Best of our wild blogs: 4 Jun 17

Festival of Biodiversity 2017!
Butterflies of Singapore

Walk with primates – Raffles’ Banded Langur Working Group 3rd Volunteer Information Session Sat 18 Jun 2017: 1.00pm – 2.30pm @ SBG

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From Chatuchak to Woodlands: Smuggled animals face long and perilous journeys

Louisa Tang Straits Times 4 Jun 17;
Metal hoop in left earlobe. Biker slogan across the chest. Mr Wasan Limsakul does things differently - that's why his business interests include exotic serpents and iguanas.

The 49-year-old runs a shop on the fringes of Bangkok's Jatujak (known to tourists as Chatuchak) Weekend Market, where he sells his cold-blooded creatures.

An albino ball python slumbers around his neck. Plastic containers are stacked behind the duo, each labelled with the name of the species and price of the inhabitant.

They hide a crowd-pleaser among Singaporeans: snakes.

"I sell to Singaporeans, and most of them know it's illegal in Singapore," Mr Wasan says in Thai. "They probably come in their own car, so they try to take just one or two home."

Jatujak Market is one of the largest sources of exotic pets for Singapore, says Traffic South-east Asia's regional director, Dr Chris Shepherd. Many of these animals, which originate from Thailand or Indonesia, go through Malaysia before crossing the Causeway.

To meet demand in the region, many of these exotic creatures have been poached to near-oblivion in their native countries.

"The pet trade in South-east Asia is really driving a lot of species into extinction," Dr Shepherd says over the phone from his office in Kuala Lumpur. "Everything from frogs from Madagascar to tigers from who knows where - you name it, you can get it in Bangkok."

Mr Wasan says two to three Singaporeans visit his shop every month to buy reptiles. Ball pythons are their favourite. They are easy to transport - put them in a fabric bag, he says, hide it in a suitcase among clothing, and drive across the Causeway, where "they usually check just a bag or two".

A local exotic pet dealer, who wanted to be known only as Ah Long, 32, says through one of his clients via e-mail that he has sold "countless" exotic animals to Singaporeans. Popular species include bearded dragons, sugar gliders, hedgehogs, snakes and iguanas.

Ah Long sources his animals from suppliers all over the Asia-Pacific, in particular Malaysia and Thailand. He turns to a "go-to" list of contacts who specialise in transporting them across the Johor Baru-Singapore border.

Their methods are a trade secret, he says. "Only a very select few know about them, and it gives me some advantage over others when it comes to bringing in animals that are difficult to smuggle."

But wildlife consultant Subaraj Rajathurai, who has dealt with the local illegal exotic trade for more than two decades, notes that smugglers are not at all concerned about the welfare of their cargo.

"They stuff drugged parrots into PVC pipes - 80 or 90 per cent will die, but those that survive will make them more money. They are willing to lose a whole bunch of animals just to make money."

For Mr Subaraj, wildlife trafficking across land borders is just the tip of the iceberg. Smugglers can take only "small amounts" this way, so larger quantities are often transported by sea. Lorries are not really used as they are often checked for other contraband such as duty-unpaid liquor and cigarettes.

When contacted regarding wildlife-related border enforcement, an Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) spokesman referred me to the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA).

While AVA did not immediately respond to requests for figures on illegal animals seized at the borders, I understand it trains ICA officers in how to detect illicit wildlife coming through Singapore shores.

"If you get into these networks of traders working with networks in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, there's stuff moving around all the time," says Dr Shepherd. "Very often, captive breeding facilities are no more than laundering points for taking animals from the wild."


Back in Thailand, exotic animals are being groomed to take their first steps on the journey south.

In a gated community about 20km west of Bangkok, detached bungalows loom over a man-made lagoon - a far cry from the congested Thai capital. And in one of these grand homes lies a compound housing 3,000 furry inhabitants.

Here, Mr Adul Sangkarrat, 58, has bred sugar gliders for the past four years to sell as a side hobby, with the help of his wife and a worker.

