This week, representatives from countries around the world are gathered in Geneva to discuss the wildlife trade. The agenda ranges from rhinos to totoabas, but one of the hottest topics is ivory: Some 30,000 elephants are slaughtered for their tusks each year.
One thing that came up at the 66th meeting of the Standing Committee for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was whether to continue developing a decision-making process for the trade in ivory.
The United States, the European Union, Kenya, Uganda, and many other parties to CITES argued that given the current poaching crisis it would be unproductive and dangerous to proceed with discussions about legalizing the ivory trade.
South Africa wanted to further ivory trade discussions. That’s because it believes that legalizing the trade will drive down prices by increasing the supply of ivory. Lower prices mean less incentive to poach. Many economists, however, reject this supply-and demand model as too simplistic.
Many countries, including African and Asian countries home to elephant populations, supported a proposal to suspend further work on this "decision-making mechanism." The CITES Secretariat was supportive in halting the working group. However, the decision about what to ultimately do about this decision-making mechanism was deferred until September, when all members of CITES meet in Johannesburg.
On Tuesday, South Africa also stood nearly alone in its opposition to a resolution that lauded CITES for supporting the destruction of government stockpiles of ivory seized from poachers and traffickers. CITES and most countries believe that destroying illegal ivory is the best way to deter people from buying ivory products.
Public ivory destructions, usually by crushing or burning, have become an increasingly common way for governments to deal with their stockpiles of illegal ivory seized from traffickers. This is because it’s effective in preventing illegal ivory from re-entering the market—government stockpiles have been known to leak—and helps sends the message that ivory markets should be shut down.
But Thea Carroll, South Africa’s representative at the meeting, said, “South Africa is concerned about the negative consequences of destroying stockpiles.”
South Africa’s view is that destroying ivory increases its scarcity and therefore drives up prices. When ivory gets more valuable, poaching intensifies. Once again, many economists reject that reasoning.
Only Zimbabwe and Botswana spoke up in support of Carroll’s opposition to ivory stockpile destructions.
The three countries made a profit from their stockpiles in 2008 when CITES approved a one-time ivory sale to China and Japan. That move is widely believed to have spurred the current elephant poaching crisis, in which some 30,000 are killed each year.
Since 2011, there have been 11 ivory destruction events in 10 countries: Kenya, Gabon, the Philippines, India, United States, China (including Hong Kong), France, Chad, Belgium, and Portugal. Sri Lanka is planning an ivory crush for later this month, and the governments of Malawi, New Zealand, and Vietnam have voiced interest in destroying theirs, according to CITES.
CITES says that the trend can be attributed in part to its having encouraged stockpile destructions at its 2014 Standing Committee meeting.
But South Africa asserted on Tuesday that CITES acted out of turn by encouraging governments to destroy their ivory.
Several NGOs at the meeting also spoke out against South Africa’s position.
South Africa’s objection to destroying stockpiles “implies that the country endorses future trading of ivory,” said Will Travers, chairperson of the Species Survival Network, which coordinates with NGOs to secure CITES protections for plants and animals that are bought and sold around the world.
The European Union, speaking for the majority, said that any discussion of a legal trade in ivory should be taken off the table for at least the next four years. “We should concentrate instead on poaching and the war on poaching,” Zoltán Czirak, the EU representative, told the committee.
Correction: This story has been corrected to accurately describe the "decision-making mechanism" for the ivory trade and the discussion surrounding its negotiations.
Adam Cruise is a senior contributor for the Conservation Action Trust, which promotes reporting on conservation and environmental issues. He’s attending the CITES meeting this week. Follow him on Twitter.