Kenya will burn 105 tons of ivory on Saturday April 30 – the largest destruction of ivory in Africa’s history and seven times the size of any ivory stockpile destroyed so far.
This action is intended to send a strong message that ivory trade must be effectively banned in order to save elephants from the catastrophic effects of poaching experienced over the past decade.
Not everyone is convinced burning stockpiles is the answer to saving elephants though.
John Sellar OBE, former chief of enforcement at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) states: “What troubles me about the fire in Kenya is that it offers potential for the feel-good factor, when what we should be doing is focusing upon what really needs to be done.” He agrees that a ‘message’ will be indeed be sent but he adds, “What will it actually achieve?”
However 27 African countries that make up the African Elephant Coalition (AEC), co-chaired by Kenya and Benin, are acutely aware that more needs to be done – and they are doing something about it.
This week the coalition launched a major initiative to outlaw ivory sales under international law.
“The crisis facing the African elephant is still very real, and calls for a global unity of purpose,” announced General Théophile Kakpo, Benin’s Wildlife Director General ahead of the burn.
A package of five proposals, which includes destroying stockpiles, has been submitted for discussion at the 182 nation-strong 17th Conference of the Parties (CoP17) of CITES to be held in Johannesburg from September 24 to October 5:
No international trade
All populations of African elephants were listed on CITES appendix I in 1989, effectively banning international ivory trade. But the protection was weakened in 1997 and 2000 when populations of four countries – Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe (who incidentally are not members of the coalition) – were down-listed to Appendix II to allow sales of ivory stockpiles to Japan in 1999 and to Japan and China in 2008.
The sales did not slow poaching but rather stimulated demand for ivory as illegal ivory was freely laundered with legal ivory resulting in an upsurge in elephant poaching.
Transfer back to appendix I
“It is vital that elephant populations across Africa are united in appendix I”, says Vera Weber, President of Fondation Franz Weber, an organisation that fights to preserve wildlife in Africa. Weber believes a universal listing in appendix I will outlaw the ivory trade, simplify enforcement and send a clear message to the world of a global determination to halt the extinction of African elephants.
Close down the domestic markets
All governments should close domestic markets for commercial trade in raw and worked ivory.
Surprisingly some African countries, like Nigeria and Zimbabwe, continue to permit domestic trade. This maintains demand for ivory and creates opportunities to launder poached ivory. But it’s not only African countries that trade domestically in ivory. European Union countries such as France still allow a trade often under the guise that it is antique or otherwise legally acquired.
Recently, several countries notably China and the USA jointly announced last year measures to close down domestic markets. The AEC want to extend that approach globally.
“It is critically important that CITES takes concerted action to ban international and domestic trade in ivory,” says Kakpo. “We have to make a collective stand for the long-term survival of elephants throughout Africa in a united, cohesive mission.”
End the Decision-Making Mechanism for legalising trade in ivory
For nine years CITES has discussed a decision-making mechanism (DMM) for future ivory trade. South Africa and Namibia are in favour of opening discussions on ivory trade as they stand to make substantial financial gains – like they did in 2008 – if they were allowed to sell their large ivory stockpiles.
“There needs to be a clear and unambiguous message that a legal trade in ivory will no longer be debated,” says Sally Case, CEO of the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation. “The premise that there can be a legal and sustainable global trade in ivory needs to end. Until that time there will be a legitimate incentive for stockpiles to be held, and the illegal killing of elephants to continue,” she said.
Alejandro Nadal Professor at the Centre for Economic Studies, El Colegio de México, has argued that economic analysis indicates that re-opening legal trade through a mechanism such as the DMM would risk a runaway expansion of ivory trade with potentially devastating effects on elephants.
He explains: “If indeed it did reduce ivory prices, consumer demand for ivory could expand to even more unsustainable levels than at present, yet if prices do not drop, the incentive to poach elephants for ivory will remain high.”
Preventing the export of live African elephants
This proposal would end the export of African elephants outside their natural range, including export to zoos overseas. This would be consistent with findings from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) that the removal of African elephants from the wild for captive use has no direct benefit for their conservation.
It has been widely publicised that Zimbabwe and Swaziland have recently exported wild elephants, including juveniles, to zoos in China and the USA respectively. The actions resulted in widespread international condemnation.
After the launch of the campaign this week, many conservationists hailed the AEC’s action as crucial and timely.
“We applaud the governments united in the African Elephant Coalition for putting forward a strong package that would afford elephants the highest level of international protection,” said Case “and we urge all CITES Parties to support this move and to help save the world’s remaining elephants”
This article is reproduced with the kind permission of Conservation Action Trust.