The full-time attorney boasts about his farm's stature, saying celebrities buy exotic animals from him all the time. But he is more reserved when probed about Singapore customers. He insists he has none, and denies that they are able to get their hands on exotic pets.

"Aren't they illegal there?" he asks.

After a few more bristly replies, he escorts me to the breeding space. Rows of piled-up cages in a dimly lit area are separated by narrow paths. The surgical mask I'm wearing is of little use against the musky stench.

Armed with a 10cm-long hooked metal stick and a torchlight, Mr Adul lifts up the flap on the little wooden boxes where the creatures sleep, and prods them.

These small mammals are nocturnal, he explains. Here, they rest during the day in boxes attached to the bottom of a cage. Stirred from their slumber, the grey-and-black animals screech loudly.

While Mr Adul remains cagey about the route that his animals take after they leave his farm, Mr Pisit Pakawan, another breeder, is more willing to elaborate.

He breeds hedgehogs, iguanas, meerkats, turtles and sugar gliders in a 4,800 sq m compound outside a northern Bangkok suburb.

The iguana enclosure is the first thing I see at the sprawling farm. At least 50 adults are lounging inside a sandy enclosure with wooden platforms and water tubs.

Nearby, tidy rows of grimy white boxes occupy a large roofed space. Two hedgehogs curl up in each box next to a small water bowl.

Even though Mr Pisit, 43, sells about a thousand hedgehogs every month, he says that number is not enough to meet demand. According to him, hedgehogs are popular as they are inexpensive, costing around 300 baht (S$12) each if bought in bulk.

A third of his customers are Malaysian, he says; others hail from Japan and the Middle East.

He says it is easy for Malaysian merchants to bring exotic animals across the Thai-Malaysian border.

"From Thailand to Malaysia, you can put them in the car and drive across. The southern border is not very strict. You don't need to get any permits," he says.

He owns another farm in north-eastern Thailand and, along with his brother Peerasit, 32, sells the animals at a shop in Jatujak Market. They say three to five Singaporeans visit every month to ask about exotic animals.

When I ask other Jatujak pet shop owners if they sell such animals to Singaporeans - on the pretext of getting one myself - they even offer ways to sneak the creatures into the Republic. One horned lizard seller recommends putting the reptile in a box; another suggests placing a ball python in a small bag, then hiding it in my crotch to fool airport X-ray machines.

A sugar glider seller whips out a fanny pack with a small opening and shoves the animal inside. I ask him if it will suffocate; he shakes his head and says it will go to sleep.

Another seller says it is smarter to smuggle the small mammals by car rather than by plane. His Malaysian customers sell the animals back home at a higher price.

Bearded dragon breeder Jakrapat Khoovatanapaisal, 38, has one Malaysian customer who buys his reptiles to take into Singapore.

"He knew it was illegal, and he had a way to smuggle them from Malaysia to Singapore," he says.


Closer to home, a salesman at a Johor Baru exotic pet shop has more to say on that subject.

The store, just 15 minutes by car from Woodlands Checkpoint, sells mostly reptiles. Large iguanas like Mr Pisit's sun themselves in roomy cages on the pavement just outside. Two chattering baby marmosets cling to a cage by the entrance.

Ninety per cent of the shop's customers are Singaporean, says the young salesman. Posing as a buyer, I ask him about taking a bearded dragon back home. He suggests going by car so I can smuggle both the animal and the necessary accessories in just one trip. The shop could rent me a transporter, but that would cost more.

"How do I hide this in my car?" I ask, gesturing at a pastel ball python.

He replies that some of his customers put the animal in a container before transferring it into a tissue holder that has been filled with tissue paper.


I have also been corresponding with a Singapore seller going by the moniker Steve Erwin, who breeds his animals across the Causeway.

Erwin tells me he owns a farm with a Malaysian friend. Posing as a prospective buyer, I approach him via WhatsApp to purchase a $300 hedgehog after finding his advertisements online at ChaosAds and Adpost. He says he has already sold 20 hedgehog babies; he also deals in Indian star tortoises, snakes and tarantulas.

