Elephants on the Agenda

The tools of the (ivory) trade - the reality on the ground

So far, discussions about elephants at the two week CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) meeting currently being held in Bangkok have centred around the current poaching crises hitting many African populations. Despite this, country delegates, some non-governmental organisations and other lobbyists are still talking about legal trade in ivory.

Poaching and Seizure
It was announced for example, that poachers are responsible for over half the elephant deaths in many monitored populations across the African elephant’s range. Predictably, in many cases, the number of deaths is now higher than the number of births and the number of elephants dying from poaching exceeds the number dying from natural causes. This represents a particularly urgent situation for countries with small elephant populations. 

This alarming trend is reflected in the recent spike in the volume of ivory seized by law enforcement agencies round the world, with China and Thailand identified as primary destinations for illegal ivory. It was also noted that the majority of large scale seizures are not being sufficiently investigated for the valuable intelligence and forensic evidence they can offer. This means that key individuals in the supply chain are not being removed and opportunities to disrupt the criminal syndicates which co-ordinate these large shipments are being missed.

Demand and Domestic Market
Echoing around the halls and corridors all week has been the issue of demand for ivory in the Far East. There is widespread acknowledgement that this insatiable appetite is indeed driving the killing and that significant efforts are directed at reducing demand. Together with many other organisations and delegates, Born Free believes that even with the best law enforcement in the world, unless demand can be dramatically curtailed, the price per kilogram and the relatively low risk of apprehension will continue to mean that tens of thousands of elephants will be victims of human vanity.

In addition, there are strong concerns about the emphasis being placed on ‘regulating’ domestic markets in ivory, markets whose ivory is overwhelmingly illegal and uncontrollable. A recent study of China’s domestic market, for example, found that around 90% of ivory on sale was illegal. Without an outright ban on the domestic sale of ivory and the destruction of ivory stockpiles, these markets will always provide an opportunity to launder the illegal supply and continue to stimulate rather than satisfy the demand for ivory.

China and Thailand Respond
So, how did delegates representing key consumer countries react in Bangkok last week?

A Chinese delegate had this to say: “We would like to further reduce the illegal demand by updating our country’s system of domestic ivory trade, strengthening our enforcement (and) intensifying our education programs”. He also bemoaned the attention CITES analysis was giving to Asian destination countries and asked fellow delegates to focus less on the demand side of the equation and instead consider the anti-poaching capacity of countries which were losing their elephants. He added:  “the international community expects too much from specific Asian consumer countries, which is neither fair not realistic…we cannot accept more and more responsibilities”.

Earlier in the week at the CITES meeting’s opening ceremony, Thailand's Prime Minister had vaguely referred to looking into instituting a ban on the sale of ivory within the country, but later on in the week, responding to concerns sparked by the above CITES analysis, a Thai delegate simply announced that the Thai government had spent significant resources apprehending criminals, preventing illegal ivory trade and keeping its ivory stockpile secure.  He stressed the global nature of the trade and the importance of exchanging intelligence between range, consumer and transit countries.  No more has been said since, and the belief is that this statement was simply a means of sidestepping the political heat while there was so much focus on the issue.

No Time to be Selling Ivory
So it seems there is a clear lack of commitment to do what is necessary to stop the slaughter of elephants from two of the most significant countries driving demand for ivory and therefore ultimately responsible for poaching. Against this backdrop, believe it or not, a mechanism for selling ivory, (should future sales be approved by CITES), was also on the agenda for discussion. Many countries and others represented here in Bangkok, believe that even raising the subject of a resumption in international legal ivory trade at such a critical time putting elephants’ lives at risk, confusing as well as further stimulating the market with the prospect of more ivory in trade.

Meanwhile, a study released last week shows that Central Africa has lost more than 60% of its forest elephants over the last 10 years. At the moment, elephants live in 38 countries, but should the current poaching frenzy continue or worsen, how many countries will be range States by the time CITES meets again? As a Tanzanian delegate put it: “perhaps this convention will continue monitoring the killing until there is nothing left to monitor”.  Born Free will continue to do its utmost at and between CITES meetings to ensure that this prediction does not come true. 

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