Fatal extraction: the trouble with hippos’ teeth
It seems almost incomprehensible that the desire for an ivory ornament or piece of jewellery justifies the slaughter of a majestic elephant, but as their populations continue to crash, the ever-hungry black market has become creative in order to satisfy its greed. Now, ivory hunters are setting their sights on everything from arctic narwhals to fossil mammoths. But one unexpected victim of this barbaric practice is the humble hippopotamus. A new study says that a rise in demand for hippos’ teeth is threatening the mammal with extinction.
In many ways, it takes a lot of effort to kill an elephant. They are legally well protected in most countries where they range and international regulations are clear. Also, smuggling large tusks internationally is highly conspicuous. Hippos offer a cheaper and, in many ways, “easier” ivory option. The simple truth is that they are not high on the priority list of the international conservation community. Find a group of wild-living
African elephants and, often, they will either be tracked with radio collars or will be the focus of longterm conservation research, intensive ecotourism or determined law-enforcement efforts. Not so with hippos. Unlike their famous savannah cousins, they don’t come with a protective human entourage, meaning poachers can take their time. Additionally, they are not protected especially well at either a national or international level.
Most elephant populations are listed under the highest level (appendix I) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, but hippos are listed under appendix II of this multinational treaty, meaning some trade is possible. The problem here is that not only is it impossible to guarantee that a hippo tooth is legally sourced but that overall quotas are often massively exceeded. We have created a situation where “some” hippos can be shot, but we have few effective ways to regulate the trade, leaving it wide open to abuse.
Having lived in Africa and worked in frontline conservation, I have seen first-hand that in the name of art, no ivory-bearing beast is safe. I have heard the stories and seen the bodies of hippos sprayed with machine-gun fire, mouths open, bloody and toothless. People are working to stop this and many wildlife authorities do what they can, but until there is a real change in the demand for ivory, the hippo has joined the elephant in being in desperate need of