Erwin agrees that it is more difficult to smuggle animals across the Causeway nowadays; instead, he opts for the Tuas Second Link.

Other local dealers say bringing animals across the border poses few problems, if any. While Ah Long usually hires smugglers for that, small-time dealers like JS, a 26-year-old army regular, sometimes do it themselves.

"They are all from Malaysia. We usually come in by car, and store them in a compartment under the passenger seat," says JS. "I bring my kids along so that we are less likely to be checked."

As a precaution, he insists on hiring a middleman to handle deals with first-time buyers, just in case the transaction is a set-up.

Ah Long, too, weighs various factors - whether the authorities are tightening border security, whether animal welfare groups are ramping up joint raids with AVA. He then decides whether to contact first-time clients directly. If not, he gets long-time customers to act as messengers.

Once a purchase is confirmed, clients are required to pay half the sum upfront as a deposit. Collections are done at the void deck of Ah Long's flat, or in his neighbourhood.

Despite the risks, these dealers say they have no plans to stop. JS rakes in about $2,500 a month - a third to half of what full-time dealers earn, he surmises.

Ah Long, meanwhile, earns about $3,000 a month, and up to $10,000 if business is good. In fact, he has quit his full-time job to focus on his illegal business.

Illegal trade shifts online
Aqil Haziq Mahmud Straits Times 4 Jun 17;

While the authorities have cracked down on errant pet shops selling illegal wildlife, the exotic pet trade has shifted to online sales.

"The physical trade in exotic animals at pet shops is almost down to zero," said Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres) founder Louis Ng. "But a number of investigations we've done showed that the online trade is on the increase now."

From June to December last year, Acres discovered 459 online advertisements touting exotic pets on sites such as Gumtree, Locanto, Carousell and Facebook. Two years ago, the animal welfare group found 156 ads in the same six-month period.

"It's all shifting to a more virtual world where identity is not required; anyone can buy, which is quite scary," said Acres deputy chief executive Anbarasi Boopal.

When this reporter conducted his own investigation on local online marketplaces such as Adpost, ChaosAds and Locanto, he found 14 postings advertising illegal pets for sale.

Six ads were found on Adpost and another four on ChaosAds. On Locanto, a seller named Ryan2Ring was looking to offload a baby hedgehog for $450 because of "work commitments".

On ChaosAds, a seller going by the name of Jov Roy was hawking threatened species of tortoises, including Galapagos, sulcata and radiated tortoises. When contacted via e-mail about the radiated tortoise, "Roy" confirmed its availability and said he had been shipping both turtles and tortoises from Germany to Singapore with no issues.

He listed the price of an adult radiated tortoise, which is classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as "critically endangered", at US$260 (S$360) with shipping.

According to Dut, the bearded-dragon owner interviewed elsewhere in this Insight package, a baby radiated tortoise can cost up to $8,000 if bought locally. This points to huge savings for people who buy their exotic pets online.

The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) could not be immediately reached for comment on the online illegal pet trade.

The agency works with online sites such as forums, classified ad pages and auction sites to alert them about laws prohibiting the sale of illegal wildlife in Singapore.

In November 2013, the AVA acted on a tip-off and caught a dealer trying to sell a pair of albino hedgehogs and two sugar gliders on a local website for a total of $2,650. He was fined $4,000.

Currently, there are no regulations governing the online sale of animals, although Acres is pushing to "ban live animal trade" online.

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Malaysia: Cancer-stricken Puntung the Sumatran rhino euthanised

AVILA GERALDINE New Straits Times 4 Jun 17;

KOTA KINABALU: The worst has come to pass.

Wildlife experts here bade a sad farewell to Puntung, one of Malaysia’s three remaining Sumatra rhinos, who was put down after a brief battle against cancer.

Sabah Wildlife director Augustine Tuuga said the euthanasia procedure was performed at between 7am and 8am at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Lahad Datu.

