Bidders are lining up to buy from the 3.5 tonne stockpile when it goes under the hammer this Monday in a sale announced by the Tanzanian authorities.
Yet while officials in the capital, Dar es Salaam, say the auction will be supervised by the country’s ministry of finance planning, wildlife protection groups are warning it could put the iconic “water horse” under serious threat.
Hippos are already classified as Vulnerable on the Red List of threatened species, with numbers ranging between 115,000-130,000 across 29 African states.
This represents little more than a quarter of Africa’s 400,000 elephant population, creatures whose horrific poaching for the Far East ivory markets has seen them become totems for global wildlife protection.
The impending auction of 12,500 hippo teeth has been condemned
Hippos are already threatened because of habitat loss and for their meat, and by putting a price on their tusk-like teeth, there are fears they will be targeted by poachers with guns and traps looking for easy money.
Will Travers OBE, president and co-founder of the Born Free Foundation, warned: “As the world moves towards tackling elephant poaching and the illegal global ivory trade by closing domestic ivory markets, we must keep our eye on the ball and ensure that other ivory-bearing species such as hippo are afforded effective protection.
“We urge Michael Gove to introduce a total ban on all ivory sales and to prohibit the import and export of ivory for sale to and from the UK.
“We further urge the UK Government and the international community to support measures to conserve all ivory-bearing species that are increasingly impacted by the wildlife trade, without delay.
“Saving elephants but losing hippos is not an option – not on our watch.”
The International Union for Conservation of Nature says the primary threats to hippos are “habitat loss or degradation and illegal and unregulated hunting for meat and ivory (found in the canine teeth).”
Demands for hippo teeth increased rapidly when the international ban on elephant ivory came into effect in 1989.
Like elephants’ tusks, hippo teeth are hard wearing and can be worked into curios and ornaments, but they command lower prices because they can be sold legally in many countries.
Like elephants’ tusks, hippo teeth are hard wearing
Illicit hippo teeth are also far easier to smuggle and a recent academic paper highlighted the disparities in declared volumes arriving in Hong Kong than shipped out from Uganda and Tanzania.
Researchers warned that more than 14 tonnes of hippo teeth was unaccounted for between Uganda and Hong Kong, equivalent to 2,700 individual hippos or two per cent of the global population.
Since 1975, more than 770 tonnes of hippo teeth have been sold, according to Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the bulk from Tanzania and Uganda.
James Wakibara, acting director general of the Tanzania Wildlife Authority (TAWA), said the auction will be held in collaboration with the country’s natural resources and tourism ministry and supervised by the finance planning ministry.