Last Friday, CITES released its annual report on African elephant poaching and the results are devastating. It's estimated that more than 20,000 elephants were killed for the continent's illegal ivory trade in 2013 alone. That's an average of around 55 elephants per day. Last June, photographer James Morgan spent time in Gabon, West Africa, on assignment for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). His mission was to document the lives of the rangers on the frontline of the fight against the massive worldwide trade in poached ivory. See a few of his eye-opening photos after the break.
Morgan spent time with rangers, documenting their personal lives and then traveling with them on patrol. He quickly began to realize that there is in fact no “frontline” in this brutal battle, which has also seen more than 1,000 rangers killed in the line of duty in Africa over the last 10 years. He discovered that a member of the West African Baka community may at one point work as a ranger and at another time as a poacher, it all depends upon who is paying a much-needed wage. The resulting conflicts within the community are tearing apart the Baka’s traditional society. Where once the elephant was revered, their death now results in income from one of the most valuable commodities the region can currently offer.
The ivory trade is obviously fueled by demand, most particularly from Asian markets. Morgan also traveled to Thailand to document what is an acknowledged hub of smuggling and was given access to recent confiscations of ivory in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi international airport. Despite its support of CITES, Thailand is still not only an end point for the illegal ivory trade, it is a conduit for an increasingly aspirational Chinese market. Morgan’s assignment led him to conclude that “statistics and CITES appendices are not the right message for the consumers that I’ve met. What we need instead is a story as powerful as the story being told by those who have a vested interest in continuing the trade. Until we have that story, and really learn how to tell it, dead elephants will continue to bestow prestige.”
Just who exactly is telling traders’ stories is of great concern to the international community. According to the WWF, the illegal wildlife trade “is the fifth most profitable illicit trade in the world, estimated at up to $10 billion annually.” The trade is run by organized criminal groups, with growing evidence of increasing involvement from terrorist organizations. In collaboration with TRAFFIC, the WWF runs the Stop Wildlife Crime campaign to tackle this issue at all three stages of the trade. James Morgan’s striking still and video images feature in the campaign’s videos. Sadly, due to the nature of the problem, the following video contains graphic images and viewer discretion is advised:
Images © James Morgan / WWF-Canon