Will – and can – Europe play catch up to protect elephants?


by Kevin Heath, Wildlife News

Date Published

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The ball is firmly in the court of Europe in the protection of elephants and the closing of a legal ivory trade that provides cover for illegally poached ivory. China has stated it is to end its domestic trade in ivory, the United States is doing everything it can to end its domestic trade and Europe… it’s ominously quiet on the subject.

Will European countries follow suit with China and the United State and start to move towards a domestic ban on ivory or will its colonial history be too big to take on?

In an interview with the Washington Post China’s lead negotiator at CITES called on the world to join China in tackling the ivory trade as it could not do it alone. In the interview Meng Xianlin called on the United States to boost its ongoing measures to tackle its domestic trade in ivory, pointed to African nations who point fingers at ivory markets while selling hunting and trophy rights on elephants and to European nations who tell others to stop ivory trading while having a trade in colonial ivory.

In the interview Xianlin said:

“Some people say, ‘China should take the leadership, you first, you stop everything and other countries will follow,’?” he said. “I understand, but I think we should negotiate with other countries to push these procedures gradually.”

 While there was no definite time span on implementing the domestic ban in China, Xianlin said the ban would come ‘very quickly’ adding:

“One year, two years, three years, four years, 10 years. Is that quick or not quick compared to the history of the world?”

One of things Xianlin confirmed in the interview is that China’s President Xi Jinping and  State Forestry Minister Zhao Shucong are fully behind the proposed ban and the principles are established. Now its a matter of dealing with the practicalities and implementing and enforcing the ban.

Even though Xianlin did not give any firm commitment to dates and even suggested it could take 10 years the ban is likely to happen sooner rather than later. Like all Presidents China’s Xi Jinping will want to make his own mark on China’s history and two main themes stand out in his presidency – corruption and environment.

China’s presidents are able to hold office for 2 terms of 5 years which means that if the ivory ban is to be part of Jinping’s ‘ecological civilization’ future for China the deadline is March 2023 or 8 years away. There is a good chance though that the ban will pass in the first term of Jinping’s presidency or by March 2018 and a good deal sooner than that.

Those who followed the last People’s Congress in China know that President Jinping has a genuine interest in the environment and wildlife issues. At the meetings with Forestry officials about China’s national parks he took a real interest in questioning about the wildlife in the park, it seemed to be more than just a ‘rubber stamping’ appearance. Jinping is part of a new generation of Chinese politicians who have an interest and understanding of environmental issues.

Within the party itself there is a growing support for an ivory ban and the topic was presented to the People’s Congress earlier this year for consideration. Outside the party polls constantly show overwhelming support for a ban on ivory and a new generation of Chinese are informed about wildlife and environmental issues and pressuring authorities to take action to protect elephants.

For China a ban on the domestic ivory trade could also pay big diplomatic dividends. The country is currently involved with a large number of major infrastructure projects in Africa and there are more to come. China is becoming a major player in Africa and is seeking to make even closer ties. One of the issues that concerns African countries with Chinese investment is Chinese contractors buying ivory and supporting poaching. With a domestic trade ban this issue can be dealt with and will be a substantial boost between China and African nations.

From a domestic political point of view it would be relatively easy for China to implement a ban, it has the support of the public and increasing support from the party members. Apart from tackling the illegal ivory trade a ban on ivory would also underpin the trademark of Jinping’s presidency of tackling excesses and graft in business deals. Internationally it would also be a boost to China’s moves for closer ties with Africa.

It is notoriously hard to second guess what China is about to do. At the ivory crush in May when China made the surprise announcement that it was to end it’s ivory trade there were a number of high-ranking international figures from various organisations missing because of ‘other engagements’. I can not help but think that had they known what was to be announced they may have changed their plans to be in attendance.

One thing is relatively certain though is that it is now very hard for China to allow it’s ban on ivory imports to lapse in February next year. Will the end of the temporary ban be the opportunity for China to introduce the domestic trade ban or will they extend the import ban further until the trade ban is put in place?

With China now committed to a domestic ivory ban and are now dealing with the practicalities of introduction the United States are now dealing with practicalities of banning ivory domestically.

While President Obama has made an attempt to ban the domestic ivory trade in the United States – are at least to make it so difficult to make it not worth while – he is having difficulties. A number of states, primarily in the south with a strong hunt and gun lobby, are refusing to enact bans within state legislature. Other more progressive states are introducing state legislation and in some cases stronger than that wanted by the President.

Federal laws are also being introduced or tightened up to stop ivory being imported into the country. Within a couple of weeks new regulations and laws are set to be introduced by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to ban the inter-state trade in ivory. While the President is unable to force each state to ban it’s trade in ivory the federal government is able to effectively ban nationwide sales of ivory.

The next big announcement from both China and the United States on ivory could come in just a few weeks. At the end of this month will be the 7th session of U.S. – China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. The ivory trade is on the agenda and discussion will take place between the two countries as to what can be done to save elephants. Will that meeting produce some sort of agreement on legal ivory trading?

The big question is what is Europe doing? Will it join the United States and China is combatting poaching by closing down its own ivory trade or will it be a case of telling other countries to shut down their trade while enjoying the profits of their own ivory trade?

There is a real danger that the countries of Europe will be left behind the rest of the world where protecting elephants are concerned. Will the voice of vested interests – who fund the political parties and many NGO’s – stop action being taken that will keep Europe in the forefront of elephant protection.

In the UK the Conservatives have pledged to bring about the end of the domestic trade in ivory. But they also said that at the 2010 election and nothing happened. Will anything change now that the Conservatives have a majority, will they bring about a ban in the domestic trade?

How many people realised that the Conservatives had proposed a ivory trade ban in  their manifesto in 2010? While lots of publicity and effort has been put into banning the trade in ivory in China and Asia not a murmur has been made to hold the last government to account for not introducing a ban. Whether any noise will be made from the established NGO’s to get the current government to commit to a domestic ban on ivory is debatable.

Many wildlife organisations in the UK have a direct history with the big game hunting industry and those that don’t have major funders and patrons or senior management that come from families with large ivory collections. It makes sense for them to call for other countries to ban their ivory trade while remaining silent on a domestic ivory trade.

The same situation is true for many of the European NGO’s there is large-scale vested interest in protecting a domestic or European-wide trade in ivory than will be difficult to overcome. Europe has the largest stocks of ivory, it was the main antagonist to the slaughter of over 20 million elephants. The amount of ivory in Europe means there billions of pounds worth of assets to protect. It is one of the reasons why Europe has some of the weakest ivory trading laws in the world with some countries effectively being a funnel for ivory traders to ship ivory to Asia.

As China and the United States start to ban domestic trading and international trading it would be disappointing if the ‘investments’ from the colonial era slaughter of millions of elephants keeps open a route to launder ivory in Europe and puts the few remaining elephants of Africa at risk.