The EU is right to oppose a global ivory ban


Colman O’Criodain, The Guardian

Date Published


Anyone paying even cursory attention to wildlife stories in recent years would have heard all about Africa’s elephant poaching crisis. And with good reason. An estimated 30,000 animals are being killed for their ivory every year, a shockingly high figure that threatens the survival of central Africa’s forest elephants as well as some elephant populations in east Africa.

They also would have read about the international community’s response to the poaching crisis, with governments around the globe promising action and conservation organisations scaling up efforts to tackle elephant poaching and the illegal ivory trade.

And it has made a difference, with poaching down from its 2011 peak. But the killing goes on – fuelled by demand in Asia and increasingly driven by international organised crime.

So it is understandable that a raft of elephant and ivory trade proposals have been put forward for debate at this year’s global wildlife trade conference in South Africa.

Three of them have attracted a disproportionate amount of media coverage: the call by a group of African countries for a formal global ban on ivory trade by listing all elephant populations in Appendix I under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), and counter-proposals by Namibia and Zimbabwe to allow them to resume ivory trading.

These proposals to trade or not to trade seem at first glance to go to the very heart of how to stop the poaching. But it is important to remember that a de facto international ivory trade ban already exists and moving all populations to Appendix I would not change this. And it is definitely not the time to contemplate even a partial resumption in the trade.

In fact, the main impact of these three proposals will be to fuel a divisive debate and divert attention away from measures that are needed to deal with the fundamental issues behind the illegal ivory trade.

It is critical that attention remains focussed on the Cites-led National Ivory Action Plan (NIAP) process, which is absolutely central to global efforts to stop the poaching and the trafficking, and reduce demand for ivory. At the last Cites conference in 2013, 19 African and Asian countries were required to take timebound action to address gaps in their legislation and enforcement or face sanctions.

This process is now beginning to yield results. But all these gains could be lost if Cites does not continue to prioritise this approach and strengthen the monitoring of these countries’ implementation of their ivory action plans.

Fighting over whether to further formalise the international ban or to partially end it might give the impression that countries were trying to do something to address the crisis. But none of the three pro- or anti-trade proposals will address what is really facilitating illicit ivory trafficking – corruption, inadequate laws and lack of enforcement in countries along the illegal trade chain, and rampant demand in Asia.

Well aware of this, the European commission has decided to oppose all three proposals and urged the EU, which is a critical voting bloc representing all 28 member states, to adopt this position at the Cites conference.

It is a decision based firmly on sense and science, and one that is good for Africa’s elephants. But it has led to a stampede of criticism from members of the African Elephant Coalition, who have blamed the EU for undermining the chances of a global ivory ban and so placed elephants at even greater risk of extinction. An Avaaz petition taking the EU to task also quickly gathered more than 1.5m signatures.

But WWF believes the commission is right, and we encourage all member states to follow its lead and agree to oppose all three of these proposals, while supporting resolutions that will enhance the fight against wildlife crime in general, and ivory trafficking in particular.

Indeed, the most powerful thing the EU can do for Africa’s elephants is to make it clear that it will push for trade sanctions under Cites against countries that do not fulfil their commitments under the NIAP process.

By making its opposition clear early on, the EU could signal that none of these proposals are likely to get the necessary two-thirds majority at the conference and so could encourage the proponents to withdraw all three of these controversial proposals ahead of the meeting.

This would avoid unnecessary bitterness and prevent a divisive debate that would split Africa in two at a time when it desperately needs to come together to solve this crisis. It would also pave the way for constructive debate on issues that will help tackle poaching and illegal ivory trade, including stronger laws, measures to counter corruption, and more vigilance at key ports, such as Mombasa and Zanzibar, from which ivory continues to be smuggled out of Africa.

It would also provide the space to build a broad coalition in support of another draft resolution to be considered at the Cites conference to strengthen efforts to change consumer behaviour.

Like WWF, the commission backs this critical proposal, which could help to significantly reduce the demand that drives the illegal ivory trade.