Mobile phones, syndicates and wildlife trade

I bought my first mobile phone in 2000. It cost $150 for the handset and $15 for a sim card — quite a fortune then! It wasn’t a smart phone or one of those fancy gizmos.

Today, I can stroll into any phone shop in Nairobi, or virtually in any town in Kenya, and walk out with a handset and sim card for US $25 and $0.5 respectively. Prices have plummeted sharply in the last decade. Further, a phone is no longer a luxurious gadget, more like a necessity.

I own two handsets now, and sometimes feel I need four. The indefatigable Chinese have incredibly introduced a handset that can hold four sim cards, simply a phone that gives multi-tasking a new meaning. I can’t vouch for its functionality though. I need to muster loads of courage. A friend bought one and was unceremoniously weaned off from text messaging for a week as he fumbled with the Chinese settings.

It’s been very liberating to own a phone that functions. Prior to the 2000s, few households in Africa had a phone — that is, a fixed line — and even the few that existed hardly functioned. Then, the main service provider was usually a Government department with a dinosaur of a service.

Fast forward to the present day: Kenya, with an estimated population of 40 million people, had 22 million mobile phone subscribers a year ago. This scenario is replicated in many countries across the continent. Nigeria, Morocco, South Africa and Egypt are the African giants in mobile phone subscribers. And our social natter has reaped billions in profits for companies and governments.

But there’s more than just calling and texting.

In Kenya, for example, the mobile phone has become a mobile bank. I can send and receive money without owning a bank account. I can withdraw money from my bank account. I can pay utility bills, buy goods and purchase a plane ticket. I can even access the Internet with a US $25 phone. Whenever the mobile money transfer service goes down, even for an hour, you can feel the frustration of the people. Besides functioning as a mobile bank, it has also become a source of much-needed information on agriculture and health issues.

In Tanzania, an innovative educational initiative is using mobile and video technology to assist primary school teachers boost the quality of subjects such as maths and science. Video lessons take a minute or two to get downloaded using a mobile phone. Despite a few challenges like electricity shortages, the popularity of this initiative is gaining ground.

The mobile phone in Africa now continues to give a new dimension to the cliché that power is in your hands.

According to industry estimates, there were more than half a billion subscribers in Africa by mid 2011. Just three years ago, the International Telecommunication Union had estimated 300 million subscribers with an average penetration rate of 30 per cent. If we extrapolate that, it means the mobile phone subscribers will have hit a billion in three years time. Internet penetration has been at a slower pace. The current Internet users are estimated at about 118 million, boosted by connectivity through the phone.

This digital revolution has made a powerful grand entrance in just a decade, and there’s no turning back. But you must be wondering how this relates to wildlife, besides the controversial mining of coltan in the Democratic Republic of Congo and bushmeat poaching and habitat plunder.

Many entities, be they governments or private companies, operating in Africa are grappling with this digital revolution – and how to make the best of it. The youth have embraced the technology with such gusto that governments and companies are scrambling to harness and utilise this powerful medium to their advantage.

However, like most gadgets, mobile phones also have a downside, particularly if the intentions are criminal. Organised gangs have not been left behind in this digital revolution. In fact, they are usually tech-savvy and employ emerging technologies with utmost effectiveness and efficiency. They adapt their criminal techniques accordingly. Needless to say that it has become much easier for such syndicates to poach and traffic with wildlife and wildlife parts across Africa and into other continents than it was a decade ago.

These are the emerging trends that wildlife authorities, law enforcers, governments, crime busters and other stakeholders must consider as they fight wildlife crime syndicates.

In 2007, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) was highly instrumental in eBay’s decision to ban all cross-border trade in ivory from their global websites. With that, a dramatic drop in sales was witnessed in some countries in Europe, Australia and China. However, the case was different in USA and Canada where sales rose a year after the ban. At the start of 2010, eBay again banned the sale of ivory after IFAW, in a survey, discovered that close to three-quarters of wildlife products offered online in 11 countries were real elephant ivory.

Clearly and tragically, a lot more needs to be done for all wildlife and wildlife products. With the fast growing digital revolution in regions such as Africa, which were hitherto ‘closed’ or lagged behind in technological advancement, it can be deduced that trafficking of wildlife and wildlife products is likely to escalate. Obviously, there are other contributory factors such as poverty, unemployment, inadequate funding and capacity for law enforcement, corruption and many more that would lead to a rise in wildlife crimes.

So what must be done? For a start, poaching must be stemmed. In this case, prevention is always better than the cure. Whilst poaching cannot be wiped out altogether, law enforcers and other crime busters need to seal all loopholes and routes used by criminals and render the vice as high-risk and less lucrative. Stiffer penalties ought to be handed to nabbed criminals to discourage involvement. It also means better collaboration and partnerships between all stakeholders to fight these organised gangs must be sought. Finally, innovative ways must be crafted and implemented to address the demand in the markets, both physical and virtual, mainly in Asia, Europe and USA.

Else, we will soon be speaking of wildlife in the past tense — especially in Africa, which is arguably the biggest source of contraband wildlife and wildlife products.

- EW

Help IFAW stop the ivory trade, visit our Facebook app and sign our petition today: http://elephantmarch.com

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Experts

Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Dr. Cynthia Moss, IFAW Elephant Expert
IFAW Elephant Expert
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
James Isiche, Regional Director, East Africa
Regional Director, East Africa
Jason Bell, Program Director, Elephants Regional Director, South Africa
Program Director, Elephants, Regional Director, South Africa
Peter Pueschel, Director, International Environmental Agreements
Director, International Environmental Agreements
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Regional Director, South Asia