Quantcast
Animals
Melody Lytle / Flickr

The Curious Case of the Phantom Hippo Teeth

By Laura G. Shields

Think of the illegal wildlife trade, and elephant tusks and rhino horns come to mind. But another of the world's largest land mammals is slipping under the radar: the common hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) may be at greater risk than previously believed, according to a new analysis of the international trade in hippo teeth.

Hippo ivory, from their large canines and incisors, is an affordable alternative to elephant ivory (international trade in elephant ivory is increasingly restricted). Its legal trade quotas are agreed upon by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). But when researchers looked into CITES trade records for an investigation recently published in the African Journal of Ecology, the numbers looked suspicious.


Lead author Alexandra Andersson, a conservation biologist at the University of Hong Kong, examined the export and import numbers for animals in the legal trade markets, and noticed the numbers didn't match up—sometimes dramatically so.

Hippo teeth, primarily used for ornamental purposes, are available for sale in a Hong Kong shop.Alexandra Andersson / University of Hong Kong

"I just thought that was a bit strange," Andersson told Mongabay. "So I decided to select one case study to dive deeper into this issue and find out why this happens, and how it's so prevalent in the CITES trade database."

She chose to investigate the hippo ivory trade, a straightforward case compared to other wildlife trades. Hong Kong imports more than 90 percent of global hippo teeth, largely from just Tanzania and Uganda.

When Andersson and coauthor Luke Gibson compared the trade volumes reported between Hong Kong and Uganda from 1995 through 2013, they found more than 14,000 kilograms (31,000 pounds) of hippo teeth were missing. Uganda reported exports totaling 79,000 kilograms (174,000 pounds), but Hong Kong reported receiving just 65,000 kilograms (143,000 pounds).

"This article is one of the first ones I've actually seen that takes CITES records numbers and says, 'Look, there's something really wrong here,'" said Pieter Kat, an evolutionary biologist and geneticist at LionAid in the United Kingdom, who was not involved in the study.

Hippo ivory is an affordable alternative to elephant ivory.Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay

The authors examined common bookkeeping errors as possible reasons for the mismatched data, but they struggled to identify the exact cause.

Their difficulty didn't surprise independent conservation biologist Allie Russo, who was not involved in this study. Russo has looked at the CITES database for multiple species, including parrots. She found there are too many shortcomings to make sense of the inconsistencies.

This disparity brings into question how effective the regulations are, said Kat. He believes CITES is badly in need of reform.

"If you are dealing with endangered species in trade, one of the first things you have to do is be really careful about accurately counting up the total number of specimens that you have in trade," Kat said in an interview. "There shouldn't be these discrepancies in the records."

For hippos, the authors estimated the missing teeth represent at least 2,700 individual animals. That's about two percent of the African census of 125,000 to 148,000 hippos, according to a population estimate from 2008. But hippos have been losing habitat, are poached for meat and ivory, and have conflicts with humans, so the survey needs updating, Kat said.

The current hippo population in Africa may be dramatically less than the 2008 estimated number of 125,000 to 148,000.Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay

Hippos are an easy species to count, he noted. From the air, their large purplish-gray bodies stand out along waterways. A new population estimate could change their IUCN and CITES conservation status.

The authors recommend supporting African authorities in their efforts to protect the species. Although the trade in hippo teeth was banned in Uganda in 2014, the country has far fewer than the recommended number of rangers per given area of protected land. That makes it easier for poachers to smuggle ivory to neighboring countries.

Such illegal ivory is a potential cause of the data mismatch, the researchers believe.

"It's so easy to fake permits and then ship illegal shipments under the disguise of being legal," Russo said. "It could be happening right under our noses. If we don't tighten up the data reporting mechanisms, it's just going to continue."

Hippos have large curved canine teeth and a pair of huge incisors in the lower jaw.Peripitus via Creative Commons (CC- BY-SA-3.0)

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

Show Comments ()
Sponsored
Christy Williams / WWF

Celebrating the Biggest Conservation Wins of 2017

It's been a big year for conservation.

Together we assured the world that the U.S. is still an ally in the fight against climate change through the We Are Still In movement, a coalition of more than 2,500 American leaders outside of the federal government who are still committed to meeting climate goals. WWF's activists met with legislators to voice their support for international conservation funding. And we ensured that Bhutan's vast and wildlife-rich areas remain protected forever through long-term funding.

Keep reading... Show less
Pexels

Cell Phone Radiation Risks: California Issues Groundbreaking Guidelines

By Olga Naidenko

This week, California officially issued groundbreaking guidelines advising cell phone users to keep phones away from their bodies and limit use when reception is weak. State officials caution that studies link radiation from long-term cell phone use to an increased risk of brain cancer, lower sperm counts and other health problems, and note that children's developing brains could be at greater risk.

Keep reading... Show less

3 Extreme Weather Events in 2016 'Could Not Have Happened' Without Climate Change, Scientists Say

Three of 2016's extreme weather events would have been impossible without human-caused climate change, according to new research.

The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society published a collection of papers Wednesday focused on examining the effect of climate change on 27 extreme weather events last year. The research found that climate change was a "significant driver" in 21 of these weather disasters, and that three events—the temperatures making 2016 the hottest year on record, the heat wave over Asia in the spring, and a "blob" of extremely warm water in the Pacific—"could not have happened" without climate change.

Keep reading... Show less
Alan Schmierer

These Butterflies Have Lawyers

By John R. Platt

Don't mess with Texas butterflies. They have lawyers.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Renewable Energy
The price of offshore wind energy has dropped significantly in recent years. Wikimedia Commons

Netherlands Launches Landmark Zero-Subsidy Wind Power Auction

The Netherlands has launched the world's first “zero subsidy" tender on Friday to build 700 megawatts of offshore wind. Shortly after the announcement, the country already found its first bidder.

Zero subsidy tenders have been labeled as a “game-changer" for the sector because it means that potential bidders would rely solely on wholesale electricity prices without financial aid from the government.

Keep reading... Show less
Renewable Energy
India is betting on a "green future" through clean energy and low carbon innovation. UK Department for International Development / Flickr

World's Largest Solar-Wind-Storage Plant Planned for India

A wind, solar and battery storage plant is being planned for the southeastern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, which has faced power woes in recent months due to grid failure.

The renewable energy facility will consist of 120 megawatts of solar, 40 megawatts of wind, 20-40 megawatt-hours of battery backup and will be spread over 1,000 acres in the district of Anantapur.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

How Cities Can Meat the Climate Challenge

By Kari Hamerschlag and Christopher D. Cook

Addressing a crowd of mayors gathered in his hometown last week, former President Obama called on the "new faces of American leadership" on climate change to take swift action to spare our children and grandchildren from a climate catastrophe. Twenty-five U.S. mayors signed the "Chicago Charter," affirming a commitment from their cities to meet the Paris agreement target for greenhouse gas reductions by 2025.

Keep reading... Show less
Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska. Plants on the Arctic tundra absorb mercury from the air, then transfer it to soil when they die. Paxson Woelber / Flickr

Mercury From Industrialized Nations Is Polluting the Arctic—Here’s How It Gets There

By Daniel Obrist

Scientists have long understood that the Arctic is affected by mercury pollution, but know less about how it happens. Remote, cold and seemingly pristine, why is such an idyllic landscape so contaminated with this highly toxic metal?

I recently returned from a two-year research project in Alaska, where I led field research into this issue alongside fellow scientists from the University of Colorado; the University of Nevada's Desert Research Institute; the University of Toulouse and the Sorbonne University in France; and the Gas Technology Institute in Illinois.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!