the road, they are also kept in hotels and used as photographic props.

Other threats include Ebola and other diseases, habitat loss and particularly for the gorillas of Equatorial Guinea – persecution from crop raiding.

– NOT BIG ENOUGH FOR EVERYONE –

Dr McCabe noted there are plenty of areas that are perfect habits for species like crocodiles and gorillas but right now, they’re all empty. She referred to this as ‘empty forest syndrome‘ which is essentially somewhere which is beautiful and intact – wildlife should be in abundance, but instead, there’s a breakdown in the ecosystem and all the apex predators have gone. The forests are now devoid of all life and sound. It’s depressing for me to imagine, let alone for these scientists to witness.

The areas around Monte Alén national park are now all villages and within those villages are farms. Equatorial Guinea was known for its healthy oil trade but when it collapsed, many workers in the cities had to return back to the country, farming was the only way they could make a decent wage.

Now because these farms are right at the edge of the national park, gorillas have been coming from the forest and taking the crops, as a result, the farmers have been shooting them. Dr McCabe pointed out that it is actually illegal to own guns or hunt primates in Equatorial Guinea but it’s rarely enforced.

Dr McCabe and her team have established a research base camp at the national park, setting up camera traps and bioacoustics to track the gorillas, as well as any illegal activity. These cameras will also allow them to identify if it’s just the gorilla’s crop raiding, or something else because, at the minute, it is just speculation from the villagers that it’s gorillas solely causing the problem.

– SO WHAT ARE THEY PROPOSING? –

Despite how doom and gloom the presentation was, Dr McCabe remained optimistic about the future of Equatorial Guinea and the creatures that live within it. She listed a set of recommendations to the Equatorial government that the zoo has proposed, as well as some objectives for themselves:

  • Encourage larger eco-guard force in the national park
  • Offer better support for alternative livelihoods
  • Have legitimate enforcement of existing legislation
  • Continue to participate in the gorilla EEP with breeding at Bristol Zoo Gardens
  • Publicise more arrests and prosecutions
  • Establish standardised great ape (and other large mammal) monitoring programmes
  • Continue to support Ape Action Africa in Cameroon
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The Conservation Education Centre @ Bristol Zoo

If you’re local to Bristol Zoo I definitely recommend checking out their lectures. They are free to attend, no need to book and are held monthly. For more information have a quick look here: https://www.bristolzoo.org.uk/save-wildlife/conservation-lectures