Poaching for Elephant Tusks, Rhino Horns, and Pangolin Scales

The iNews newspaper of 19 July 2022 reports on page 34 that elephant tusks and pangolin scales had been seized in Malaysia

Malaysian authorities said yesterday they seized a container of African elephant tusks, pangolin scales and other animal skulls and bones estimated to be worth 80 million ringgit (£15m).

The Customs Department said in a statement it discovered the contraband hidden behind sawn timber following checks on 10 July on a ship coming from Africa. This included 6,000kg of elephant tusks, 100kg of pangolin scales, 25kg of rhino horns and 300kg of animal skulls, bones and horns, it said.

Investigations are ongoing on the importer and shipping agent.

Ivory tusks, rhino horns and pangolin scales are believed by some to have medicinal properties and are in high demand in Asia.

The World Wildlife Fund said the illegal wildlife trade threatens the survival of many species and has led to a 60 per cent decline in population sizes of vertebrate species.

I looked up how much an average elephant tusk weighs, and its 23kg. So 46kg per elephant – which means that someone had killed 130 elephants to get that haul.

And around sixteen rhinos at 1.5 to 2.5kg per horn.

There is a huge variation in the number of scales on pangolins, varying with species, and an average of 0.47 kg per animal is very approximate, but let’s say 200 animals killed to make the weight of scales found.

Is that a lot? The United Nations page on pangolin scales shows that 69.3 tons of pangolin scales were seized in 2019. That’s 147,447 pangolins.

The title of this piece is ‘Poaching for Elephant Tusks, Rhino Horns, and Pangolin Scales’, and the key word is ‘for’. The animal is ignored. An elephant is a tusk with a body attached, an inconvenient, large and dangerous body. A rhino similarly. A pangolin is easy – scales with an easy to manage body attached.

Floating Storage And Offloading Vessel Safer

The hull of the Exxon Valdez ruptured when it hit a reef off the coast of Alaska on 24 March 1989. The oil tanker, owned by the Exxon Shipping Company, spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The result was that it caused the world’s biggest maritime environmental disaster.

In terms of volume of oil released it is second to the Deepwater Horizon spill of 20 April 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, but in terms of damage it is the worst by far. Despite a clean-up that went on for years, less than 10% of the oil was recovered.

Now, the Floating Storage And Offloading Vessel Safer (yes, that’s its name) is sitting off the coast of Yemen, rusting with 1.2 million barrels of crude oil in its tanks. That’s 50.4 million US gallons of oil, or more than four times the amount on the Exxon Valdez.

The FSO Safer lies 15° 07.0′ N, 042° 36.0′ E at the Ras Isa Marine Terminal (YERAI) between Yemen and Eritrea – and it has been there since 1988, rusting and abandoned. And since 2015 it has been a pawn in a game of chicken between Iranian-back Houthi rebels and just about everyone else. The Houthis want payment for the oil. The UN wants to avoid an ecological disaster.

Apart from the ecological damage at stake, to the south is the narrow Bab-El-Mandeb Strait (‘The Gate of Lamentations’ in Arabic) that gives out into the Gulf of Aden. Via the Suez Canal it is the shortest trade route between the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, and the rest of East Asia. It is one of the world’s major trade routes. 

So how is this going to play out? The Houthis agreed to let UN inspectors in, and then changed their minds. And meanwhile the hulk rusted on.

For months and months, and now for years – the IMO (an agency of the United Nations responsible for regulating shipping) has been trying to put a plan in place to try to make the SFO Safer safe or to deal with a leak if there is one. It reads like a bad dream. How could this be going on for so long. The Security Council Report for April this year reads:

There has been progress towards resolving the threat posed by the FSO Safer, the vessel moored off the Houthi-held port of Ras Issa in the Red Sea that is at risk of a major oil spill or explosion. On 5 March, the UN signed a memorandum of understanding with the Houthis and the Fahem Group (one of Yemen’s largest import companies) to transfer the oil on the Safer to a vessel that would replace the ageing tanker. The memorandum notes that the plan is contingent on donor funding and could entail an interim ship to hold the oil until a suitable replacement vessel for the Safer is acquired.


The United Nations has been around cap in hand to every nation it thinks might have deep enough pockets to help pay to offload the oil. The nations say they have contributed as much as they can. The UN is still millions – maybe $20 million short. It has gone around cap in hand to individuals – and still there isn’t enough to pay to stop this ticking time bomb of a worldwide ecological disaster.

Lignite Bad, Gas Good?

Lignite, sometimes called ‘brown coal’, is a soft, brown sedimentary rock that is essentially compressed peat, and it is used almost exclusively as a fuel in steam-electric power stations.

Lignite is a poor fuel. Compared to other types of coal it produces less heat and more carbon dioxide and sulphur. Some brown coal contains toxic heavy metals that get burned off or remain in the fly ash.

Lignite Or Bust

But if it’s all you’ve got then that’s what you burn, up and until someone points out what a bad idea it is environmentally.

The Garzweiler surface mine in Germany is an opencast lignite mine. It’s huge, a long scar stretching north west to south east covering 48 square km.

And now for the news. It’s going to get bigger. Because Russia turned off the gas tap, RWE who own the mine need more space. So an array of eight wind turbines near the Garzweiler mine are being removed to increase the opencast area so it can mine more lignite.

Under its licence, Energiekontor, which owns the wind turbines, has to dismantle the turbines by the end of 2023. Why, I don’t know.

Three turbines have gone, already. I guess that if the lignite mine did not need the space, then eight new wind turbines could have gone up. But that’s not what’s happening. So no gas, but lignite.

What is the overall balance of environmental cost? It’s worse, that’s clear. How much worse, I don’t know. But lobbyists at COP27 are promoting gas as a clean fuel…