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Amid growing calls for an outright ban, the European Union is coming under increasing pressure to help protect African elephants by ending the trade of ivory within its borders. Poaching has decimated the world elephant population, which slumped in Africa from several million at the turn of the 19th Century to around 400,000 in 2015.
According to conservation group WWF, as much as 60 percent of all elephant deaths can be blamed on poaching.
The David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, which campaigns against the ivory trade, says that from 2007-2014, 144,000 elephants were killed across Africa—the equivalent of one death every 15 minutes.
The international trade of ivory was officially banned in 1989. The United States outlawed domestic trade in 2016, with China following suit a year later.
But several other markets, including the EU and Japan, have no such internal bans.
Ivory and the plight of African elephants is a hot-button issue this week at the CITES conference on trade in endangered species, featuring representatives from more than 180 nations in Geneva. Nine countries—Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kenya, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria and Syria—issued a proposal to the conference calling for all nations to close “all remaining domestic ivory markets as a matter of urgency”.
The measure will be voted on and would pass with a two-thirds majority.
They said that maintaining domestic ivory markets “creates opportunities for laundering illegally obtained ivory, presents monitoring and enforcement challenges… and undermines ivory bans in other countries.”
The EU currently has, at least in theory, stringent rules on ivory sales within its borders. It’s illegal to export elephant tusks out of the EU, and only objects dated before 1947 can be bought without paperwork—any ivory made after that date requires a certificate to purchase.
But last year, a joint study between the University of Oxford and the campaign group Avaaz showed that as much as a fifth of ivory objects came from elephants killed after the global trade ban in 1989. Campaigners say it is still too easy to trade illegal ivory within and out of the EU.
A coalition of 17 NGOs calling for a Europe-wide ban said that illegal ivory was being “laundered by exploiting loopholes in EU law”. Ivory sold as “antique” currently requires no proof of authenticity or origin within Europe, it said.
France, Belgium, Britain and the Netherlands have all adopted or are set to adopt stricter measures against the illegal trade. But it is still easy to find ivory sculptures for sale online with no proof of their provenance. “This should push the EU to take more restrictive measures and close national markets,” Lois Lelanchon, from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, told AFP.
The WWF said the world needed “a better understanding of what constitutes an effective market closure” in order to seal off loopholes.
France’s environment ambassador Yann Wehrling said that ending the main domestic ivory markets would greatly benefit the African elephant as poachers could no longer rely on the trade. “The African elephant will be protected because you will no longer be able to buy ivory and poaching will cease,” he said.
But campaign groups fear that the EU is poised to reject the African submission at CITES.
Contacted by AFP, EU representatives said they would not reveal the bloc’s position before the end of talks in Geneva, which wrap up on August 28.