Burnt to Heal


Tharindu Muthukumarana, Ceylon Daily News

Date Published

Recently Sri Lanka created history by destroying 359 ivory tusks at Galle Face Green in Colombo. This act did demonstrate the country’s intolerance for wildlife crime. Meanwhile Kenya announced that they would destroy 120 tonnes of ivory as the largest stockpile of ivory ever destroyed by any country.

Ivory destruction was first done in Kenya. Before this, during the time of late 1970 to 1980s ivory poaching was a major threat to the Kenya’s elephant population. Along with this, wildlife parks became more like a danger zone for people. It may be a researcher, tourist, conservationist or even an individual from an anti-poaching unit; they all face threat by the poachers. The demand for ivory got skyrocketed. As a result of this, the African elephants on those areas were facing towards the brink of extinction.

On April 1989 when the well known paleontologist Dr. Richard Leakey was unexpectedly asked by President of Kenya, Daniel Arap Moi, to take over the directorship of Kenya’s bankrupt, corrupt and incompetent Wildlife Service, much of things did change dramatically. But at first days in the office was a massive challenge for Dr. Leakey since no proper funding to fight against poachers and the country’s economy was much benefited by tourism industry that was in jeopardy due to poaching activities. Leakey wrote in his journal, “No money, no morale, no vehicles, planes are grounded, inadequate staff, no fuel, no ideas”. But he did believe that the only way to permanently stop poaching is to destroy the ivory market. He did persuade President Daniel Moi to destroy confiscated ivory stock that belongs to more than 2,000 elephants. At that time at the open market the tusks would have been worth for $ 3 million. Dr. Leakey did point out that $ 3 million the burned ivory cost was an insignificant amount compared with the country’s tourism industry, which makes $230 million a year and is the largest foreign currency earner.

The ivory burning event did capture the international media’s attention and it did send a signal that the life of the African elephant is in a great danger. This did help to bring the ivory ban in the following year.

CITES Appendixes and ivory ban

The ivory trade is monitored by an international multilateral treaty known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This convention was drafted as a result of a resolution adopted in 1963 at a meeting of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The Convention was opened for signature in 1973 and on July 1st 1975, CITES entered into force. Sri Lanka is a signatory to CITES since 1979. Ivory trade was ban when the African elephant was transferred from Appendix II to Appendix I of the CITES, effective January 18, 1990. CITES Appendix I states “A species on this list can only legally be traded internationally if permits are issued by both the importing and exporting country. Also, species on this list cannot be traded for commercial reasons”. Appendix II states “These species are not necessarily “endangered” and may be traded for commercial purposes. All that is required is an export permit in this case. Species on this list are “watched” in case trade does appear to be impacting its survival”.

The Asian elephant was placed in Appendix I since 1973. But unfortunately for the African elephant they were placed in Appendix II although they were facing a crisis. This is because CITES was not aware that the major threat for the decline of the African population was the ivory poaching and instead they believed it was the habitat loss. But the first researcher who did the in-depth study on African elephants since 1960s, the legendary zoologist Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton declared that African elephant is threatened by poaching. Yet not everyone was willing to agree with Dr. Douglas-Hamilton’s statement. Former game warden and ivory dealer Ian Parker insisted that the ivory trade is not a threat and he said the decline was because of the habitat loss. He claimed that the ivory offtake was sustainable. But fortunately in 1989 many evidence proved that the primary cause was poaching pressure.

Specially the ivory burning did gave a massive awareness globally. As a result of these, on October 9, 1989, the Seventh Meeting of the conference of the parties to CITES opened in Lausanne, Switzerland, attended by delegates from 91 countries and a host of observers. Hundreds of children paraded outside the Lausanne conference hall with banners pleading with the delegates to save elephants by stopping the ivory trade. Arguments raged for a full week on the floor of the conference and late-night meetings. Finally, 76 nations voted for a ban, with 11 against and 4 abstentions. Also it is important to remember that Sri Lanka also voted “For” to the proposal to put the African elephant on to the Appendix I. This is how the African elephant was moved from Appendix II to Appendix I.

The international ban on ivory trade did show the signs of success. Some elephant populations begin to show signs of recovery, especially in East Africa and in some African countries. Kenya’s population grew to more 30,000 by 2007 from an historic low 16,000. In some countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the rate of poaching is thought to have slowed to about 20% of pre-ban numbers for the period to 2007. The Republic of Congo, Angola, Central African Republic (CAR) and Zambia continue to lose a significant number of elephants, with civil war and corruption playing a key role. In 1997 CITES- Convention voted to allow three African countries – Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe- to “down-list” their elephant populations to Appendix II (partial trade) and permitted sale from existing one legal raw ivory stock. These ivory stocks are seized ivory, collected on various events. From this approval Japan bought 49.57 metric tons of ivory. In 2000, the Convention voted to allow South Africa to “down-list” their elephant population to Appendix II. As a result there was another ivory stock sold.

