Hippo teeth craze threatens survival of species

Hippos are the latest African animals under threat from the wildlife trade.

08 October 2017 - 14:43 By Dave Chambers
Hippo teeth products for sale in an ivory shop in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong.
Hippo teeth products for sale in an ivory shop in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong.
Image: Alexandra Andersson

Rising demand for hippo teeth‚ most of which pass through Hong Kong‚ has coincided with a slump in their numbers estimated at between 7% and 20% in the last decade.

Hippo ivory is carved into ornaments in Asia‚ and since Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species monitoring began in 1975‚ more than 770 tonnes of teeth have been sold‚ 90% of them to Hong Kong.

But a new study by the biological sciences school at the University of Hong Kong has revealed a massive gap between trade volumes declared by importers and exporters‚ warning that this could threaten hippos’ survival.

“If authorities do not more diligently monitor the international trade in threatened species‚ those species could be exposed to unmanageable exploitation levels‚ which could lead to extinction‚” study leader Alexandra Andersson wrote in the African Journal of Ecology.

The main exporters of hippo teeth are Uganda and Tanzania. Since Tanzania joined Cites in 1980‚ records show that Hong Kong has received 3‚176kg more hippo teeth than declared exported by Tanzania.

In the 19 hippo teeth trade transactions between Hong Kong and Uganda since the Kampala government signed up to Cites in 1991‚ Hong Kong received more than 14 tonnes less hippo teeth than declared exported by Uganda. This represents more than 2‚700 hippos‚ or 2% of the global population.

After the population decline in the last decade‚ the International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates a further 30% decrease in hippos the next 30 years. At that rate‚ they will disappear within a century.

National Geographic reported in December 2016 that Uganda banned trade in hippo teeth in 2014‚ but it had since gone underground — and Zambia‚ Zimbabwe and Malawi had moved in to fill the gap.

Hong Kong trader Patrick Leung told National Geographic his hippo ivory carvings sold for between $50 and $500 (R690-R6‚900). Many of his customers were Europeans who “like carved animals and people — samurai warriors”.


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