Legal ivory trading severely undermines elephant conservation


The rising tide of slaughter rolls on, feeding the ever-growing consumer demand for ivory.

As ideas go, the notion that elephant conservation would in any way be best served by making a legal supply of ivory available was unconvincing from the very start says conservationist Mary Rice
I find it astonishing that we're still debating any merit to legal ivory trading

When the international ban on trade in ivory – in which the findings of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) played a key role – was put in place in 1989, it came at the end of a 10-year period in which it was estimated that, on average, at least one elephant died every 10 minutes.

Some 23 years and two ‘one-off’ sales of stockpiled ivory later, and it’s as if nothing has changed; 2011 was declared to be the worst year for elephants since the ban and the rising tide of slaughter just rolls on, feeding the ever-growing demand of China’s marketplace.

It all started so well, but less than a decade after the trade ban, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) agreed to a compromise and allowed a one-off sale of 50 tonnes of stockpiled ivory from Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia to a single buyer - Japan. At the same time, and in order to determine the success or failure of the ‘Japan experiment’, CITES decided to use ivory seizures as a tool to estimate smuggling activity and engaged the NGO TRAFFIC to audit them through its Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS).

In 2000, EIA published the report Lethal Experiment which cautioned that the ‘experimental’ sale was deeply flawed since promised safeguards to evaluate the impacts were not in place and “the 1999 international ivory sales were effectively an experiment without control”. 

Elephant range states such as Kenya expressed concern that China was emerging as a major new market for illegal ivory. EIA’s investigations in 1999 and 2000 supported this concern, identifying China as a major recipient of smuggled ivory and underlining the real threat posed by any further CITES-authorised international trade in ivory. The widespread availability of ivory products and the increasing number of seizures destined for China were clear indicators of a thriving black market in ivory and growing local demand.  All these warnings fell on deaf ears.

In 2002, China itself told CITES that the ‘Japan experiment’ was the main cause of its growing ivory-smuggling problem because the sale had confused Chinese consumers, leading them to believe the international ivory trade had been resumed. This warning was ignored and CITES instead continued to depend on the ETIS statistics to reach decisions regarding ivory trade.

I find it astonishing that we're still debating any merit to legal ivory trading

Just a few years later, China dramatically changed its tune and petitioned CITES to make it an approved buyer; the request was granted in 2008 in time for it to join the bidding for 102 tonnes of stockpiled ivory from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

From the very beginning, EIA has warned that the CITES decision to permit sales of stockpiled ivory to ‘approved buyers’ would only serve to undermine the international ban.

Prior to the first sale, the advocates of trade – and there was support for trade from some surprising quarters – insisted that flooding the market with stockpiled ivory would in one fell swoop satiate consumer demand and undercut the black market, rendering poaching unprofitable.

Instead, allowing many tonnes of ivory to enter the marketplace with CITES’s blessing has served only to boost the illegal trade, confusing consumers as to whether ivory is legal or illegal.  Far from satisfying demand, the increased availability of ivory as a status product has only spurred consumer appetite.

And as for making poached ivory financially untenable, the low prices paid at auction (amid allegations of pre-sale price-rigging between China and Japan buyers in 2008) merely allowed the Chinese Government to profiteer on the deal when it subsequently sold the ivory on to its domestic market at a colossal mark-up of about 650 per cent – putting it firmly back in the black market price range.

Now Tanzania has submitted a proposal to the CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP16) in Bangkok next March, seeking to downlist its elephant population from Appendix 1 to the lesser protection of Appendix 2 (allowing trade in registered raw ivory - whole tusks and pieces, trade in raw hides including feet, ears and tails, and trade in live animals) and requesting permission for a one-off sale of 101 tonnes of stockpiled ivory.

Tanzania last submitted a proposal to CITES CoP15 in March 2010 to downlist its elephant population and sell 90 tonnes of stockpiled ivory. The proposal was defeated. It had previously applied for a sale in 2007, although withdrew the proposal before the meeting following information provided by EIA in private briefings.

EIA’s undercover investigations in Tanzania in January and February of 2010 found a flourishing trade in illegal ivory at both domestic and international levels, exacerbated by poor enforcement and facilitated by official corruption. The agency’s report Open Season was a primary factor in the proposal being defeated.

It’s astonishing that there’s even a debate still to be had as to whether or not to continue permitting a trade in ivory; a significant part of the problem is doubtless that a great many CITES players – governments, CITES personnel, NGOs – have become so wedded to the concept of sustainable (for which read ‘lethal’) use, that they refuse to take into account criminality and corruption as key factors in the real world.

Instead of advocating and facilitating a trade driving the slaughter of one of the great iconic mammals, parties to CITES should instead be looking for adequate evidence that they are investing in intelligence-led enforcement, multi-agency operations, securing convictions and raising penalties – including the seizure of assets and proceeds of wildlife crime – and communicating and cooperating internationally. 

Because, put simply, CITES’s ivory trading system hasn’t worked, doesn’t work and won’t work. It is deeply flawed, prone to manipulation and, we contend, has been a significant factor behind the catastrophic rise in elephant poaching during the past decade.

The international ban, on the other hand, provided respite from the slaughter of the ’80s and allowed elephant populations to recover. It all started unravelling again when the ban was undermined, first in 1999 and again in 2008.

It is long past time for CITES to admit as much and to emphatically rule out any and all future sales, shoring up rather than further eroding the 1989 ban.

About the author: Mary Rice has been with EIA since 1996. As Executive Director, she is responsible for directing the long-term strategic management of EIA as well as working on specific projects and leading the Elephant Campaign.




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