In a statement, he said the 25-year-old female rhino was placed under close observation prior to her death.

“Her keepers, Wilson Kuntil, Hassan Sani and Samad Gubin had been sleeping for the past week with Puntung in her forest paddock.

“They were very attuned to subtle changes in her behaviour and reported periodic bleeding from the nostrils.

“The carcinoma had been growing rapidly in size and there were clear signs that Puntung was experiencing significant breathing difficulties,” he said.

After consulting rhino reproduction advisers at Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin and others, Tuuga said, the decision was made to end Puntung’s agony and bring forward the date of the procedure.

“Previously, we were planning to do it on June 15. In pursuit of the aim to allow Puntung to contribute to the survival of her species, her ovaries were rushed to the Agro-Biotechnology Institute in Serdang,” he added.

Tuuga also said Indonesian reproductive specialist Prof Arief Boediono was ready to recover any egg cells that may be present.

“If any oocytes can be retrieved and matured, frozen sperm from the male rhino Tam will be thawed for intracytoplasmic sperm injection by Prof Arief. We will know the outcome within a few days.

“In addition, tissue samples from Puntung are being provided to Malaysian institutions so that her genome can be preserved through cell cultures,” added Tuuga.

Puntung was recently diagnosed with the deadly squamous cell skin cancer, which spread rapidly after she underwent an operation in April to extract two molars and a premolar from the upper left side of her jaw.

Tuuga had said two subsequent biopsies after Puntung’s successful surgery revealed squamous cell carcinoma.

Specialists from various countries had agreed that the cancer would be fatal, with or without treatment.

The remaining female rhino Iman, and male rhino Kertam, are being cared for by non-governmental organisation Borneo Rhino Alliance, at the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary in the Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Lahad Datu.

Puntung was captured in 2011. It was later established that she was the last remaining wild rhino in the reserve.

Cancer-stricken Puntung put to sleep
MUGUNTAN VANAR The Star 4 Jun 17;

KOTA KINABALU: Cancer-ridden Puntung (pic), one of the last few Sumatran rhinoceros in Malaysia who captured global attention in recent months, was put to sleep early Sunday at the Tabin wildlife reserve in Sabah’s east coast Lahad Datu.

The decision to put Puntung to sleep was made after its keepers realised that it was having breathing difficulties and bleeding through the nostrils.

Keepers Wilson Kuntil, Hassan Sani and Samad Gubin had observed that Puntung was sleeping for most of the week at its forest paddock as they watched it round the clock.

“The carcinoma (skin cancer) had been growing rapidly in size and there were clear signs that Puntung was experiencing significant breathing difficulties,” Sabah Wildlife Department director Augustine Tuuga said in disclosing the decision to put Puntung to sleep.

“In our consultations with our rhino reproduction advisers at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin and others, the decision was taken to end her growing discomfort and bring forward the planned date of the procedure.

“Previously, we were targeting June 15,” he said.

He said Puntung’s ovaries were immediately harvested and rushed to the Agro-Biotechnology Institute in Serdang to contribute to the survival of her species.

Tuuga also said that Indonesian reproductive specialist Prof Arief Boediono had arrived from Jakarta and is ready to recover egg cells from the ovaries.

“If any oocytes (eggs cells) can be retrieved and matured, frozen sperm from the male rhino Tam will be thawed for intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection by Prof Arief,” Tuuga said.

Tissue samples from Puntung are also being provided to Malaysian institutions so that her genome can be preserved through cell culture.

He said about 11 keepers had watched over Puntung in recent months, and they included Rasaman Jaya, Marikus Suyat, Justine Sagunting, Joseph Stimon, Ronald Jummy, Davidson Kuntil and Alvin Erut, with Dr Zainal Zahari Zainuddin in charge.

Puntung had a tooth extraction earlier this year and responded well to treatment but the cancer spread rapidly over the last two months.

Sumatran rhinos are considered extinct in Malaysia because they have not been seen in the wild for over a decade.

