Melanie Gosling

Environment Writer

THERE has been a upswing in ivory smuggling through Cape Town in the last few years as the city appears to have become an attractive point to export these illegal goods.

While there were only isolated cases of ivory smuggling in Cape Town a decade ago, there have been 10 this year so far where a total of 2 817kg of ivory was seized.

Experts in the illegal wildlife trade estimate the amount of illegal wildlife goods seized the authorities on average represents between 10 and 14 percent of the actual amount of wildlife product illegally traded.

Paul Gildenhuys, manager of CapeNature’s biodiversity crimes unit, said there had also been a change from people smuggling carved ivory in the province to smuggling tusks, either whole or cut into sections. The total amount of ivory confiscated in the Western Cape from 2002 was 6 363kg kg. Between 2002 and 2008, 83kg were seized. Since 2009, a total of 6280kg – or 98 percent – had been seized.

He said there had been 37 cases of ivory smuggling in the province since 2002. Of these, 83.7 percent had been since 2009. There had been a decrease in the following two years, but the illegal trade had picked up again this year.

David Newton of the TRAFFIC, which monitors the illegal wildlife trade, said Cape Town had not really been targeted by the illegal ivory trade in the past. Because of this, the illegal traders probably thought it was an exit point that would not be so closely watched, which made the city attractive for smuggling.

Newton said globally there had been a huge increase in ivory smuggling.

“South Africa has been quite heavily involved in large shipments. In the past, South Africa’s track record was quite good, but now it’s looking quite serious and is certainly something to be concerned about. Since about 2008, 2009 till today we’ve seen an uptick in ivory smuggling in South Africa.

“What’s not good for South Africa is that the more recent large shipments have not been detected by the South African authorities. They were detected overseas,” Newton said.

What had changed in the recent years with ivory smuggling was that it had moved into the realm of highly organised crime.

“Perhaps the older ways of detecting it are not working so well anymore, whereas the people involved in smuggling are getting much better at it, as they are with rhino horn.”

This week, the Malaysian authorities seized 21 000kg of ivory hidden in secret compartments in two shipments of timber. The tusks were hidden inside compartments in the wood. The containers were marked as “wooden floor tiles”.

“This is one of the largest ivory confiscations ever. It seems that the shipment had been transported around the world.”

Malaysian authorities said the shipment had originated in Togo, then went to Spain and then to Malaysia. It was destined for China. They said it was not clear where the ivory had come from. However, conservationists say Togo is an emerging hub in the underground ivory trade, and the ivory may have come from elephants killed across Africa.