Wildlife Watch

In Fighting Illegal Ivory, EU Lags Behind

The European Union is the largest exporter of legal ivory, leading to concern that it’s fueling a parallel illegal trade—and the slaughter of elephants.

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Wildlife advocates are pushing for the EU to shut down its ivory trade, which contributes to the slaughter of some 30,000 African elephants a year.


While China and the United States have taken steps in recent months to shut down their ivory markets, conservationists say that the European Union has been dragging its feet.  

“The global shift against the trade is evident, and the EU’s failure to put its own house in order will place it in an increasingly isolated position,” says Sally Case of the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, a British charity that provides funding and research support for international endangered wildlife projects.

On Monday the EU Environment Council—the environment ministers of the 28 member states—will meet in Luxembourg to consider new ivory trade controls.

Global demand for ivory remains high. Legal ivory exports from the EU, especially to China and Hong Kong, as well as trade among member states, likely fuel demand and facilitate laundering of poached ivory into the trade system.

Ivory trafficking by criminal syndicates causes the poaching deaths of some 30,000 African elephants a year.

The EU is the world’s largest exporter of pre-convention ivory—ivory acquired before the creation, in 1976, of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the body that regulates wildlife trade. In that year the African elephant was listed as at risk, and restrictions on trade in ivory came into effect.

Many Europeans in countries such as Belgium, which had African colonies, have been selling off ivory pieces they inherited in the years since nations won their independence. During the past decade EU countries legally exported more than 20,000 carvings and 564 tusks, according to CITES, and the numbers have been going up. By contrast fewer than a thousand carvings and a single tusk have been exported from the U.S. during that time.

According to an EU report, between 2003 and 2014, 92 percent of EU exports of pre-convention tusks went to China or Hong Kong. The increasing volume of ivory shipped to Asia has led to concerns that the legal trade is spurring demand for ivory, both legal and illegal, and exacerbating elephant poaching.

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This 11th-century carved tusk, decorated with gold-plated metal, is on display in a museum in Florence, Italy. 


But Enrico Brivia—spokesperson for the EU’s Commission of the Environment, Maritime Affairs, and Fisheries—disagrees. He contends that, “In the European Union the domestic trade in pre-convention ivory is strictly regulated. There is no evidence that this domestic market has been used as a cover for illegal ivory,” he says.

The CITES wildlife trade database, however, shows that China’s and Hong Kong’s ivory imports exceed that accounted for by the number of EU export certificates.

A 2014 report on EU ivory exports notes that, “There are undoubtedly cases of fraudulent EU documents in circulation, and it is possible that falsified or forged internal EU trade certificates are being used as a basis for re-export certificate applications.”

According to the report, such certificates are used as a loophole to launder pre-convention ivory into the illegal market—a relatively easy thing to do in the EU, whose member countries are borderless when it comes to trade and where there are inconsistences in the administration of ivory export permits.

An EU document issued in February 2016 states that, “Between 2011 and 2014, EU Member States reported seizures of around 4500 ivory items reported as specimens and an additional 780 kg as reported by weight. Most was destined for Asia, particularly China, Hong Kong and Vietnam.” The report notes that “it is often difficult to distinguish pre-Convention or worked specimens, which can be legally re-exported from the EU, from other ivory items, for which such export is banned.” It points out there are many cases of buyers purchasing ivory using forged pre-convention certificates with the intention of exporting them illegally to Asia.

“When it comes to ivory policy,” says Rob Hepworth, senior advisor for the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation and a former CITES official, “the EU is weaker as a collective entity than as individual parties.” CITES’s policies, he says, apply to individual nations, not massive trading blocs that set their own rules for internal trade.

“The current CITES resolution addressing trade in elephant ivory does not require prohibition of domestic trade,” says CITES Secretary-General John Scanlon, who adds that even though “the EU, and many of its member states, have provided great support in combating the illegal wildlife trade financially, politically and technically, measures taken in the EU are only as strong as the weakest link.”

“African Countries Blazing a Trail”

Along with the U.S. and China, in April 27 African elephant range countries that are part of the African Elephant Coalition submitted five complementary proposals to CITES to protect elephants, including the closing down of all domestic ivory markets. 

“African countries are blazing a trail to shut down the global ivory market,” says Vera Weber, president of the Swiss-based Fondation Franz Weber, a partner organization of the African Elephant Coalition. “The EU needs to support their initiative and demonstrate its commitment to the world by shutting down its own market.”

Unlike Belgium, some EU nations—the Czech Republic, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Sweden, and the U.K.—have stopped issuing ivory export certificates and have called on Brussels to make this an EU-wide policy.

“The fact that some member states are stronger and more committed to the international law as individual nations makes a mockery of the EU,” says Stella Reynolds, an international lawyer based in France. According to Reynolds, the European Union was created “to target global industry to ensure future peace and an absence of conflict. So it’s incredible,” she says, “that the EU is hiding from its responsibility in this modern-day global ivory conflict.”

“The EU must walk the talk and abolish ivory trade once and for all," says Daniela Freyer of Pro Wildlife, a Germany-based advocacy group specializing in regional and international wildlife regulations, in a press release. “EU ministers must demonstrate leadership to secure the survival of elephants.”

Adam Cruise is a senior contributor for the Conservation Action Trust, which promotes reporting on conservation and environmental issues. Follow him on Twitter.

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