Alistair Pole
Polished, unworked elephant tusks, as well as carved products, are seen for sale in Benfica, Angola.
updated 10/11/2006 10:48:35 AM ET 2006-10-11T14:48:35

The Cafe del Mar looks like any other expensive restaurant on Ilha de Cabo, the fashionable beach playground for foreigners and rich Angolans in Luanda.

But it has a special attraction: a small but well stocked curio kiosk with neat rows of ivory carvings, a popular but now illegal souvenir for tourists in much of Africa.

“Yes, we’re very popular,” said the shop’s owner. “Here is our Angolan ivory,” she said, waving her hand toward a cluster of white statues.

Despite a shrinking population of elephants, Angola is emerging as a regional hub in the illegal ivory trade.

Its share of the trade in ivory tusks has doubled in the past year, according to a report by wildlife organizations TRAFFIC and WWF International, which surveyed the volume of elephant ivory available in curio markets in Luanda.

The oil-rich southwestern African nation, which was devastated by nearly three decades of war before a peace deal in 2002, was reported to be the country of origin in 53 major seizures of ivory in some 12 countries between 1990 and 2003.

Extinction in Angola possible
“There is a real danger that our elephants will become extinct,” said Vladimir Russo, head of a local environmental group and one of the country’s foremost wildlife experts.

“The civilian market has grown for ivory since the end of the war. For example, there are more Chinese workers. They have money, so they buy the ivory curios. But there is potential for more (foreigners) to come,” Russo said.

Alistair Pole
These ivory pieces were found on sale in Luanda, Angola.
Of the 37 countries that still harbor wild populations of African elephants, Angola is the only one that has not signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the main mechanism for regulating trade in endangered and threatened wildlife.

In 1981, there were some 12,400 elephants in Angola, but that number dropped during the former Portuguese colony’s war.

UNITA rebels, who fought the MPLA government in Luanda, were accused of engaging in elephant poaching and ivory smuggling on a massive scale during the conflict, using South Africa as a conduit to international markets.

The multimillion dollar revenues generated are believed by many to have been used to buy weapons and supplies.

Now, Angola has no more than 246 elephants, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Chinese status, Angola poverty
Some 12,000 elephants are killed annually in Africa for their ivory, principally to meet demand in the United States, Europe and increasingly China, TRAFFIC said. In China, ivory is sought as a luxury item by a new middle class that covets it as an ancient symbol of wealth and status.

The trade has prospered in part due to wars and civil unrest in Africa, despite a global ban on trade in ivory imposed in 1989 to stem the slaughter of elephants on the continent.

“When you have a country full of poor people traumatized by decades of civil war, protecting elephants comes low down on the list of priorities,” Tom Milliken, a TRAFFIC spokesman said.

“Illegal ivory markets expand when business is booming and government authorities look the other way.”

In Angola, ivory is sold openly at the Hotel Tropico in Luanda, which has a small kiosk on the first floor catering primarily to diplomats and executives. It is also available at the Mercado do Artesanato in the seaside town of Benfica.

At the market outside Luanda, vendors -- many from the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo -- say they can get their hands on raw ivory easily.

“Some of it comes from Angola and some from the Congo, but the artist lives nearby”, a man who called himself Bemvinda said, standing in front of a stall with statuesque tusks and ivory carvings. “Ivory is popular but expensive,” he said.

Prices range from $35 to $100 per kilogram, but the final market price is normally several times higher. Those engaged in the illicit trade at the market said the police do not pay them any attention.

Recovery working elsewhere
Angola’s elephant population may be in decline but elsewhere the number of elephants is on the rise -- in part because of the ban on ivory trade.

The World Conservation Union says elephant numbers in east and south Africa are rising. It says surveys showed elephant numbers in the two regions rose to 355,000 from 283,000 in the five years to 2002, a growth rate of 4.5 percent per year.

But the booming ivory trade may be bad for business in Angola in the long term. As elephants are killed so are the chances of boosting revenue by attracting tourists interested in seeing elephants in the wild.

“Some tourists buy ivory, but without our wildlife how can we grow tourism?” Russo asked. “In the long term the problem is how to define our priorities.”

Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.


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