Ivory can fetch as much as $23 600 for a pair of tusks in Australia and New Zealand. Picture: Supplied

“Let’s get serious about wildlife crime.” 

“The future of elephants is in our hands.” 

“Listen to the Young Voices.” 

These annual World Wildlife Day messages were brought home with the conclusion of the inaugural UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) 2016 World Wildlife Crime Report that all regions of the world play a role as a source, transit or destination for contraband wildlife. 

The report called for the introduction of national legislation to regulate the possession, use and sale of the most threatened wildlife products from other parts of the world.  It offered potential solutions, including providing customs agents with the right tools to conduct international wildlife crime enforcement. Measures required as part of the multi-faceted strategy to combat wildlife crime worldwide.

Elephants and rhinoceros are our global flagship species in the fight against international wildlife crime.  The Great Elephant Census revealed an alarming 30% decline in Africa’s savanna elephant population over 7 years. Save The Rhino reported best estimates of only 30 000 rhinos surviving in the wild at the end of 2015 and that nearly three were killed every day in South Africa last year alone. 

Media reports on ivory and rhino horn seizures and law-enforcement focus on key source, transit and consumer nations, and rightly so. However, other countries are also harbouring the illegal trade. 

Notably, the Pacific is increasingly becoming a source and transit region for illegal wildlife trafficking, where trade is “well organised by opportunistic criminal networks and unscrupulous traders”.  

In the heart of this region, New Zealand and Australia have more recently been implicated in the illegal trade of ivory and rhino horns. 

Wildlife seizures at the New Zealand border more than doubled from 2 268 in 2011 to 5 809 in 2015. From a total of 19 221 seizures, eight prosecutions were brought under New Zealand’s Trade in Endangered Species Act). 

Two of these prosecutions were for the illegal importation of elephant ivory. No infringement fines were issued. 

Australian Customs and Border Protection Services reportedly seize 7 000 wildlife items each year, mostly in the post and passenger environment. Hundreds of seizures of suspected elephant ivory and rhino horn products were made between 2010 and last year. No infringement fines or prosecutions have been reported for wildlife offences under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

Despite the high seizure rates New Zealand and Australia have no infringement fine mechanisms for offences related to the international movement of wildlife specimens. Commendably, in February, New Zealand introduced the Conservation (Infringement System) Bill, which will provide for infringement systems to be placed in the Trade in Endangered Species Act.

Border control is clearly the first line of defence. However, as seizures are only indicative of the real scale of an illegal trade, domestic regulations must provide the second – to effectively deal with the illegal trade of wildlife items that do slip through. 

A New Zealand man managed to illegally import 20 ivory items, worth about $12 614 (R165 147), before being caught out when an African elephant tusk was detected at the international mail centre. Some of the illegally imported ivory had already been sold on the domestic market. 

Australian police seized an estimated US$63 000 worth of ivory on the domestic market in 2014 and Customs seized 100kg of ivory at Perth airport the following year. 

No fines or prosecutions in relation to either of these seizures have been reported to date. 

The incentives for criminals seeking to launder illegally imported items are obvious. Thousands of ivory products are sold each year in Australia and New Zealand on domestic markets that remain unregulated. Ivory can fetch as much as $23 600 for a pair of tusks and $53 000 for a pair of rhino horns. 

With no legal requirements for sellers to provide any proof of the origin or age of these products, the vast majority are offered for sale without provenance information. 

These gaps, in border enforcement and lack of domestic regulations, have been identified in the UNDOC Report. 

For the elephant and rhino, there is no room or time left for any gaps and “we are just a drop in the bucket” inertia. Last year the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (Cites) asked all nations with unregulated domestic markets in ivory and rhino horn to close or regulate their markets. 

A truly global response is being called for. As the two largest parties to Cites in the region, Australia and New Zealand have a clear mandate for action and an obvious opportunity to lead the way on this front. 

  • Gordon is an environmental policy analyst and director of Gordon Consulting, New Zealand
  • Goodall is the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute New Zealand, and a Roots and Shoots Ambassador – Wildlife Trade

The Mercury