No egg cells in harvested ovaries
MUGUNTAN VANAR The Star 8 Jun 17;

KOTA KINABALU: Malaysia’s hope for the artificial breeding of the Sumatran rhino was dashed as veterinarians failed to recover any eggs from the ovaries of Puntung, who was put to sleep on Sunday.

“No oocytes (egg cells) were found in the ovarian cortex. It was very unfortunate,” said Sabah Wildlife Department director Augustine Tuuga on efforts to preserve Puntung’s bloodline after the animal was euthanised as her skin cancer was deemed untreatable.

Scientists were hoping to artificially inseminate Puntung’s egg cells with frozen sperm obtained from the sole captive male rhino in the country called Tam, in a bid to reverse the fate of Sumatran rhinos, which were considered extinct in Malaysia since 2015.

Right after Puntung was euthanised, veterinarians removed her ovaries and flew them to Agro-Biotechnology Institute in Serdang, Selangor, on the same day for the egg harvesting process.

In the event viable eggs were found, Indonesian reproductive specialist Prof Arief Boediono would then inject Tam’s sperm into them for insemination.

In the meantime, tissue samples of Puntung are now kept in several Malaysian institutions so that her genome can still be preserved.

Puntung captured global attention in recent months after top veterinarians from various parts of the world came forward to assist in what initially appeared to be a bad case of tooth infection.

With Puntung’s demise, the sole remaining captive female Sumatran rhino is Iman.

Previous attempts to get Iman and Puntung to mate with Tam were unsuccessful as their uteruses were lined with cysts.

Last December, Borneo Rhino Alliance executive director Datuk Dr John Payne said advanced reproductive and cellular technologies could be the only methods left to ensure the survival of the Sumatran rhino in Sabah.

Conservationists believe that the remaining Sumatran rhinos, whether in Indonesia or Malaysia, could contribute their genes to produce babies.

The surviving wild population of Sumatran rhinos, estimated to be only several dozens, are still roaming Indonesia’s Sumatra and Kalimantan.

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Malaysia: MMEA foils blast fishing attempt near Sepanggar island

AARON LEE New Straits Times 4 Jun 17;

KOTA KINABALU: The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) has chased away a group of fishermen trying to conduct blast fishing near Sepanggar island here, yesterday.

Kota Kinabalu MMEA director First Admiral Adam Aziz said its personnel on patrol duty spotted a suspicious-looking pump near the area at 9.40am and decided to intercept it.

“As the team was closing in, the pump boat sped off towards Pulau Sepanggar to prevent arrest.

“The individuals on board were seen throwing an object that looked like a bottle into the sea before jumping into the shallow waters and ran off,” he said in a statement.

Upon inspection, Adam said the team found numerous items used for illegal fishing including snorkels and explosive materials.

“The boat was also loaded with 10 kilogrammes of fish, which we believe were caught using this illegal fishing method,” he said.

He said MMEA has confiscated all the items and the case will be investigated under the Fishery Act 1985 which carries a fine of up to RM20,000 or two years jail or both on conviction.

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Malaysia: Duo get highest ever fine for wildlife-related crime

The Star 3 Jun 17;

BENTONG: Two men were fined RM300,000 each, the highest ever for a wildlife-related crime, for having parts of a Sumatran serow, a protected species under the Wildlife Conservation Act.

The men, aged 42 and 51, were arrested on March 27 after enforcement officers found parts of the goat-like animal in their four-wheel drive at the Tekai Tembeling forest reserve near Jerantut, Pahang.

On Monday, they were charged with two counts of keeping the head and other parts of the endangered animal without a permit under Section 68(2)(c) of the Wildlife Conser­vation Act.

Temerloh Sessions Court judge Jamaludin Mat fined them RM300,000 or six months’ imprisonment each, in default two years’ jail for each offence.

The men were sent to Bentong Prison after they failed to pay the fine.

According to Perhilitan director-general Abdul Kadir Abu Hashim, it was the highest fine ever recorded by the department in Peninsular Malaysia.

