Eschew the ivory trinket

By Fiona Gordon

Ivory bracelet. Photo: Getty images
Ivory bracelet. Photo: Getty images

Popular holiday destinations for New Zealanders unsurprisingly include African and Asian countries, providing a plethora of sunny options in comparison to our typically unpredictable festive season clime. On average over 5000 New Zealanders visit China, almost 3000 visit Thailand, and over 2800 visit Hong Kong and Malaysia each month. South Africa sees just over 1000 New Zealanders every month, and another 900 or so of us pop over to Vietnam.

Who could opt out of an African safari, the chance to view the iconic elephant, rhino and lion? China, with it's lovable panda and the bustling mega-sized modern cities showcasing some of the world's most remarkable infrastructure. And Thailand beckons with its noisy markets of Bangkok and stunning beaches in the South - a must for those who wish to bring home that "I-have-been-overseas-tan".

Yes, travel is good for the soul, but it's always good to get home too. And, when we do arrive home we will want to have brought with us a memento or two. Some will even have purchased an extra suitcase to accommodate their keepsakes, reluctantly paying for the excess baggage as well.

From chopsticks to a Thai silk scarf to a collection of fridge magnets, it really doesn't matter what the memento is, as long as it reminds us of our travels.

With the exception of ivory, that is. Illegal ivory can turn up anywhere. It even turns up on New Zealand's shores. But the main destinations and/or transit points for illegal ivory are China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Hong Kong, where it is difficult to spot amongst the legal domestic trades for ivory carvings and trinkets. Just last year, two jewelers in New York City, the center of America's ivory trade, were caught with more than a ton of illegal ivory. Legal or not, every piece of ivory comes from a dead elephant.

As the New Zealand Minister of Conservation said in October this year when addressing the participants of the International March for Elephants, "there are so many New Zealanders who are conservation minded, who actually do love the wildlife, but who, when overseas, see a lovely little ornament or tourism souvenir to bring home that's made out of ivory and buy it innocently not realising that they are part of the problem that's contributing to the demise of the elephant."

Dr Smith noted that "...the reason the elephants are shot and destroyed is because in developed countries like our own there is a market for the ivory and the best hope for the elephant is that we snuff out the trade that makes it economic for those to do it."

The Tanzanian Association of Tourism Operators (TATO) estimates that of all the illegal ivory seized across the globe over the last decade, one third of it comes from Tanzania's Elephants. Rich in elephants Africa is no longer.

Peter Lindstrom, Vice Chairman of TATO, reports that "Tanzania is losing at least 10,000 elephants per annum, and from a population of over 200,000 in the early 1970s has only about 20,000 left now." He says: "Poaching is accelerating as the value of ivory increases, and Africa's elephant populations continue to diminish. The demand for ivory continues to grow, particularly from the increasing number of wealthy middle class in China."
 
Tanzania is not just losing its "large tuskers". Poachers do not discriminate when choosing their targets, many times slaughtering entire families of elephants. In fact, poachers are known to shoot a small calf first and allow the elephant family to form a protective circle around the injured calf, thus providing easier targets for the automatic rifles. This is the stark reality of the illegal ivory trade.

Lindstrom further explains that the impact of poaching on African elephant range states is devastating. "It threatens our tourism industry which has a foundation built on nature tourism and the opportunity to see the largest large mammal population left on the planet." Says Lindstrom: "The eco-tourism industry is the top foreign exchange earner for Tanzania, earning over one billion USD per annum, it employs many thousands and plays a significant role in poverty alleviation."

Lindstrom asserts that the only chance the elephant has to survive is to stop the demand abroad and this requires international intervention, and awareness of people around the world that the end of this iconic species is near - unless something drastic is done without further delay."

So, international travellers beware of the most terrible case of the post-purchase-blues: bothered not by how much we spent on that ivory keepsake, but rather that we may have unwittingly contributed to the demise of the elephant. New Zealanders certainly travel smart, and they can purchase even smarter.

Fiona Gordon is an Environmental Policy Analyst & Mediator

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