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Shifting Sands

Fang traders with ivory. From The fetish folk ...

Fang traders with ivory. From The fetish folk of West Africa (published [c1912] ). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Perhaps no issue divides cultures more than animal welfare. Australians decry Japanese whaling while Japanese tourists are shocked to find frozen kangaroo meat sold as pet food. For the Hindus cows are sacred animals, free to roam villages and towns without ending up in a burger. The Chinese people venerate their pandas but many think nothing of visiting Lagos and buying ivory products obtained from elephants killed by poachers in Kenya and Tanzania. Sadly in Africa , the trade of illegal animal products is considered a quick path from poverty and the long term consequences are not considered.

Last Sunday I visited the Lekki Markets on Victoria Island with my husband and a group of friends. The Security Manager accompanied us to ensure we weren’t fleeced although the prices are reasonable.  The Markets resemble most flea or street markets in developing nations with stalls displaying paintings, bronze work, jewellery, clothing, baskets and other curiosities. The lack of airflow through the tightly packed stalls makes it incredibly hot but the markets are clean and uncrowded.

Clearly on display is an old, stuffed leopard under a government sign warning that the trade in snake skins, animal pelts and ivory is not permitted in Lekki Markets yet many booths at the market sell all of these products, with only a token effort at concealment.

The procedure for finding customers buying ivory is to sidle up to them and show fragments of raw ivory concealed in a cloth. If you display a willingness to buy, you can follow the hawker to one of the many ivory stalls (I counted five). They needn’t bother with  the cloak and dagger nonsense.  I walked past one stall as the salesgirl was showing a customer a huge box of ivory bracelets. By noon all pretence was abandoned as a large group of Chinese men arrived and began to haggle with the ivory merchants.

Attempts to protect elephants by banning or regulating the worldwide ivory trade have a long history, with the regulations largely controlled by CITIES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) and the signatories to that agreement. Many nations such as China and Japan claim to have stockpiles of ivory that they want to trade. This argument is often supported by organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund in the hope it will depress the world price. Some African nations, such as Zimbabwe, argue that for wild life to survive it must have an “economic value” and ivory should therefore remain a traded product. In 2012 the New York Times reported a large upsurge in ivory poaching with most of it being sold in China. (Ivory Sales. Africageographic.com, 2011-02-02)

I read some reviews for the Lekki Markets on Tripadvisor before visiting and was astounded that no one warned tourists about the trade in illegal animal products. If an unwary tourist did manage to get the goods through Lagos Airport (unlikely) they would face some awkward questions from Customs back home as most western nations forbid the importation of ivory and other endangered animal products without a CITIES certificate, which does not accompany any purchases from Lekki Market!

Although I enjoyed visiting the markets and buying some new art for our apartment, I left feeling pessimistic about the future of endangered animals in Africa. I hope I don’t wake one morning to hear the last elephant has died.

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