Elephant Killing on the Rise, how will CITES respond?

The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) has been active in managing ivory from elephants and rhinos since the mid-1980s.  It has been a contentious debate at times which has resulted in a developed system for monitoring illegal trade, some positive conservation in South Africa and Zimbabwe (and others, but not all), and some very limited sales of ivory onto international markets.

July 23, 2012, CITES held a major meeting focusing on many issues, but a part of the agenda was to discuss ivory issues in preparation for the next large Conference of Parties meeting in Bangkok, Thailand.  The official press release explained that for the Conference of the Parties meeting, “Among the high priority issues for discussion are elephant issues, including rising levels in the illegal killing of elephants and ivory smuggling, and a decision-making mechanism for a process of trade in ivory.”

This comes on the heels of a major report by the prime ivory research organizations within CITES showing “the levels of illegal killing across the entire African elephant range are of serious and increasing concern.”  The report found that the proportion of illegally killed elephants has increased in 2010 and 2011 (2011 being the highest point in the decade) and now represents a threat to even stable and healthy populations of elephants in Africa.  What is most associated with this spike the report finds is the increased consumption expenditure in China driving demand for illegal ivory (page 12).

This system of increased demand in China leading to increased illegal ivory poaching is largely a result of earlier CITES decisions to allow a one-time sale of ivory from African range states onto the world market.  The Guardian explains: “China introduced a robust certification system to identify legally sold ivory in 2008, when it was allowed by Cites to receive ivory from a legal sell-off of stockpiles from four African countries. Since then, however, the regulatory system has broken down, with investigators finding illegal ivory on open sale even in remote parts of China.”  CITES created a legal way for ivory sales to proceed, China created a regulatory certification system, this system grew lax and illegal ivory flooded the market, creating demand pressure for poaching of elephants.  The pressure from a number of organizations then is for China to shut down its domestic markets so that this demand chain would decrease.

The debate positions pit African range states with healthy populations (South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana) along with China advocating for increased legal sales against other African range states (I’ll talk about Gabon in a second), Western Europe and the United States pushing for no trade in ivory sales.  The proposal by Southern Africa and China meets the initial test of merit: elephants that die of natural causes or poaching shipments that are seized do not become worthless, but instead are allowed to be certified and sold on the world market, hopefully providing funds for elephant conservation in the states. The idea is to create a Value for elephants alive and healthy so that conservation is well-funded and works.

The alternative is to work in the opposite direction.  To make ivory from elephants Value-less. Gabon in West Africa last month sent a clear message to poachers–and the CITES meeting: it burned its ivory stock that had been built up by seizing poacher’s stocks.  Douglas Hamilton said on that event that “They’re making a real statement [that] they’re going to have nothing to do with corrupt, underhand dealings with ivory.  We need to demonetize ivory—it’s very important to take the value away.”  The idea is simple, shut down any legal, cheap way to secure ivory and thus make it too expensive to justify any poaching.

And that is the position that CITES will be in at Bangkok, Thailand in 2013.  Whether to protect species by creating and fostering their market value or to make trade so prohibitive that they become value-less.  The question we should be asking is whether creating value will work in a broken system that can provide shelter for ivory from armed gangs who show complete ruthlessness in securing ivory?  The system doesn’t operate now and won’t operate in the near future: legal sales of ivory will stimulate illegal poaching of elephants in protected areas.  The idea with the limited trade is to provide a little incentive so that we keep working on fixing these (huge) problems.  Or do we make a permanent decision to make ivory value-less, which may freeze conservation efforts, possibly even induce a roll-back of elephant conservation, and allow the illegal poaching to happen without any mobilized force against it.


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