Global fight against illegal ivory trade needs more teeth, as the killings continue in Africa


John Scanlon, South China Morning Post 

Date Published
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International media and the wildlife conservation community hailed China’s announcement last year that it would close down its domestic ivory market. Some described it as a game-changer and a huge blow to elephant poachers and smugglers of ivory.

Months on, the debate on domestic trade in ivory remains a live issue in certain countries, while in some others, ivory carvings are still openly on sale. Where domestic bans are proposed, such as in Hong Kong, the timing of the ban remains an issue. In other places, like the EU, strict controls on trade rather than a ban are being pursued. In all cases, the kinds of exemption to be allowed is part of the debate, with all countries allowing some form of exemption for antiques.

In March, during my seventh visit to China as secretary general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, I saw first-hand the closing of the initial tranche of ivory-carving factories and markets. Two years earlier, I had met Vice-Premier Wang Yang ( ?? ) to discuss CITES and the ivory trade issue, after opening the first workshop on reducing demand for illegal ivory, organised by the CITES Secretariat together with the Chinese government.

The bold decision made by China since will have a major impact on the ivory-carving industry and markets. It affects the processing, trade and movement of ivory and ivory carvings both within and between provinces, giving it extraordinary reach nationwide.

China’s decision followed a joint pledge made with the US in 2015 to close domestic markets, and a call from CITES at its triennial conference in Johannesburg last October. There, it was decided that countries with “a legal domestic market for ivory that is contributing to poaching or illegal trade” must “take all necessary legislative, regulatory and enforcement measures to close [such markets] for commercial trade in raw and worked ivory”, noting there may be some exceptions.

This call reflected the level of global concern over the severity of elephant poaching and smuggling of ivory. Legal commercial international trade in elephant ivory has been banned by CITES since 1990, but poaching of African elephants has escalated in recent years, with about 100,000 killed illegally from 2010 to 2012. Poaching trends in 2016 continued to be above the sustainability threshold, which means this poses an immediate threat to the animals’ survival.

Industrial-scale illicit trafficking in ivory is driven by transnational organised crime groups and sometimes rebel militia targeting high-value wildlife. It calls for a strong response that tackles both demand and supply. Criminal groups targeting elephants have no regard for wildlife or people’s lives. They corrupt local officials, recruit and arm local poachers, create insecurity and propel local communities into a poverty spiral.

The ultimate goal of the closure of any legal domestic ivory market is to stop the illegal trade, by preventing the opportunity to launder illegal ivory into legal markets. It is unlikely that banning legal domestic trade will in itself end the demand, but it may influence demand as well as the price of ivory in black markets.

The drop in black market prices following China’s announcement last year seems to support this claim. The ban does not negate the need for law enforcement and global cooperation across the illegal trade chain, and campaigns to reduce the demand for illegal ivory.

The National Ivory Action Plans, which CITES has requested key implicated countries to develop and implement, present an innovative tool used to address high levels of elephant poaching and illicit ivory trafficking. It provides a highly successful approach to dealing with a complicated and multifaceted problem, and encouraging progress has been made. China has taken bold decisions and is acting on them, as have other countries such as Kenya, Thailand and the United States. Yet, we all have to do more.

I will be speaking on wildlife trafficking this month at the summer World Economic Forum in Dalian. There, I will reach out to leading Chinese entrepreneurs and urge them to join the fight against illicit trafficking in wildlife. Through a collective effort that cuts across government, civil society, local communities and the private sector, we will win this fight. Join us.

John Scanlon is the secretary general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora