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Elephant Poaching In Africa Is On The Rise


State Department officials have been saying that Secretary Clinton wants to push the Chinese on a surprising issue: elephants. Thousands of African elephants are being slaughtered for their ivory. The New York Times reports they are the latest plunder taken by armed African groups - a little like blood diamonds - and most of the ivory goes to China. Jeffrey Gettleman wrote the Times report after spending time in a national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He's on the line from that country. Welcome to the program.


INSKEEP: Of course, people have heard about poaching in Africa for many, many decades, but it was a problem that authorities were trying to get under control. What's prompting it to rise again?

GETTLEMAN: Well, the price of ivory has gotten to the point - around $1,000 per pound - that it is encouraging people all across the continent to slaughter elephants and sell the ivory. And what I reported on is that we are seeing a number of armed groups jump into the ivory business. And they're on both sides of these civil wars. There are government troops, like the Congolese, the South Sudanese and others, and then there are these notorious rebel groups like the Lord's Resistance Army, the Shabaab, the Janjaweed of Darfur. And all of them are hunting down elephants in remote battle zones of Africa and selling the ivory.

INSKEEP: And using the money to continue their wars.

GETTLEMAN: That's right. It's a resource for them. Ivory's very easily converted into cash. There's many middlemen that work in this trade, and it's quite easy to take some tusks and convert them into cash and have it be completely untraceable.

INSKEEP: Why would most of the ivory go to China?

GETTLEMAN: Well, China has coveted ivory for centuries. And right now, because of the economy in China, there is a huge middle class that is able to afford ivory. For the first time in history, hundreds of millions of Chinese, who have always liked ivory, are able to buy it. And so there's this insatiable demand originating in China for all the ivory that they can get.

INSKEEP: They make it into what?

GETTLEMAN: They make it into trinkets. They use it for bookmarks, cups, statues, combs, pieces of eyeglass frames. One thing about ivory is it's very hard but it's easy to be carved with the right tools. And you can make really intricate things with ivory.

INSKEEP: So when you talk about several thousand elephants being killed in a short period of time, what does that do to the overall elephant population in Africa?

GETTLEMAN: Well, the overall elephant population in Africa is going down now because of poaching. It's hard to get exact numbers. Many elephants that are getting killed in Africa are getting killed in very remote places. So it's difficult to count every single carcass. But one indication is the amount of seized ivory. And last year they seized nearly 40 tons of ivory, which would represent more than 4,000 elephants killed. Now, if we think that seized ivory is just a small percentage of what's actually getting through, then there could be tens of thousands or more elephants that are getting killed.

INSKEEP: Well, when you talk about 4,000 elephant carcasses being seized, who's out there seizing the carcasses, who's out there actually trying to stop the ivory trade?

GETTLEMAN: Well, I just returned from Garamba National Park in Congo, and it's this spectacularly beautiful piece of landscape - rolling hills, brown rivers, lots of wildlife. And out there you have this ranger force that's incredibly heavily armed. These guys are not your typical, you know, wildlife wardens. They're carrying RPGs, belt-fed machine guns, sometimes even mortars. And they're confronting poachers. And the way they describe it, it's a war. Just recently they had an exchange with some poachers where they used something like 1,000 rounds of ammunition in 15 minutes. So they say, you know, this isn't just a battle, this is a war. And many people are getting killed on both sides. And one of the rangers said to me, you know, listen, people really misunderstand this ivory problem. It's not just animals getting killed. It's a lot of people too.

INSKEEP: Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times. Thanks very much.

GETTLEMAN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He's been reporting on the illegal ivory trade in Africa.


INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.