NAIROBI, Kenya – The artist market just north of Angola's capital sells paintings, hand-carved wooden animals and newly woven baskets. It is also sells more than 10,000 pieces of ivory, making it the largest market in southern Africa to openly sell elephant tusks, an illegal trade.
Across the African continent, in Kenya, two of the country's biggest tuskers, as the continent's biggest bulls are called, were slaughtered by poachers. The phenomena are interconnected.
The international ivory trade is threatening to wipe out Africa's elephants. Tens of thousands of elephants are being killed for their ivory tusks each year continentwide. And while experts say there has been a decline in elephant poaching, they say more needs to be done, as the deaths of the beloved pachyderms in Kenya show.
At the Benfica Market near Luanda, Angola, two animal researchers recently counted 10,026 pieces of ivory for sale — necklaces, bracelets, carved figurines and whole tusks. And that huge count didn't include backup inventory the sellers kept nearby.
"I was flabbergasted because it was so big," said Esmond Martin, one of two researches publishing a paper in an upcoming issue of TRAFFIC Bulletin, a wildlife trade journal. "It's completely illegal."
Tthe huge demand for ivory in China and the riches a relatively impoverished Kenyan or Tanzanian man, for instance, can make by shooting an elephant and selling its tusks are leading to the slaughter.
Kenya this month mourned the poaching deaths of Mountain Bull, the patriarch elephant of the Mt. Kenya region, and Satao, a 45-year-old bull some experts believe was the largest on earth. Poachers killed him with a poison arrow.
"A great life lost so that someone far away can have a trinket on their mantelpiece," the Tsavo Trust said in announcing Satao's death.
Achim Steiner, the head of the Kenya-based United Nations Environmental Program, said Thursday that such killings fill him with deep frustration.
"I think it's both a tragedy and a travesty that in this day and age we are not able to contain and manage what ultimately is an act of irresponsibility that can lead to the extinction of species forever," the official whose agency is charged with protecting the world's flora and fauna, told The Associated Press.
Earlier this month customs officials in Hong Kong discovered 790 kilograms (1,740 pounds) of ivory in 32 suitcases. The flight had originated in Angola, the South China Morning Post reported.
Martin and Lucy Vigne have documented ivory markets in Nigeria, Sudan and Egypt and at times had to flee angry, threatening sellers worried the pair's research would harm their livelihood.
In Angola, though, no one seemed to care. They were able to count all of the ivory, take dozens of photos and ask sellers prices and how the pieces were carved. Chinese buyers appear in many of their photos.
"Obviously it was a totally open trade. No pressure to keep it under cover, and obviously all designed with the Chinese market," said Vigne, whose trip with Martin was funded by the Columbus (Ohio) Zoo Conservation Fund and the U.K.-based Aspinall Foundation.
The two think Angola hosts such a large market because more than a quarter million Chinese laborers live there. The ivory — straight and translucent — appeared to have come from forest elephants in Congo, they said.
The Luanda markets offer low prices compared to what buyers pay in China, Martin said, based on his and Vigne's trip to Chinese ivory markets in 2011.
A beaded ivory necklace that was priced at $30 in Angola sells for about $450 in China. A medium size $100 bangle in Angola costs $850 in China. A $500 human figurine in Angola costs five times that in China.
Transnational organized crime, with vast financial resources to buy their way past police and border guards, is behind the ivory trade, said Steiner. Efforts are being made in Asia to raise consumer awareness that buying ivory leads to the deaths of elephants. Many Chinese consumers simply aren't aware, Steiner said.
A sliver of hope is emerging, Steiner said, because governments are taking steps to fight poaching, such as deploying new technologies, passing tougher laws, and adding military personnel to the anti-poaching efforts. CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, said this month that some 20,000 elephants were killed in 2013, a lower number than in 2012 and 2011.
"We are seeing in many African countries the first signs of a turning of the curve and the beginnings of reduced number of poached elephants," he said. "And that is perhaps the second important personal reaction: Don't just despair. It can be changed, it is changing. And we need everyone on board."