Drawing criticism from conservation groups, the Tanzania Wildlife Authority (TAWA) went through with its hippo tooth auction. Tanzanian hunting company Ontour Tanzania Limited won 12,467 pieces of hippo teeth, which are often carved and sold as ivory trinkets, for about $13,600.
Conservation groups condemned the auction saying the sale could encourage poaching, citing an increased demand for hippo ivory as a legal substitute after a 1990 ban on international ivory.
Hippo ivory trade and sales are regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). A vast majority of teeth come from Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Malawi.
Some argue the legal trade could offer a cover up opportunity to trade on the black market. The hippo teeth auction could stimulate the same demand as elephant auctions in 1999 and 2008. Auctions like this provide cover for illegal trade to be laundered into the legal market, Alexandra Andersson, wildlife trade doctoral candidate, told National Geographic.
Between 2004 and 2014, Hong Kong reported 66 tons of hippo teeth for commercial use, but researchers say these numbers only reflect reported trade and there is likely more on the black market.
An estimated 75 percent of hippo ivory comes from Uganda and Tanzania.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies the hippo as “vulnerable” – one step away from “endangered”. Estimates suggest hippo populations have seen a 7 to 20 percent decline in the last 10 years. A further drop of 30 percent is expected over the next 30 years, putting the creatures on track for extinction within the next century. Today, no more than 130,000 hippos are found across the continent.
The Hippopotamus amphibius is native to only 29 African countries. Weighing in at 3.5 tons, the 4-meter-long (13-foot-long) giant is herbivorous and lives in swamps. Their only predators are crocodiles, lions (although this rare), and – you guessed it – humans.
Poachers hunt hippos for their valuable meat, fat, and ivory. Hundreds of hippos are shot each year to minimize human-wildlife conflict because of expanding human populations encroaching on their habitats.
Tanzania has a licensing system that allows hunting and sales of hippo teeth collected from wild animals that die of natural causes. Buyers will receive documents of ownership from TAWA, a government agency overseeing sustainable management of wildlife resources and diversity conservation.
Andersson says accurate numbers for updated populations of hippo numbers are needed to determine whether they can sustain a trade in teeth. Then, more funding and resources should be given to the government to battle illegal poaching.
China, the world’s largest importer and user of elephant tusks, implemented a ban on ivory sales earlier this year.