Measures to Curb Ivory Trade


Katarzyna Nowak, The Cape Times

Date Published

The recent London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade highlighted some positives and negatives in the fight to save Africa’s elephants and other keystone species. On the one hand, it showed that countries are getting serious about tackling criminal activities associated with trade, and that they agree that wildlife crimes threaten the future of species and undermine economic growth. On the other, it brought into focus the dogmatic positions in favour of increased trade held by some key elephant range states and self-styled experts.

First, the positives. One direct response that is gaining momentum around the world is the destruction of ivory stockpiles. The Philippines was the first consuming and transit country to do this last year, a step to be applauded. Hong Kong, following China’s lead, decided to destroy a large portion – 28 tonnes – of its 33-tonne stockpile of contraband ivory. Meanwhile, the US destroyed almost 6 tonnes of confiscated ivory in 2013 and EU States have been urged to do the same; thus far, France and Belgium have done so. Among elephant range states, Chad most recently destroyed its (1.2 tonne) ivory stockpile after destructions made by Gabon in 2012 and Kenya in 2011. Pressure is now on Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam and African countries like Tanzania to follow suit.

At the London Conference, Botswana, Chad, Gabon, Ethiopia and Tanzania all pledged a 10-year moratorium on ivory trade under “The Elephant Protection Initiative”. This means that these five countries from all parts of Africa will not petition CITES to sell their stockpiled ivory until 2024 at the earliest. In a recent news article, President Kikwete of Tanzania was reported to say that burning tusks would send a strong signal to poachers, and a ceremonial burn of poached trophies is scheduled for June. President Khama of Botswana said that he would place stockpiles out of reach of markets. But what is holding back these two countries –home to the continent’s largest populations of African elephants – from going all the way, and following others in destroying their stockpiles?

The destruction of confiscated specimens is standard practice for the 179 signatories to CITES, and CITES could amend this ordinance giving countries a deadline from time of seizure by which seized specimens should be destroyed. But what of the legal portion of the stocks?

It would appear that Tanzania may be holding out for the revival of a proposal purportedly first made over a decade ago by NGOs prepared to match the price of an ivory sale in exchange for its destruction. With 112 tonnes of ivory stockpiled mostly at Wildlife Division headquarters in Dar es Salaam, the amount to be gained from sale or subsidy could be estimated at USD$50million, a huge sum if based on black market figures rather than the earnings made from previous CITES-approved ivory sales. The argument for wanting such compensation is that the funds raised from the ivory would be put towards conservation efforts. Nevertheless, how does this exaggerated sum compare against tourism revenue, to which wildlife viewing is a major contributor?

In 2010, in the CITES Panel of Experts’ report assessing Tanzania’s petition to downlist the African elephant and sell its stockpile, the wildlife sector was described as contributing at least 10% (of GDP) to the Tanzanian economy of which the tourism industry factored in USD 1.3 billion per year – 26 times the above estimated black-market value of Tanzania’s ivory stockpile! Tourism in Tanzania is a primarily wildlife-based industry, an exemplary form of “sustainable utilization”. There is, thus, little financial justification for sale of or compensation for ivory stocks, particularly since they consume precious funds to pay for the security and upkeep of the warehouses that hold them.

Meanwhile, millions have already been pledged to assist countries to meet the London Declaration’s goals: the NGO Stop Ivory has committed $2 million, and the Canadian and Dutch governments will contribute in excess of $2 million to assist Kenya. In September of last year $80 million was brokered by the Clinton Global Initiative to fight ivory poaching, and in December last year the EU pledged R170m (USD$15.6 million) to fight illegal ivory trade. This month, R232 million was granted to SanParks by Swedish and Dutch Postcode lotteries to fund rhino conservation.

Yet another country holding back the momentum is South Africa, a key player. Unlike Tanzania and Botswana which have vowed cooperation on stopping trade, South Africa has increasingly isolated itself from coordinated pan-African efforts. It has critiqued the London Declaration for promoting non-utilization. In turn, it has been criticized in the press for its flawed pro-trade paradigm and for missing the Conference and opting against signing the Declaration signed by 46 other nations, 17 of which are African states.

South African Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Molewa’s stance seems to suggest that South Africa views itself as operating in a vacuum. There is over-emphasis on holding on to policies developed before the present poaching crisis, which accelerated only after CoP14 (2007) and after a decision to develop a “decision-making mechanism for trade in ivory” (Decision 14.77) was made. While incidences of poaching and illicit ivory trade (seizure volume and number of large-scale seizures) have shown no signs of letting up, South Africa’s stance shows a lack of ability to adapt its approach and recognize the full dimension of the current threat posed by trade. Instead, Molewa has stated that no prior agreement regarding a moratorium on wildlife trade was made,  particularly since the 16th Conference of Parties to CITES (March 2013) when the development of the decision-making mechanism for trade in ivory was postponed for consideration at CoP17 (to be held in South Africa in 2016).

To make matters worse, last month, a group of Europe-based and South African pro-traders produced a brief (International Institute for Environment and Development- IIED) which goes beyond the uncontroversial recognition that rural community development should be part of effective conservation initiatives and charges wildlife itself with the responsibility of alleviating poverty. This perspective imagines that consumptive utilisation of elephants and other wildlife is essential for the solution to rural poverty in the short or long term or any kind of scale, and ignores basic biological limits on wildlife productivity in the face of the growing demands of international markets. Elephants are not onions or livestock, whose “harvesting” can be scaled up or down to suit consumption rates. By promoting these views, the authors choose to ignore the decades of large-scale, multi-million dollar development initiatives led by relevant organizations like the IMF, World Bank, UN and USAID, already focused on “sustainable livelihoods and local economic development”. Products such as oil seeds, honey, nuts, tea and coffee – truly sustainable products unlike rare, slow-growing, long-lived wild species – is where the “pro- trade brigade” could shift focus when discussing livelihoods. The brief also seems to ignore wildlife-based tourism as a form of “sustainable utilization”.

According to FAO, “While concerns are more regularly being voiced regarding the potential negative livelihood impacts of increased CITES trade controls, there do not appear to have been many studies gauging the actual impacts once the CITES measures have been implemented.” The hackneyed examples of vicuna (whose wool is sheared) and (egg-laying) crocodiles given in the IIED report are not valid in discussions of elephants and rhinos for reasons obvious to anyone who’s ever taken a biology class.

If read carefully, the London Declaration explicitly names communities as partners – something that South Africa, given its decades of support of rich private land owners, could itself sign up to.

So while most countries are making tremendous strides in their attitudes and approaches to the dangers posed by uncontrollable wildlife trade, both before and since the London Conference, others view the London Declaration as a threat rather than opportunity for economic growth – a flawed perception that discounts the keeping intact of African’s rich wildlife heritage, for its value to national patrimony as  well as to tourism.

Katarzyna Nowak works and lives in East Africa. She holds a PhD in Biological Anthropology from the University of Cambridge. Her fieldwork has focused on forest-dwelling savanna elephants and mangrove-living red colobus monkeys in Tanzania. She has consulted for NGOs in Tanzania and the UK on a variety of topics including wind farms, coastal forest biodiversity, and the ivory trade. Her current research on samango monkeys in South Africa and elephants in Tanzania aims to document the impacts of natural and anthropogenic risk on the fear and cognition of social mammals. 


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