Efforts to reopen the ivory trade failed Monday at a global wildlife conference in Johannesburg, South Africa. Zimbabwe and Namibia had put forward proposals at the meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a 183-government treaty that regulates the international wildlife trade, but both failed to generate enough votes.
The committee also failed to pass a proposal that would have given all elephants the highest level of international protection, which would effectively permanently ban the ivory trade.
African elephants are facing a poaching crisis. Some 30,000 are killed each year to supply the ivory trade, and the population of savanna elephants has dropped by 30 percent in just seven years, according to the recently released Great Elephant Census. Poaching has become increasingly organized and militarized, with criminal syndicates moving huge shipments of illegal ivory across the ocean to Asia and elsewhere.
International trade in ivory was banned back in 1989, but the way elephant protections were set up gave Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa—countries with robust elephant populations—the opportunity to request and hold ivory sales because their elephants have been assigned a lower level of protection than the rest of Africa’s.
Will Ivory Trade Help or Hurt Elephants?
The showdown over the ivory trade was one of the most highly anticipated debates of the two-week conference.
Some argued that a legal ivory trade would hurt elephants by erasing the stigma around ivory and encouraging more people to buy it. They say that the illegal trade would increase as a result and that legal sales would provide cover for illegal ivory.
“Legal international trade in ivory would unleash powerful economic forces that need to be taken into consideration,” said Alejandro Nadal, an economist from Mexico who has studied the possible effects of a legalized ivory trade. It’s not as simple as a basic supply-and-demand model, he says.
Others argued that a legal trade would help elephants by giving them economic value, which would encourage conservation and habitat protection. Rural communities often see elephants as a nuisance and a threat because the animals trample crops and sometimes kill people. If villagers instead benefited from elephants by way of ivory sales, they’d have more incentive to protect the animals, the argument goes.
“The most effective strategy is to integrate elephants into rural communities as assets and to demonstrate that elephants contribute to welfare and development,” the Namibian representative said.
A recent study found that a one-time, legal ivory sale in 2008 actually increased the poaching of elephants, and another study released two weeks ago found that reopening trade would speed up elephants’ march to extinction.
A handful of African countries spoke in favor of the proposals allowing Namibia and Zimbabwe to sell ivory, but in a surprise move, Botswana threw its support behind the African Elephant Coalition, a group of 29 countries that opposes the ivory trade, arguing that a total, permanent ban on the ivory trade is necessary.
Up until today, Botswana had been pro-trade, a big deal because Botswana has more elephants than any other African country. But Botswana’s statement wasn’t enough to persuade nations to pass the proposal to permanently ban the ivory trade by listing all of Africa’s elephants on CITES’s Appendix I, which prohibits commercial trade.
U.S. Fails to Back New Elephant Protections
Some blame the European Union, which voted as bloc of 28 countries, for the proposal’s failure. The EU argued that certain elephant populations are too strong to justify their inclusion on that list.
The EU’s opposition was expected, but the U.S. also voted against the proposal—a big surprise. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service long suggested it supported the African Elephant Coalition, but when it came time to vote, the country decided not to back additional protections for elephants.
“We applaud the leadership and dedication of ... the proposing and supporting range states,” a statement from the Fish and Wildlife Service says. “However, the United States voted no on this proposal because it opened up the potential that member nations would take a reservation and use a victory on Appendix I uplisting as a back door to resume trade.”
Namibia and Zimbabwe had threatened to resume ivory trade outside the CITES legal regime if all elephants were given these additional protections. They argued that they only agreed to a moratorium on ivory sales in 2007 in their countries as a compromise that discussions about establishing a mechanism to set up legal trade would continue. Last week, CITES voted to end those discussions, and now the two southern African nations are saying the compromise is null and void.
“It’s a form of blackmail is what it is,” said Beverly Joubert, a conservationist and National Geographic explorer-in-residence. “We can understand why the U.S Fish and Wildlife voted the way they did, to be able to have some control, but I think it’s a sad day that we have got to this, where it’s all about trade and not the protection of the animals.”
The other surprise was China. Last year China announced its intention to close down its huge domestic ivory market. And just a few days ago, it backed a resolution at the conference urging all countries to shut down their domestic ivory markets. Nonetheless, today the Chinese delegate spoke in favor of allowing a limited, legal international trade in ivory.
CITES also voted earlier in the week for a resolution urging all countries to phase out their domestic ivory markets.
The votes were finalized at the plenary session Tuesday.
(Read more stories out of the CITES meeting in Johannesburg here.)
This story was updated October 4. It produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.