UK Government’s Declaration on Ivory Trade: When ‘No’ Is Not Enough

Under pressure, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, The Rt Hon Hilary Benn, today declared that the “….the UK will vote against the proposals from Tanzania and Zambia to sell ivory stocks, and we would urge other countries to vote against such a sale” at the forthcoming CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) Conference in Doha, Qatar in March.

It sounds clear enough – BUT IT ISN’T.

The UK may vote ’no’ but if the majority of EU countries vote yes, our position will be meaningless and we shall be compelled to join the EU in permitting the ivory trade proposals from Tanzania and Zambia – amounting to more than 110 tonnes – to go ahead.  

Furthermore, it is not simply voting ’no’ to the ivory part of those proposals that matters.  It is for the UK to lead the EU to vote against the proposals in their entirety, which includes the down-listing of the elephant populations of Tanzania and Zambia from Appendix I of the Convention (no commercial trade) to Appendix II where trade is allowed.

CITES Rules established in The Hague in June 2007 are clear:  only African countries with elephants on Appendix II may trade in ivory.  Currently, only four countries have elephant populations with that status – South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe.  Approving the Tanzanian and Zambian proposals – even if the trade component is resisted for now – sends a clear signal to the markets and to the poaching and international crime syndicates that are running the ivory racket that the ivory trade will be back, later, if not sooner.

At a meeting yesterday at Defra, UK government representatives spoke, at length, about signals and how it was important to make sure that intentions are made clear.  Nothing could be more important than for the British government now to send a signal to their European colleagues, to the international community, to the majority of African elephant range States who are opposed to any further ivory trade and to the down-listing proposals of Tanzania and Zambia, and to the poachers themselves, that the UK will not support measures that could lead to ivory trade.

Furthermore, given the critical situation facing elephants in many African countries, where poaching threatens to annihilate some of the most vulnerable populations and where ivory smuggling has now reached epidemic proportions, described by some experts as a “surge”, the UK and the EU should support the proposal from Ghana, Republic of Congo, Mali, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Rwanda and Kenya. This proposal has the backing of the African Elephant Coalition, made up of 23 African elephant range States who are united in their opposition to the Tanzania and Zambia proposals and seeks to establish a 20-year “resting period” or moratorium on all future proposals to down-list and trade.

“At last Secretary Benn has stepped into the arena but his words do little to reassure those of us who understand the dynamics of poaching and the ivory trade.  He has done little more than restate the Civil Service position which is no trade – yet.  In fact, he has barely dipped his toe into the water of this issue.  He needs to plunge in to make a difference and to reassure the British public that the UK is a champion for elephants” said Will Travers, CEO Born Free Foundation and member of the Species Survival Network.


Sierra Leone knows only too well the repercussions of legal ivory trade.  Within a year of the 2008 CITES-approved sale to China and Japan of 105 tonnes of stockpiled ivory from southern Africa, Sierra Leone had announced that the last of its elephants had been poached for their tusks. 

Intercepted ivory 2009 – more than 20,000kg

Some experts estimate that up to 36,000 elephants a year are being killed for their ivory.

Africa’s elephant population of 1.3 million in 1979 is now estimated to be between 400,000 and 500,000. 

Kenya’s elephant poaching levels – 47 in 2007, 98 in 2008, and 214 in 2009, which represents a 500% increase in three years.

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