In a statement, Abdul Kadir said any individual interested in wildlife-related activities should obey the laws and consult Perhilitan about licences and permits.

“We hope the public will continue to be the eyes and ears of Perhilitan by channelling information to us so that we can protect our national treasures from extinction,” he said.

Perhilitan can be contacted at 1800 885 151 (Monday to Sunday, 8am to 6pm) or through its website at

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Thailand: Dugong tracking project halted in face of opposition

Pratch Rujivanarom, Knita Seetong The Nation 3 Jun 17;

A dugong tracking project has been scrapped after complaints from local environmentalists, as the group claimed the tracking device harmed the mammals.

The National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA), the sponsor of the project, stopped funding it following opposition from the community. However, a leading veterinarian said that the GPS tracking devices are safe and the study result is crucial for dugong conservation.

NSTDA cluster and programme management office director Rangsima Tantalekha said that as the project to study the mammals’ behaviour and habitat faced criticism from local fishermen and environmentalists, they decided to cease funding.

“NSTDA funds the project for one year on a budget of Bt1 million, but we decide to stop the funding, because we see that the project is causing conflict in the community and we want to work with every stakeholder. The NSTDA will invite the experts to advise local fishermen on the proper method to remove the tracking devices from dugongs,” Rangsima said.

Andaman Foundation coordinator Pakpoom Withantirawat said that local people did not agree with the project and the group had sent a letter to the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry to reconsider the project.

Rangsima said that to remove the tracking devices, local fishermen would chase the dugongs to exhaust them and catch them later to lessen the risk of injury.

In April, Hat Chao Mai Marine National Park chief Manote Wongsureerat started the project by installing GPS tracking devices on three dugongs that live within the national park.

Manote said that the research would be used to set up a protected perimeter in the area where dugongs live and graze on sea grass. Fishing activities will not be allowed in the area.

Dr Nantarika Chansue from Chulalongkorn University’s Veterinary Madical Aquatic animal Research Centre, who assisted on the project, said that the tracking devices are harmless to the mammals and the research was crucial for dugong conservation.

“This tracking device has been tested on dugongs in Australia, having been designed and produced in the US. It is proven that it is not dangerous to dugongs or interferes with its living conditions,” Nantarika said.

“The devices are also small compare to the size of a dugong, as the weight of the device is only three kilograms, but the average dugong weight is around 300 kg.”

She said that because of the project, researchers now know where the studied dugongs live and authorities can set up the safe zone, which is essential for the dugong conservation effort. She said that 90 per cent of dugong deaths were from fishing equipment.

Nantarika also said that efforts to chase and catch the mammals to remove the tracking devices would harm them.

“I totally oppose the effort to catch dugongs by chasing them, as it will surely harm the animal and I am concerned that the operation will end in the death of dugongs,” she added.

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China's ivory ban sparks dramatic drop in prices across Asia

Prices of raw ivory in Vietnam have fallen, which traders are linking to China’s announcement of its domestic ivory ban, according to new research
Naomi Larsson The Guardian 2 Jun 17;

The price of raw ivory in Asia has fallen dramatically since the Chinese government announced plans to ban its domestic legal ivory trade, according to new research seen by the Guardian. Poaching, however, is not dropping in parallel.

Undercover investigators from the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC) have been visiting traders in Hanoi over the last three years. In 2015 they were being offered raw ivory for an average of US$1322/kg in 2015, but by October 2016 that price had dropped to $750/kg, and by February this year prices were as much as 50% lower overall, at $660/kg.

Traders complain that the ivory business has become very “difficult and unprofitable”, and are saying they want to get rid of their stock, according to the unpublished report seen by the Guardian. Worryingly, however, others are stockpiling waiting for prices to go up again.

Of all the ivory industries across Asia, it is Vietnam that has increased its production of illegal ivory items the fastest in the last decade, according to Save the Elephants. Vietnam now has one of the largest illegal ivory markets in the world, with the majority of tusks being brought in from Africa. Although historically ivory carving is not considered a prestigious art form in Vietnam, as it is in China, the number of carvers has increased greatly.