In 2007, CITES approved another stockpile sale and voted to let China join Japan as an “approved buyer” and ivory trading partner. The resulting auction in 2008 flooded the commercial market with 108 metric tons of ivory from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana which was purchased by China. This “down listing” the Appendix did fuelled the ivory trade and also supported the present “illegal ivory trade”. This is a one reason why destruction of stock ivory is important. In 2011, a Washington Post editorial summarized the crisis well, “As predicted by many conservationists, these actions, adopted by CITES, have simply served to weaken the ban, provide a cover for illicit sales of ivory, sent mixed signals to the market, promoted the survival and expansion of ivory carving operations and ivory marketing, especially in Asia, and stimulated consumer demand.” It is always important to remember that even any legal trade would contribute to the illegal trade.

In 2013 a media interview, with Dr. Douglas-Hamilton mentioned that in 1970s and 1980s, he witnessed how the legal ivory trade decimated elephant herd throughout east Africa. “I then saw the ivory trade ban come in [in 1989],” he explains, “and I saw elephants recover for nearly 20 years … The ban worked. The ban worked beautifully … It’s only really been since 2008 [it] has stopped working properly … [That’s when] some partial sales [took] place that stimulated demand that was dormant.”

Once again the ivory trade had been a major threat for both the elephants and humans in Africa. On 2011-2012 the Elephant Action League (EAL) conducted an 18-month undercover investigation into the link between Al-Shabaab and the illegal trafficking of ivory through Kenya. The organisation published its findings, which suggested that Al-Shabaab has been actively buying and selling ivory to fund its militant operations and that ivory trafficking “could be supplying up to 40% of the funds needed to keep them in business.’’

Dr. Iain Douglas Hamilton’s letter to the President and Prime Minister of Sri Lanka

A special message by Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton D.Phil., C.B.E (Founder and CEO of Save the Elephants) was delivered to the President and Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. He was joined by few other African elephant conservationists. His letter states:

“I want to offer my congratulations to the government of Sri Lanka for the laudable decision to destroy ivory stocks. This action is particularly important this year as matters are coming to a head on the question of how many elephants can survive in the face of the intense exploitation we have seen in the last five years.

In 2014, Save the Elephants published research estimating that 100,000 elephants had been killed in Africa in the years 2010-2012. Essentially this rate of attrition has not significantly decreased in 2013, 2014 and 2015, although in some corners of Africa the anti-poaching efforts are proving effective. At risk are both elephants and African livelihoods.

With this stockpile destruction, Sri Lanka is joining the ranks of China, Ethiopia, Hong Kong SAR, India, Kenya, Mozambique, Republic of Congo, Thailand, UAE and USA in standing against illegal trafficking in ivory, a trade which forms part of the USD$19 billion illegal wildlife trade, the fourth most lucrative illicit trade in the world. This action is also in keeping with the principles of the Elephant Protection Initiative, an African-led initiative which calls the countries of the world to put ivory stockpiles beyond commercial use.

Asia has led the way in helping secure a future for elephants. In 2015 where we saw the astonishing declaration by China and the US to shut down their domestic markets, and a colossal drop in the price of ivory in China. Hong Kong has voted to ban the trade in the territory, a decision recently backed by their Chief Executive. And now Sri Lanka has set 2016 off to a good start with this ivory destruction.

Sri Lanka is sending a message to the world that ivory should be without worth; elephants have value when alive. This is a critical message to send particularly to the religious world, as they are sensitized about the threat religious ivory poses to elephant populations in Africa.

As we applaud Sri Lanka for the brave effort to help stop trafficking of ivory, we are mindful that human elephant conflict is a common threat we share both in African and Asian countries. Save the Elephants is pleased to be working with The Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Society to help create a tolerant relationship between man and elephants through research into Asian honey bees and whether they can serve as a mitigation measure against Asian elephants. This measure has been effective in Kenya, and we hope that it brings similar relief to the people of Sri Lanka.

I am heartened by the coalition that is building between African countries and Asia in securing a future for elephants. It is known that the ivory being destroyed passed through Kenya, a country that is shoring up its defenses to resist being a transit for the illicit trade. We also recognize that much of this ivory originated in Tanzania, a country that is now working to recover its vast elephant herds after an estimate of 65,000 were killed between 2009 and 2015. Sri Lanka’s destruction of this ivory stands against this heedless destruction of the sentient beings I have studied for 50 years.

There is urgent need for concerned individuals, scientists, conservation organisations, businesses, actors and activists, politicians and governments themselves to join arms to take united international action to stop the killing, trafficking, and demand for ivory. We cannot waver in our efforts to deal a decisive final blow to the crisis facing elephants.”