TV Review: BBC1 Panorama Ivory Wars

The last 3 or 4 years has been particularly bad for elephants as poachers hunt them down for their tusks. It’s big business and profits runs into many millions of pounds each year. tonight’s Panorama programme took a look at the very real war that is going on between wildlife conservationists and the criminals behind the poachers.

The poachers and criminal networks behind the trade in ivory are well armed – many modern armies would be pleased to have some of the weapons used by these poachers – and well organised.

To keep ahead the authorities need to use the latest techniques to protect the herds of elephants. the programme showed some of these methods including the use of radio tagging collars that could send text messages. If the collared elephants stop moving then there is the risk of poachers being in the area. The collar send a text and the rangers can go out and track them and check on their safety.

The programme highlighted the impacts of the poachers on the young elephants with a visit to an elephant orphanage.  Elephants have strong family bonds and are highly intelligent. The baby elephants who arrive at the orphanage can arrive in a stressed and traumatized state. Care and love given by the wardens at the sanctuary try to reassure and rehabilitate the young elephants.

The programme showed that no country in Africa is immune to the current spate of poaching and killing of elephants for ivory. Tackling the poachers and distributors is a complex operation with multi-agencies having to work together.  We see operations run by Zambia authorities in tackling distributors being backed up by INTERPOL wildlife officers.

Getting the ivory out of Africa is predominately done by Chinese and the exit route can include the major airports of the region such as that at Nairobi. Here it’s not just drugs that sniffer dogs are trained to locate. Sniffer dogs are also important in finding ivory tusks hidden in the cargo ready to be shipped out.

The very latest DNA forensic techniques are being used to track down where the source of the elephants are being poached. It seems that the poachers are being targeting in the same area time and time again.  The worst area in Africa seeing poaching is the Congo states.

The DR Congo is seeing its elephant population being hammered time and again. Ivory and tusks are openly on sale in the markets of the capital city, Kinshasa. There’s been time when the markets have displayed ivory coming from up to 200 elephants in one day.

When Panorama sent in their Chinese undercover reporter the market holders flocked around him offering ivory for sale. One of the market-holders bought in a tusk do big it almost did not fit into the van. the value of the tusk – USD10,000 for just one tusk.

The forest elephants of the Congo Basin are so at risk because there is not the tourist attraction of the savannah elephants and because the tusks of the forest elephants are straighter and of a different colour making the tusks more marketable.

The question being asked in conservation circles is whether the recent  CITES authorised auctions boosted the poaching. There’s no hard evidence to show that it did but with new auctions possibly being authorised again later this year it is an important question that desperately needs to be answered. 

If you missed the programme than it’s available to watch on BBC iPlayer and it well worth taking some time out to replay it.

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