The demand for the worked pieces comes mostly from mainland China. Until recently, the chances of being arrested at the border slim due to inefficient law enforcement. But the prices for raw ivory are now declining as the Chinese market slows; this is partly due to China’s economic slowdown, and also to the announcement that the country will close down its domestic ivory trade. China’s ivory factories were officially shut down by 31 March 2017, and all the retail outlets will be closed by the end of the year.

Other countries have been taking similarly positive action on ivory, although the UK lags behind. Theresa May quietly dropped the conservative commitment to ban ivory from her manifesto, but voters have picked it up and there has been fury across social media.

“Many of the traders we are speaking to are referring to the ban in China, it appears to be having some impact on the trade on the ground,” said Sarah Stoner, senior intel analyst at the WJC. “A trader in one of the neighbouring countries who talked to our undercover investigators said he didn’t want to go to China anymore – it was so difficult in China now, and friends of his were arrested and sitting in jail. He seemed quite concerned about the situation,” said Pauline Verheij, WJC’S senior legal investigator.

Another told investigators that “whereas previously it had been easy to carry stuff over into the border into China, now a few people have dropped out of the business completely”.

Illustrating how far prices have dropped, one illicit sale was recently made to Hong Kong of four tusks weighing 204kg for a record low of $400/kg. Dan Stiles, an independent consultant who has been investigating ivory markets for 15 years, received the information via email from an Indian man now living in Canada who had made the sale. “That’s unbelievable,” Stiles said. “Three years ago he [the trader] was offered $650/kg by the Daxin Ivory Carving Factory in Guangzhou and turned it down. He just gave up trying to get a decent price – it was money for his daughter’s education.”

The price of wholesale raw ivory in China dropped by two thirds in the last three years, during the time that China’s government made commitments to cracking down on the trade, according to research released in March by Save The Elephants. It has been seen by conservationists as significant progress for the protection of elephants. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, president and founder of Save the Elephants told the Guardian: “There is now greater hope for the species”.

However, falling prices do not necessarily reflect a reduction in demand. Oversupply could cause the decline in prices, according to Stiles, who suggests there is now so much raw ivory that most people are “not willing to pay higher prices”.

He also believes certain big dealers may be stockpiling the ivory, either because they think the ban will only be temporary, or because they are moving into the illegal trade.

“I think there will be an increase in illegal selling to cover the gap made by the closure of legal markets,” Stiles said.

Signs of stockpiling were also spotted by the WJC investigators in Vietnam. In early 2016 investigators were “told by an ivory trader that due to the low price and the gloomy ivory market, a few Chinese ‘big bosses’, who can afford it, were stockpiling up the ivory and not selling out, in order to reduce the supply and push up the price”.

There is also no sign of a corresponding decline in poaching. “I see no decline,” said Stiles. “That to me means a drop in price is actually bad for elephants. Because these guys can buy more ivory for the same amount of money as before.

“As long as the poaching continues at these high rates, it looks like there are still quite high volumes of ivory in spite of the seizures that have been made,” he added. According to according to Cites Mike programme (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) poaching levels peaked in 2011 and have since stabilised, at levels that “remain unacceptably high overall”.

However, Stiles is keen to stress that it is still too early to see the full impact on poaching across Africa from China’s domestic ivory ban, which will be fully enforced at the end of this year. “Let’s see where we are at the beginning of 2019. If poaching rates haven’t gone down significantly by then, then elephants are in real trouble.”

Many conservationists believe that the ban is pointing in the right direction for elephants, with Verheij from the WJC saying, “It’s really encouraging”.

Vigne agrees and points out that in the future this ban will have an impact on the big trading networks. “If they have any sense they won’t want to trade if the prices are dropping like that,” she said. But ultimately, she added, the key is law enforcement. “Punishment is the biggest deterrent. That’s what has to be focused, so the illegal markets will slowly become marginalised.”

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