Southern Africa holds the rest of Africa to ransom over ivory trade

Written by: Adam Cruise

South Africa, along with Namibia and Zimbabwe, will not be joining 29 other African nations in calling for a total ban on ivory sales – in fact, they are about to do the opposite.


Carved ivory in Pemba, Mozambique ©Mareja Community Reserve

In a proposal to be submitted at the 17th Conference of the Parties (CoP17) of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) to be held in September-October in Johannesburg, South Africa, the three nations are pushing instead to establish a process for an international trade in ivory – demanding minimal regulation of trade with limited safeguards for the continent’s beleaguered elephants.

In contrast, and in an effort to afford elephants the highest protection under international law, the coalition of 29 African countries, a body that represents over 70% of the 37 African elephant range states, will be presenting a comprehensive suite of five proposals at CoP17.

A call to arms – the Montreux Manifesto

At a meeting in Montreux, Switzerland, from 24 to 26 June, the 29 concerned African countries, united as the African Elephant Coalition (AEC), have issued a manifesto asking the rest of Africa, and world, to join them in saving Africa’s elephants.

“The Montreux Manifesto shows that our message is clear,” says Bourama Niagaté from Mali, a member of the Council of the Elders for the Coalition. “We need to all pull together for the sake of Africa’s elephants.”

Among other things, the AEC countries are proposing that all African elephant populations and their range States fall under the CITES Appendix I listing, which effectively bans any commercial trade in elephant products.

About half the continental population was lost in the decade before the Appendix I listing in 1989, and a dramatic spike occurred again after a “one-off” ivory sale in 2008 to China and Japan. The sale was the second since Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe were granted a special Appendix II listing in 1997 followed by South Africa in 2000; the first “one-off” sale took place in 1999 before monitoring systems had been established.

Vera Weber, president of the Swiss-based Fondation Franz Weber, a partner organisation of the AEC, which facilitated the meeting points out that, “CITES saved African elephants from certain extinction 27 years ago by listing them on Appendix I. It ended the poaching crisis and elephant populations began to recover, until their protection under CITES was weakened, causing poaching to escalate again.”

A recently report published by National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts reveals there was a 71% increase in illegal ivory smuggling out of Africa since 2008. The “one-time legal sale of ivory stocks in 2008 was designed as an experiment,” the report states, adding that its global impact had not been properly evaluated beforehand and concludes: “We find that international announcement of the legal ivory sale in 2008 corresponds with an abrupt increase in illegal ivory production”

“The one-off sales were opposed by most African nations,” says Patrick Ormondi, Co-Chair of the AEC, “it was granted. It hasn’t worked. So now we have an opportunity to do it the other way round.”

Even Southern Africa, the long-viewed bastion of African elephants, is witnessing a steady rise in poaching with notable hotspots in northern Zimbabwe, and the surrounding area of Namibia’s Zambezi Region that includes southern Zambia and south-eastern Angola. These countries are now facing a renewed threat from criminal syndicates.

South Africa too has seen an exponential increase in elephant poaching, especially in the Kruger Park. Until 2014 there had not been a single poaching incident for a decade. In that year there were suddenly two poaching-related deaths. This increased to 22 elephants last year. Already in 2016, according to Kruger’s Chief Ranger, Nicholus Funda, “the numbers have been steadily increasing.”

A divided continent

Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence supporting a total ban with an Appendix I listing, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia will be submitting their counter-proposals for deliberation at CoP17 effectively calling on the CITES Standing Committee to permit unrestricted commercial exports of ivory.

“A divided message will spell doom for Africa’s elephants,” warns Patricia Awori the Secretariat of the AEC, who “longs for a time when all Africans unite to save its elephant heritage for future posterity.”

Awori fears that the opposing proposals submitted by South Africa and its near-neighbours in Johannesburg in September could block an uplisting of African elephants, and open the door for more disastrous one-off sales.

“For too long the Southern African tail has been wagging the African dog,” says Dr. Keith Lindsay, a technical expert for the AEC, “it’s time to restore the natural order.”

“Ours is a clear and simple message,” says Awori, “a vote for Appendix I is a vote for Africa’s elephants.”

Conservation Action Trust

The Conservation Action Trust works for the protection of threatened species by promoting the objective investigation and reporting of important conservation and environmental issues affecting these species. We hope to foster broader awareness and bring about greater public support of vital conservation and environmental issues.

  • Alex Brown

    Anyone surprised? S. Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia are corrupt even by African standards and view wildlife only as a commodity to fill coffers that they keep raiding. When poaching is such a critical issue, how about hiring more rangers, decent pay and modern equipment? Oh, but then who will have money for personal shopping trips to Europe. Hence keep them selling to the highest bidder when are alive (trophy hunters) and sell ivory and rhino horn when they are dead. Africa’s wildlife is doomed with such leaders.

