Hippos are being pushed towards extinction by an insatiable demand for their teeth

Under water.
Under water.
Image: Reuters/Mike Hutchings
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When it comes to the global wildlife trade, conservationists have a long list of things to be worried about. They might need to add hippos to the top of that list.

A recent study published in the African Journal of Ecology by researchers from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Hong Kong reveals significant discrepancies in the trade volumes of hippo teeth could be threatening their survival.

Hippos are classified as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Unregulated hunting for their meat, skin, and teeth, combined with shrinking habitats and increased hippo-human conflict have lead to a decline in populations across Africa. At the current rates, the species could disappear within a century.

The demand for hippo teeth sharply escalated after a 1989 ban on the international trade of elephant ivory, according to IUCN. The carved ivory ornaments and accessories made from them now command a lower price on the global market than those made of elephant tusks, likely because it remains legal to import the teeth into many countries. Hippo teeth are also easier to smuggle than elephant tusks.

The researchers examined records dating back from 1975 from CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. They found that almost all the global trade in hippo teeth goes through Hong Kong—a top transit hub for endangered species—with 75% of those imports originating from just two countries: Uganda and Tanzania.

But the volume of imports declared by Hong Kong was substantially different than the exports reported by those two countries, the study found, suggesting that the trade exceeded internationally agreed upon quotas. The authors found 14,000kg (approximately 30,860lb) of hippo teeth unaccounted for—equivalent to 2,700 hippos, or 2% of the world’s hippo population.

“This gross discordance in trade data undermines regulatory measures and challenges the persistence of hippo populations in Africa,” authors Alexandra Andersson and Luke Gibson write.

Uganda banned trade in hippo teeth in 2014.

The discrepancies in hippo teeth trade volumes, and of other endangered species, could lead to the “unmanageable exploitation levels” of those animals and ultimately, speed up their extinction, the study’s authors argue.

“As a hub of legal commerce in rare animals and parts, authorities in Hong Kong must have a precise knowledge and control of endangered species being imported, sold or exported in its territory,” Andersson said in a statement. ”The fate of hippos—and a plethora of other species—could depend on it.”