The international community has taken new steps to stem the illegal ivory trade, responsible for the killing of some 30,000 African elephants every year. Last week in Geneva the busiest ever meeting of the Standing Committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the body that regulates the international trade in endangered species, concluded with concrete outcomes for combating the ivory trade.
Following a recommendation from the European Union, the Standing Committee voted to suspend trade of CITES-listed species with three countries—Nigeria, Angola, and Laos—for failing to submit reports on the progress of their national plans to combat the illegal ivory trade.
CITES lists thousands of at-risk animals and plants in one of three appendices, depending on how rare or likely to be exploited they are. Each appendix comes with specific rules governing the trade of the species named in it.
In 2013, CITES identified 19 countries—including Nigeria, Angola, and Laos—that were heavily implicated in the illegal trade in ivory. CITES identified these countries based on the country’s reported numbers of ivory seizures. National Ivory Action Plans outline the measures these countries committed to take to stop ivory trafficking, including legislation, enforcement, and public awareness programs, as well specific time frames and milestones for implementation. (Despite being a known hub for trafficking, Sudan isn’t subject to an action plan because its government hasn't reported a high number of seizures. It’s widely believed government officials are complicit in trafficking, and therefore seizures by law enforcement officials aren’t very common).
“This is a strong signal from CITES that if a country does not comply and then fails to explain its non-compliance adequately, CITES means business,” said a joint media statement issued by the Fondation Franz Weber, a nature and wildlife protection NGO, and the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, which finances conservation projects in Africa and Asia.
Mozambique and Tanzania also got called out at the meeting over ivory poaching and trafficking. Both countries have lost more than half their elephants since 2009.
The Standing Committee urged Mozambique to enforce its new wildlife law, which has languished in parliamentary debates for the past 18 months, allowing trafficking kingpins to continue to act with impunity and undermining presidential promises to combat wildlife crime. Meanwhile, Tanzania must enact CITES legislation in its autonomous territory of Zanzibar.
Zanzibar has become a trafficking hub for ivory and other wildlife products, at least in part because Tanzania hasn’t extended its wildlife protection laws to that territory, said Colman O’Criodain, a World Wildlife Fund trade analyst. Those laws enact international trade and protection rules set by CITES.
"We have long been calling for the territory to be covered by CITES rules just like the rest of Tanzania,” O’Criodain said.
With these developments, CITES “is no longer just a talk shop,” said the statement from Fondation Franz Weber.
China: Trade in Antique Ivory Should Be Banned
China made international news last year when it announced it would phase out its legal ivory trade. While the international trade in ivory has been banned since 1989, ivory trade within the borders of some countries, including China, has remained legal.
At last week’s meeting, China reiterated its commitment to end its domestic ivory trade but also took things a step further. It wants to ban the trade in antique ivory too.
Ivory that was obtained before 1976, when CITES listed the African elephant, faces fewer trade restrictions and is in large part legal. China’s representative Gu Zihua said this “pre-Convention” ivory trade helps keep the illegal trade going. Because recently obtained, illegal ivory is virtually indistinguishable from antique, legal ivory, traffickers can launder new ivory into the market by passing it off as antique.
Between 2003 and 2012, according to the group Pro Wildlife, more than 20,000 carvings and 560 tusks of antique ivory were exported from the EU. More than a quarter of the carvings and half the tusks were exported to China and Hong Kong.
Suspension of Working Group Developing an Ivory Trade Mechanism
The vast majority of the Standing Committee—including the U.S., EU, India, and several Central and West African countries home to elephants—supported a proposal by four African countries to suspend discussions of a so-called “decision-making mechanism,” which would establish a process by which to decide whether or not to allow trade in ivory.
There were, however, a few voices of dissent, including Japan (whose booming ivory market was recently exposed), South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Norway. Delegates from these countries expressed a desire to fulfill the original mandate of establishing a mechanism. While the CITES Secretariat agreed that the work of the DMM working group—which has achieved little over the past seven years—should come to a halt, the chairman of the CITES Standing Committee, Øystein Størkersen, deferred any further discussion about the decision-making mechanism until September, when all the members of CITES meet in Johannesburg for the 17th Conference of Parties.
“This decision marks a turning point in CITES’s policy on elephants,” said Vera Weber, president of the Fondation Franz Weber. “We witnessed a strong emphasis on saving elephants and not driving them into extinction through the global ivory trade.”
Correction: This story has been corrected to accurately describe the "decision-making mechanism," countries’ positions, 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 attended the CITES meeting last week. Follow him on Twitter.