When it comes to wildlife crime, we are all aware of the threats to elephants and rhinos, with the demand for ivory decimating populations over the last few decades. But when we hear of ‘ivory’ and ‘poaching,’ hippos don’t necessarily spring to mind. Yet a rise in the demand for hippo teeth is now threatening these sub-Saharan mammals.
So why this surge in black market demand?
Hippos’ teeth are also ivory and used similarly to elephants’ tusks for carving ornaments and accessories. Elephant ivory is regarded as more desirable, but poachers are targeting hippos as a cheaper and ‘easier’ ivory option.
For one, smuggling a hippo’s tooth is far less noticeable than a bull elephant’s tusk. Elephants rank highly on the international conservation agenda with many populations being the focus of law enforcement efforts. International trade in elephant ivory is also prohibited. This crackdown on elephant poaching is forcing poachers to come up with new ways to feed the insatiable black markets in Asia.
Hippos, by contrast, are not afforded the same protection as elephants, with several countries still allowing the import and export of hippo teeth. Whereas most elephant populations are listed under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), offering them the highest level of protection, hippos are listed under Appendix II meaning that trade is possible. Hippos are therefore in the process of joining the ranks of other endangered species targeted by poachers for their body parts.
What does this mean for Malawi?
Wildlife plays a vital role in Malawi’s economy, both in terms of biodiversity, which in turn is critical for human health and agriculture, as well as tourism. There are currently estimated to be approximately 3,000 hippos in Malawi, the majority residing in Liwonde National Park, a key tourism destination.
Sadly, tourists have also been known to fuel the local trade in hippo tooth artefacts and Lilongwe Wildlife Trust has run a campaign to discourage buying wildlife products, especially hippo tooth necklaces, the trade of which had led to the slaughtering of several pods of hippos at the lake.
As recently as June this year an American citizen, Austin Michel Carrothers 34, was convicted and sentenced for the unlawful possession of a hippo tooth at Kamuzu International airport in the city of Lilongwe. He received a k2,000,000 fine and a 6- month suspended sentence. In 2014, Uganda banned the trade in hippo teeth after being one of the main exporters. Authorities in Malawi may soon need to debate the same measure if the hippo ivory trend continues.