The illegal ivory trade is being carried out mostly by large crime syndicates, Wasser believes, and is being driven by growing markets in China and Japan, where ivory is in demand for carvings and signature stamps called hankos.
In addition, in the last few years demand has risen sharply in the United States, where much of the ivory is used to make knife handles and gun grips. In fact, a May report from the Care for the Wild International, a not-for-profit British natural protection organization, ranks the U.S. second behind China as a marketplace for illegal ivory.
But the illegal ivory trade has gotten relatively low priority from prosecutors, and new laws promoting global trade have created "a policing nightmare," Wasser says, which makes ivory poaching a high-profit, low-risk endeavor.
The only way to curb the trade, he believes, is to focus enforcement in areas where the ivory comes from in the first place, before it enters the complex, global crime trade network. Public support is crucial to helping reduce demand and to spur the needed enforcement help from the West.
However, Wasser believes that news reports about the need to cull excess elephants from managed populations in three or four countries have led many people to believe incorrectly that there are too many elephants in Africa. Those managed populations are confined by fences that limit the elephants' natural movements.
"Public support stopped the illegal ivory trade back in 1989 and can do so again," Wasser said. "The work with DNA sampling allows us to focus law enforcement on poaching hot spots.
"It forces countries to take more responsibility for what goes on within their borders, and it also gives us more insight on where to look so that, hopefully, we can stop the poachers before the elephants are actually killed."
|Contact: Vince Stricherz|
University of Washington