Push for ban on domestic ivory trade spurs feud at international summit


Oliver Milman, The Guardian

Date Published


A resolution to end the domestic trade in ivory has descended into acrimony at a major conservation summit, with a handful of countries, including Japan and South Africa, objecting to the proposed ban.

A coalition of countries, including the US, France, Gabon, Kenya and Malawi, spoke in favor of an International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) motion that calls for every country to ban their internal trade of ivory.

However, delegates from Japan, Namibia and South Africa argued that domestic ivory markets should be left open as long as they are regulated. Canada voiced concerns that the ivory ban would affect trade of walrus and narwhal, which are hunted by indigenous people in the country.

South Africa and Namibia even threatened to end their membership of IUCN over the wording of the motion, according to sources at the world conservation congress, which is being held in Hawaii. After two days of deadlocked talks, the resolution will be discussed further on Saturday in a bid to find consensus.

The intransigence of some countries has enraged environmental groups that make up the bulk of the IUCN’s 1,300-strong membership, which also includes 217 state and national government agencies.

“It is disappointing that we are now told we have to meet again for a contact group [a negotiating session], since a few members were not pleased with the outcome of previous discussions,” said Sue Lieberman, vice-president of international policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society, a cosponsor of the motion.

“There’s truly a crisis for elephants and we need to close the elephant ivory markets. The overwhelming majority of the earlier contact group wanted to close domestic ivory markets.”

Danny Auron, campaign director at Avaaz, similarly expressed frustration. “Every 15 minutes an elephant is slaughtered for its tusks, and at this rate they’ll be gone forever in a few short years,” he said. “If we want this species to survive, governments need to be falling over themselves to strengthen protections, not fighting to water them down.”

While the IUCN does not regulate the ivory trade, it is hoped that a resolution calling for the end of domestic markets will help spur nations to commit to a ban at the Cites convention, held in Johannesburg later this month. It is through the Cites treaty that the international trade in ivory was banned in 1989.

John Scanlon, secretary-general of Cites, told the Guardian the forthcoming convention “is without doubt one of the most critical meetings of Cites in its 43-year history.

“It is clear that this [IUCN] motion is generating an intense and robust debate amongst the membership of IUCN, with differing views being strongly expressed.”

The IUCN resolution calls on governments around the world to “close their domestic markets for elephant ivory as a matter of urgency”. The motion states that IUCN members are “deeply concerned” by the illegal killing of elephants that threatens the species’ survival, harms national security and undermines sustainable economic development in countries where elephants are found in the wild.

Millions of elephants once roamed throughout Africa and from the coast of Persia through India and deep into China. Habitat loss and rampant poaching has drastically reduced this number, with African elephants now being killed at a faster rate than they are reproducing.

The first ever continent-wide census of Africa’s savannah elephants found that nearly a third were wiped out between 2007 and 2014. Poachers target the animals to supply ivory from their tusks in Asia. Gangs can get $1,100 per kilogram for ivory in China, which announced last year it would shut down its own domestic market.

Ivory can also be found by buyers in many western countries. A recent report by the NGO Traffic found that the antiques ivory market in the UK appeared to have declined significantly, though there are still thousands of ivory items on sale in London’s markets.

Even though the international trade in ivory has been banned for more than 25 years, a flourishing black market has led to the slaughter of elephants, as well as the people charged with protecting them.

A separate IUCN motion to protect 30% of the world’s oceans was agreed with little dispute. The resolution, if adopted by countries, would drastically increase the small amount of marine area currently off limits to commercial fishing and drilling. A related motion that supports marine protected areas on the high seas, which are beyond national jurisdiction, also passed.

“These motions will help reverse the tide of habitat destruction, pollution and depletion of the world’s oceans,” said Francine Kershaw, a science fellow with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“Both emphasize the need for more marine protected areas, which are scientifically supported to enhance ocean health and resilience in the face of global warming, ocean acidification and rapidly escalating industrial activities.”

Dr Lance Morgan, president of the Marine Conservation Institute, also praised the motions. “This is terrific news and will surely create momentum for establishing more marine reserves around the world in coming years,” he said. “We know how to fix the oceans but now we need the political will and public support to make hard decisions before it’s too late.”

More than 80 other resolutions passed with little fuss. They include a call for a ban on gillnet fishing, which threatens the vaquita porpoise in Mexico, and restrictions on the trade of pangolins. Other motions backed the adoption of renewable energy and energy efficiency by countries. Voting was conducted online prior to the IUCN congress.