    • Alex Brown’s better half

      Although most conservationists oppose it, a proposal to allow a partial lifting of the ban on ivory trading would benefit Africa’s elephants. With proper controls and enforcement, a legal trade would choke off demand for illicit ivory and discourage the poaching now decimating the continent’s elephant populations.

      As someone who cares deeply about elephants, I find it hard to read about the number of these magnificent creatures now slain in Africa for their tusks, and even harder to look at images of their crumpled corpses and chain-sawed faces. Like many, I believe that unless something can be done to stop the carnage, elephants may disappear from many of their traditional ranges.

      There’s little dispute over what drives this alarming illegal slaughter: excessive Asian demand for their tusks, especially from China, which has a legal ivory “ivory
      USFWS. This confiscated ivory was part of a stockpile destroyed by the U.S. government last year.

      But China also has a much bigger illegal market that swamps the legal trade and absorbs the majority of poached ivory leaving Africa.

      Recent responses to the poaching crisis, from beefing up protection for Africa’s herds to increasing surveillance in ports, cracking down on smuggling syndicates, and using sniffer dogs at airports — though well-intentioned — aren’t enough to stop the killings. What can be done? While it may seem counterintuitive, what’s needed is a legal ivory trade structured to choke off the demand for illegal ivory that currently is underwriting criminal networks from the killing fields to retail shops.

      Given that as many as 100,000 elephants may have been killed in Africa in 2010-12, you’d think most conservationists would be open to any possible strategy that could reduce poaching. But the idea of suppressing demand for illegal ivory by a partial lifting of the cross-border ivory ban imposed in 1990 by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) is anathema to most elephant campaigners.

      They’ve embraced a simplistic, emotive If there were no poaching, there’d still be a supply of ivory from elephants who die of natural mortality. anti-ivory agenda that’s perfect for fund-raising, but wholly inadequate to cope with global realities.

      Reopening international legal ivory commerce in any form runs counter to the view, now hardening into an ideology, that all trade in tusks should be permanently proscribed, worldwide. Any talk of trade is denounced as divisive and distracting, something that threatens to undermine the goal of global prohibition.

      But how realistic — and desirable — is ivory prohibition? Ivory has been an item of trade since pre-history, and its use is deeply ingrained in many cultures. Its allure may diminish, but won’t disappear. Prohibiting legal ivory commerce drives demand into the black market, leaving trade solely in the hands of criminals.

      Demonizing ivory by promoting the questionable destruction of national ivory stockpiles, shutting down previously legal ivory sales in the U.S., the EU and elsewhere, even calling for destroying ivory art in public collections — none of these approaches has any effect on reducing poaching, and might even increase it.

      Anti-ivory trade campaigners base their case for ivory prohibition on the misleading claim that “behind every piece of ivory is a dead elephant.” As a result, the public equates “dead” with “killed,” which is not always the case. Think about it: If there were no poaching whatsoever, there’d still be a significant supply of ivory from elephants that die from natural mortality.

      How much of that guilt-free ivory is available? An unexploited elephant population produces approximately 0.2 kilograms of ivory per animal per year. Poaching, along with the difficulty of recovering tusks in the bush, reduces the amount available. Still, some 20 tons a year are found and stockpiled in the warehouses of the park systems of the sub-Saharan African states that have elephant populations.

      Since no elephants are harmed in its collection, CITES considers this stockpiled ivory legal, along with the ivory from elephants shot for justifiable management counterpoint.

      reasons (such as controlling problem animals), which contributes roughly a similar amount a year to African stockpiles. Any “blood ivory” recovered from poachers cannot be sold under CITES regulations, which is as it should be; but sadly, hundreds of tons of blameless, legal ivory can’t either, because the governments that are signatories to CITES can’t agree on easing the current trade ban.

      This is a tragedy for Africans, who can’t benefit from a natural resource that’s theirs, and for elephants, which could benefit if new revenues were available for conservation programs that are currently underfunded.

      That’s why CITES is studying the implications of resuming trade in ivory and has invited comments from stakeholders. The question will come up again at the next meeting in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2016.

      Campaigners alarmed at that prospect say that demand for ivory can’t be controlled and that sustainable supply will never be enough. But demand for any material can be manipulated, shaped, and managed by regulation and by education aimed at stigmatizing illicit ivory use. Hi-tech certification (using DNA testing), tracking, registration, and taxation of legal ivory sales — combined with effective enforcement to criminalize trafficking, laundering, selling, and possession of illegal ivory — can go a long way toward flattening the illegal trafficking of tusks.

      Like the regulatory regimes in place around the globe that permit and control accepted uses of alcohol, tobacco, and drugs while also suppressing unacceptable uses, a well-managed ivory trade system would be self-policing and would use heavy taxation on finished carvings to drive down consumer demand. This tax money could help fund enforcement, education, and conservation in the source countries.

