Time for the EU to close its domestic ivory market?


Frédérique Ries & Arnaud Goessens, Opinion / The Parliament

Date Published
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The figures are depressing: each year, up to 20,000 African elephants are illegally killed for their ivory. Only daring action is likely to save this emblematic species from extinction in many parts of its range.

The European Union must pull its weight in this fight. For more than a century, elephants have been killed so that their tusks can be used as combs, knife handles, hair pins, billiard balls, inlays, and other decorative items and curios.

Currently, the sale of ivory within the EU is still allowed for these and other so-called “antique” ivory items.

And there’s the rub. There is evidence that illegal ivory from recently poached elephants is laundered through legal EU ivory markets. Such activity highlights the link between legal and illegal ivory trade in the EU – the world’s largest exporter of legal ivory.

Last May, the EU released its new Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, which includes a “further tightening of the rules on EU ivory trade later this year.”

Following this commitment, the European Commission circulated a proposed set of new measures in early October for discussion with EU Member States and stakeholders.

These proposed measures fall short of closing the EU ivory market and instead, propose to slightly tighten intra-EU trade rules for pre-1947 worked items.

And while they would also prohibit the trade of items imported or acquired between 1975 and 1990, the laundering of ivory and the misrepresentation of the age of worked items would render it ineffective.

If the EU is serious about fighting elephant poaching, it must completely close its domestic ivory market as well as ban all ivory imports and re-exports.

Only by so doing will the EU remove any financial value from ivory, reduce the opportunity for new ivory to be laundered through legal markets, and send a clear message to the rest of the world that the EU no longer considers ivory a commodity.

Ending ivory trafficking is more than a conservation issue. It is also about combating criminal violence associated with militarised poaching operations—sometimes carried out by local rebel groups.

The actions of such groups undermine the rule of law and exacerbate conflicts, corruption, and poverty in African countries that are already struggling to defend their economic and national security.

Several EU Member States are leading the fight against elephant poaching. France, Belgium, and Luxembourg have already implemented stricter rules on their domestic ivory trade and markets.

Other countries around the world have also taken steps to close their ivory markets, such as the USA and China. In August, the UK Supreme Court refused an appeal against the UK Ivory Act of 2018 – one of the strictest domestic ivory bans in the world – thereby reaffirming the measure is appropriate and legal.

Three years ago, the European Commission conducted a public consultation on the issue, resulting in almost 90,000 responses. This represents the third largest number of responses ever to an EU public consultation and is an indication of the particular and manifest interest EU citizens have in this issue.

More than 90 percent of respondents favoured the closing of EU ivory markets.

Echoing this demand, the European Parliament has repeatedly called on the Commission to act without further delays. A coalition of 30 African elephant range countries recently urged the EU to close its domestic ivory market once and for all.

The EU has all the support required to finally tackle the elephant poaching crisis by completely closing its domestic ivory market.

Late last month, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen endorsed the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature on behalf of the EU at the UN Biodiversity Summit, thus committing to address the interrelated and interdependent challenges of biodiversity loss. Closing the EU domestic ivory market is a great place to start.

The Covid-19 health crisis has reshuffled the world’s priorities, and understandably so. But elephants continue to be poached, and there is no excuse to let them down. There is no more time to waste.

Frédérique Ries is a member of the European Parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee and Vice-Chair of Renew Europe. Arnaud Goessens is Senior Manager for EU Policy for WCS EU, a Belgian NGO affiliated with WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society)