Britain is hastening the extinction of the African elephant


Jonathan Baillie, The Guardian

Date Published


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When we think about extinct animals, we look to history books and fairytales. The dodo. The woolly mammoth. The sabre-toothed cat. Yet extinction remains a very real threat today. The future of the African elephant is at stake and urgent action is needed to stop it being added to the list of extinct species. The UK government must end the domestic market in ivory to close loopholes exploited by criminals. Only fast action will secure their future.
If you think this is hyperbole, consider the figures. Until the 1940s, there were between 3m and 5m African elephants. Current estimates put that figure at less than half a million. Their tusks have long been a target of poachers and some 100 African elephants are killed each day. At this rate, they will be extinct within 20 years.

The illegal wildlife trade also blights local communities. International criminal gangs are involved in the $20bn annual trade that is now the fourth largest global illegal activity after drugs, counterfeiting and human trafficking. Their activities cause instability and threaten national security in many African nations, blocking much-needed development in impoverished rural communities.

Elephant protection is fast becoming one of the most urgent conservation issues of our time. On 12 August, we celebrate World Elephant Day and next month, representatives of 182 countries will meet at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) conference in Johannesburg to discuss action needed to protect elephants. This landmark meeting should see countries around the world calling for the closure of domestic markets for ivory products to eradicate ivory trafficking.

This action by individual states is a crucial step. Domestic ivory markets are known to provide cover for illegal trade in ivory and, importantly, they also reinforce demand for the item and the high value of ivory as an aspirational status symbol.

The UK’s domestic ivory market provides ample cover for illegal activity. Between 2009 and 2014, 40% of all the seizures made by the UK’s Border Force were ivory items and in 2015, 110kg of ivory were seized at Heathrow airport in one of the UK’s largest hauls of illegal ivory. This is just the tip of the iceberg as ivory sold legally in the UK domestic market is exported to illegal markets in other countries, contributing to high prices and fuelling demand for elephant products. Many nations have already taken action. In July 2016, the US government passed a new law that substantially limits imports, exports and sales of African elephant ivory, providing exceptions for some antiques and musical instruments.

China, considered to be the world’s biggest ivory market, has widened restrictions on imports and announced its plans to take “significant and timely steps” towards ending all ivory trading.

This wave of global action makes it all the more disappointing that progress has stalled in the UK, despite pledges from the Conservative party in the 2010 and 2015 manifestos to address the issue of ivory sales. This lack of progress undermines efforts from the governments of the African elephant range states, such as Kenya, Malawi and Zambia, which are making considerable efforts to improve their anti-poaching and enforcement systems. They are resolute in their belief that international partners must close their markets. As our ministers delay, elephants continue to be killed.

In the autumn, along with Cites, a series of international meetings will discuss the future of domestic ivory markets. The UK government must make a clear announcement on closing the UK market – and call on others to do the same.

As we plan for a future outside the European Union, we must not turn away from our international responsibilities. We must continue to work with global partners on crucial conservation issues and play a leading role at an international level. Time is running out. It is clear that elephants can rely on the United States and China. Can they rely on the UK as well?

Jonathan Baillie is director of conservation programmes at Zoological Society of London (ZSL)