      A legal trade in tusks does not mean a return to the easily abused system of quotas that CITES had in place in the pre-ban 1980s. Nor would it involve a stop-and-go system of “one-off” sales, like those that occurred in 1999 and 2008 — those failed because there was no guarantee of a continuing supply for buyers.

      Instead, the trade would be based on regular auctions of legal ivory from African countries that have stable elephant populations and are motivated enough to organize credible recovery and stockpiling systems. Buying countries would be limited to those that have transparent enforcement and are equally motivated to The best solution would appeal to nations’ self-interest in profiting from ivory, without killing elephants. prevent illicit trafficking. CITES could revoke a country’s selling or buying status at any time.

      What about the assertion that legal ivory simply provides cover for illegal ivory? That happens where domestic enforcement is lax (as, most notably, in China).

      And what about the related claim that a legal trade can’t work because the countries in the supply chain — from origin to transit to consumption — are simply too corrupt? If these countries are so untrustworthy that regulating legal trade with them would be impossible, what makes anti-ivory advocates think the same governments would enforce the total prohibition of ivory use, presuming they could be persuaded (or strong-armed, or bribed) to declare the end of ivory within their borders? Far better to come up with a solution that will appeal to their naked self-interest in profiting from ivory — without having to kill elephants.

      Consider China. It’s highly unlikely the second biggest economy in the world will undergo a sudden mass conversion to the view that it should immediately ban all ivory trade. Yes, China’s authoritarian government has the power to impose such a draconian change. But it places great value on the cultural significance of its traditional ivory carving industry, and there’s no sign it plans to shut it down.

      The solution to snuffing out China’s illegal ivory trafficking is for the international community to be willing to give the country access to a flow of legal ivory for its legitimate carving industry if — and only if — China demonstrably crushes its brisk illegal trade, which, obviously, it has the capacity to do.

      With no way to sell contraband tusks to the Chinese, there’d be diminishing payoffs for African poachers, smugglers, and corrupt officials.

      The result? Less elephant poaching, benefitting the species and the governments and people of Africa.

      • Jhm0699

        Your approach to controlling the sale of “legal” ivory is that of an idealist. As you state above “S. Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia are corrupt even by African standards…” There is no system available to distinguish “legal” from “illegal” ivory. Any system can be and will be subverted by corrupt government individuals. They will certify the illegal as legal and make a lot of money doing it. If all ivory is illegal. when it is confiscated there is no question.

        You say 20 tons of “guilt-free ivory” is stockpiled every year. At an average weight of 220 lb. of ivory on each elephant, that would equal to a total of 200 elephants. Do you really believe that the ivory of 200 elephants per year will satisfy the market when 35,000 elephants are being poached every year?

        The only way to save the elephants is a total worldwide ban on ivory trade. We’re not talking about food here which everyone needs. We are talking about trinkets that no one needs and everyone can live without.

        • Jeb

          “How about no more ivory trade, and no more deaths of these intelligent peaceful creatures due to poaching?”

          Comments like the one above, posted as a response to an article advocating a legal ivory trade, reflect a widely held sentiment in the West. They all make the assumption that elephants have to be illegally killed for there to be trade in ivory. It is a false assumption.

          Another false assumption is that banning the legal ivory trade will stop poaching. If I believed it were that simple, I would be leading the charge to close legal ivory markets. But it’s not that simple. After studying the issue closely, I’ve come to the conclusion that a limited legal trade in ivory is likely to help elephants more than the current prohibitionist regime.

          A coalition of US and European groups is encouraging worldwide domestic trade bans on elephant ivory and destruction of national ivory stockpiles as a strategy to save elephants from extinction. Regrettably, this “Stop Ivory” approach reflects an overly simplistic, Western viewpoint founded in animal rights ideology. It inflicts questionable policies on African countries, with disastrous consequences for both Africa’s people and wildlife.

          The ban-ivory-everywhere policy pursues a top-down, authoritarian approach that aims to protect wildlife through prohibiting trade, increasing law enforcement, and constricting supply by confiscation and destruction. It recalls the “War on Drugs” – and we have seen how well the War on Drugs has worked. The results have been the rise of brutal criminal gangs, widespread corruption of government officials, and increasing use of illegal drugs. The complete ivory ban strategy relies on the same prohibitionist thinking, without considering the alternative of regulated use and taxation accompanied by consumer education to lower demand, a strategy which has shown success in reducing tobacco use.

          This prohibitionist approach is advocated by groups such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Humane Society of the United States. They consistently oppose all commercial use of wildlife, regardless of whether such uses are sustainable, and even positive, for habitat and species conservation. IFAW’s president recently wrote an article headlined, “There’s no such thing as a Sustainable Wildlife Trade.” Now, conservation organizations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society and World Wildlife Fund have joined forces with the prohibitionists.

