Philip Milne

World News


China’s Black Market Harvest of African Resources

July 31st was World Ranger Day, a somber occasion for rangers and other wildlife conservationists in Africa to ‘light a candle and observe a minute’s silence for rangers who have died in the line of duty.’ And sadly, there was a reason for quite a few candles to be flickering against the African night sky that day. Across the continent, gangs of poachers seeking to make a quick profit from capturing protected species kill two or three rangers every week.

The blood-stained trade is almost exclusively driven by demand for ingredients for traditional medicine in Asia, with the most voracious consumer being China, whose burgeoning middle class has the resources to buy things such as elephant tusks, rhino horns and the other illicit items sourced by poachers. As one commentator put it “endangered species are being killed at an increasing rate for the sole crime of being the core of cultural traditions.”

Elephant populations for instance are declining at record rates: from a high of 1.2 million in 1982, only 430,000 are alive today. Tens of thousands are killed every year for their tusks, with some estimating that the mighty elephant could go extinct in 20 years. So rapacious is this market’s appetite that some scientists are debating whether the earth is going through its sixth mass extinction.

According to Matthew Brown of the Nature Conservancy, a charitable organization, “The demand in China is driven by the historic growth in the Chinese economy and the fact that ivory reached about 2,000 United States dollars per kilogram making it very lucrative for criminal syndicates to trade ivory and for the local rural African to partake in the poaching.”

And African game isn’t the only part of the ecosystem being pillaged for the benefit of a very small minority in Africa and consumers abroad. The same dynamics destroying priceless natural resources on African soil are also wreaking havoc in African waters. African countries are in the unhappy position of finding themselves among the most targeted by the Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing trade, due to a lack of resources to properly monitor the situation and take remedial action, as is demonstrated by the problems faced by Guinea, whose fishermen have complained that where once a catch used to net them up to $1,400 a day, they are catching only $140 worth of fish. Even South Africa, the continent’s second largest economy, struggles to patrol its waters adequately, something that Timothy Walker, a maritime specialist at the Institute for Security Studies, argues poses a real threat to the nation’s fish stocks, saying “By the time we get the assets to patrol our fisheries, the damage will have been done.”

As China counts the hauls that in 2014 rendered it the largest world ‘producer’ of fish – with 13.9 million tons of marine fish hooked compared to its nearest competitor Indonesia at 5.4 million tons – the livelihoods of fishermen and communities across Africa are assessing the damage. According to a report published in June by the Overseas Development Institute, stamping out unsustainable fishing in West Africa could create some 300,000 jobs and bring in $3.3 billion in additional revenue for the continent.

Worse still, this illegal behavior from unscrupulous people acting from outside the continent helps to stimulate crime from within the continent. These illegal fishermen themselves become targets for local pirates and criminal groups, who either attack them or extort protection money to let them go on pillaging African water. East African nations and outside partners have taken action – sometimes with dire consequences.

The scale of IUU fishing in Mozambique’s waters was so big that the impoverished country decided to turn to international markets to raise cash, which was then used up by the government backed EMATUM agency for a now controversial purchase of a small fleet of patrol boats. At the time the decision was made, only 1 out of the 130 boats fishing in its waters was registered in Mozambique, with most being operated by the Chinese.

Yet again, African natural resources are being plundered by the few to the detriment of the many, with illicit activities relentlessly undercutting local communities and national economies, meaning less food on dinner tables and less money in government coffers. And ironically, it is more money – or at least more money channeled in the right directions – that African countries need if they are to properly tackle this problem. Until African governments pay closer attention to protecting their wildlife and food stocks, both on land and at sea, their resources will continue to be drained by other unscrupulous countries who do have the money to both maraud into waters that are not their own and pay for the illicit products of poaching.

For what it’s worth, China seems to be grudgingly moving in the right direction with regards to its role in the ivory trade, with President Xi Jinping saying that Beijing would take “significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory.” Perhaps if African economies were allowed to protect their resources a little more, and other economies can resolve to strip the continent a little less, something resembling a solution might be achieved.