20 Oct 2016
Global Wildlife Conference Rejects Calls for Legalised Ivory Trade
While China won plaudits for its crackdown on its domestic ivory trade, delegates at the recent Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species called flourishing for renewed action to protect the dwindling number of African elephants.
The ongoing problem of ivory smuggling and, in particular, the illegal trade in this prohibited material that continues on the mainland dominated proceedings at the recent Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Johannesburg. The event, the 17th such conference, saw representatives of 152 countries pledge to crackdown on this illicit trade in a bid to protect the African elephant, the species most threatened by its continuance.
Delegates attending the event – said to be the world's largest ever wildlife conference – were informed that the slaughter of African elephants to supply this prohibited trade is now seen as one of the most destructive forms of wildlife crime. The problem is said to be exacerbated by the considerable street value of ivory in China, with prices now as high as US$1,000 per kilogram.
As well as the conservation issue, the poaching of elephants has also been linked to international terrorism and the destabilisation of vulnerable communities. As a result of the many presentations on the subject, an overwhelming majority of the delegates voted to veto any moves to permit the resumption of a legal trade in ivory.
Demand for ivory is largely driven by China, with buyers valuing it both as a supposedly lucky commodity and as a status symbol. Despite its illegality, a number of collectors also seek it out for its investment value.
Currently, there are some 150 outlets on the mainland that are licensed to sell certain ivory products. Many illegal traders, however, circumvent this strict licensing system by using counterfeit documents to sell ivory that is not sourced from the government-authorised stockpile. These illicit sales have acted to spur the activities of poachers, with an online trade in the material also emerging despite an official crackdown.
The African elephant has been hardest hit by the Asian ivory trade, with 30% of the population wiped out over the last seven years. According to CITES data, the African elephant population suffered a net decline of 110,000 over the period 2007 to 2015. This has led to some countries burning their ivory stocks in an effort to curtail the trade.
Despite all these international efforts, however, the African elephant remains on the endangered list. Calling for further action, John Scanlon, Secretary General of CITES, said: "Governments must continue their efforts to disrupt the illegal ivory supply chain if we are to reverse the devastating effects of poaching over the past decade."
While, in some regions of the continent the level of poaching has declined over recent years, in others – particularly in Central and West Africa – the number of elephants killed by poachers still exceeds the number of natural deaths.
During the course of the conference, it was acknowledged that China is now trying to address the problem. Over recent years, substantial caches of illicit ivory has been destroyed by mainland customs authorities, with the police widely seen as getting tougher on criminals involved in the trade. China's laws carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for any illegal trade in prohibited wildlife.
One optimistic note was sounded by a presentation that showed the levels of the illegal trade in ivory post-2014 having begun to level off. Despite this, the report emphasised the importance of maintaining large-scale ivory seizures along the trade chain. It also urged the greater use of controlled deliveries. These track illicit ivory to its intended destination, rather than seizing it at the border. This allows the authorities to identify and shutdown the wider networks involved in its trade.
One consequence of the crackdown by Chinese authorities has been an increase in the value of successfully smuggled ivory. Explaining this knock-on effect, Zachary Donnenfeld and Jervin Naidoo, two researchers from South Africa's Institute for Security Studies, said: "The estimated price per kilogram for ivory on the black market is now about US$1,100. The average African elephant carries roughly 62.5 kilogram of ivory – nearly $70,000 worth."
The vote at the conference against resuming any form of ivory sales means that any commercial trade in African elephant ivory is now prohibited under CITES. It is hoped that this resolution will have a deciding influence on any national legislation related to the issue.
Mark Ronan, Special Correspondent, Cape Town