          This coalition mischaracterizes the situation to rally public opinion and high-level political support in Western governments for a policy opposed to what in past years was a holy grail – sustainable development.

          The prohibitionist argument depends on six premises. (Since China is the prime recipient of poached ivory, it determines the future of elephant poaching, and the discourse below applies mainly to China.) The arguments go like this:

          1. The existence of legal ivory can be used to “launder” illegal ivory.

          2. Corruption is so widespread that no system of legal trade could ever work.

          3. Increasing ivory supply will only increase ivory demand, as demonstrated by the two “one-off” ivory sales from southern Africa.

          4. The China market is so huge that there are not enough elephants in Africa to supply demand.

          5. Banning all ivory trade will collapse consumer demand.

          6. Destroying all ivory stockpiles sends a message that poaching will not be tolerated. It makes seized illegal ivory impossible to leak into the market and it devalues ivory, lowering consumer demand.

          Let’s examine each.

          1. There are 34 legal factories and 130 legal ivory outlets in China. A relatively tiny amount of illegal ivory is mixed in with the legal ivory in these facilities and laundered. I estimate that about 99 percent of poached ivory is sold in illegal outlets, online, and through personal networks – no laundering is involved. Closing the 130 outlets and the 34 factories will simply drive some buyers into the black market system.

          2. The corrupt trade seen today developed under an international trade ban regime beginning in the mid-1990s. The African countries with the most corrupt ivory trade already have trade bans. So banning trade in more countries is not the solution. The solution involves bringing African governments into a transparent, regulated trade that confers benefits on rural people who live with wildlife. These people are the foot soldiers of poaching. If ivory and other wildlife products could meaningfully contribute to their livelihoods in a legal manner, they would be motivated to manage wildlife for the future. I advocate a system that provides incentives to obey the law, not the prohibitionist approach where the incentives are to break the law.

          The legal trade would be completely different than the existing corrupt one. Periodic auctions would be held under CITES supervision and marked tusks would be shipped directly from African government storerooms to Chinese government storerooms, avoiding all the points where bribing and laundering could occur. Maintaining the ban will only continue the corrupt illegal trade methods.

          3. The 1999 and 2008 legal ivory sales did not stimulate demand. Demand in Japan, the only country to receive the 1999 ivory, actually dropped after the sales, and it continued to drop after the 2008 sales. Ivory demand in China began to rise in 2005 after the government declared ivory carving an intangible cultural heritage and launched initiatives to promote it. Interest in ivory took off in 2009 during the global financial crisis as ivory became an investment vehicle. Concurrently, the CITES vote in 2007 to prohibit future legal raw ivory sales (until 2016 at the earliest) caused the price of ivory to spiral upward. Speculators began stockpiling ivory, expecting the price to continue to rise because of scarcity guaranteed by the moratorium. The black market ivory prices in China then spiked from $560-750 per kilogram in 2006 to $2,100 per kilogram in 2014. This tripling in price contributed to the elephant-poaching crisis. The 2008 legal sale, if anything, kept the price from going even higher.

          4. One of the biggest misunderstandings is ivory supply and demand. It does not matter how many consumers want to buy ivory, any more than it matters how many people want a Ferrari. What matters is how many want and can afford to buy. If one really wants to lower consumer demand, it is imperative that mainly very expensive ivory items are manufactured. This policy cannot be implemented with a black market. Researchers have shown that the illegal sector provides the cheaper end of the market, which is much larger than the more expensive legal sector. And it is supplied 100 percent by poached tusks. It is the demand for cheaper worked ivory that causes so much poaching. Closing the legal market will not make the black market disappear; if anything, it will grow larger. People opposing ivory trade seem to forget that elephants do die naturally. There are more than enough elephants to supply a legal market from natural mortality without illegally killing a single elephant – if the ivory items are kept expensive.

          5. Would closing all legal ivory trade in China lower consumer demand? Unlikely. Most Chinese consumers already buy ivory on the black market knowing that the ivory is illegal. Why would closing the legal outlets change their ivory buying habits? They don’t shop in them now, so closing them would change nothing. Some of the consumers who shop in the legal outlets might stop buying ivory, but most would probably find illegal ivory, adding to elephant killing.

          6. The latest round of ivory stockpile destructions began in Kenya in July 2011. I was there, and I was left wondering what message was being sent. Since 2011, ivory prices and elephant poaching have risen. The intended message was not received.

          I believe that the prohibitionist ivory-trade policy has led to the elephant-poaching crisis and the deaths of 100,000 elephants in three years. It could have been avoided with a legal system of raw ivory supply to China. It is not too late to begin one.

          • Walter Tingle

            Hard to dispute the logic.

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