Legal International Elephant Ivory Trade Proposed

elephant ivory
An illegal shipment of 1.5 tonnes of ivory was seized in May 2012 in Sri Lanka. Worldwide, recorded ivory seizures are at their highest levels for decades (Photo by Samantha Gunasekara courtesy Sri Lanka Customs)

GENEVA, Switzerland, July 25, 2012 (ENS) – “We meet at a time when the illegal killing and illegal trade in African elephants and rhinoceros have reached the highest levels in over a decade,” John Scanlon told a gathering of those who govern international trade in protected wildlife on behalf of 175 governments.

As secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, Scanlon was addressing 350 people from around the world at the annual meeting of the CITES Standing Committee taking place in Geneva now through July 27.

This week, the Standing Committee will decide the agenda for the next meeting of the 175 CITES Parties set for Bangkok in March 2013.

elephant ivory
An illegal shipment of 1.5 tonnes of ivory was seized in May 2012 in Sri Lanka. Worldwide, recorded ivory seizures are at their highest levels for decades (Photo by Samantha Gunasekara courtesy Sri Lanka Customs)

Among the high priority issues on the agenda is elephant conservation, including a decision-making mechanism for a process of establishing a legal trade in ivory. International trade in elephant ivory has been banned by CITES since 1990 with the exception of two sales held by the governments of elephant range states in 1999 and 2008.

This week the Standing Committee will consider a new report examining a possible mechanism for a future legal international trade in ivory that proposes the creation of an ivory sales body, the Central Ivory Selling Organisation, modeled after the De Beers diamond cartel.

The report, “Decision-Making Mechanisms and Necessary Conditions for a Future Trade in African Elephant Ivory,” was commissioned by the CITES Secretariat after the member governments at their last full meeting in 2010 requested that the Standing Committee propose for approval “a decision-making mechanism for a process of trade in ivory.”

The terms of reference for their report “specifically excluded the question of whether or not there should be a trade in ivory,” wrote the five authors.

“We saw this as a primary decision for the Conference of the Parties and focused our work on the subsidiary decisions and processes that would need to follow from such a primary decision,” they wrote.

But to avoid continually making qualifying statements about a legal ivory trade in the report, the authors say they wrote it as if the CITES member governments had decided to go ahead with a legal trade in ivory.

This assumption was “misunderstood” by reviewers who read advance copies of the report in May and many “took it as a de facto statement by us that trade in ivory would proceed, the authors wrote in the final report.

The London-based nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency accuses the authors of failing to fully comply with the terms of reference and of “loading the dice to produce a report clearly biased in favor of creating a global trade in ivory.”

EIA Executive Director Mary Rice is urging the CITES Standing Committee to “shelve any further discussion on a future international trade in ivory,” in view of the current mass poaching of African elephants, the increase in illegal trade in ivory and the fact that the legal sales have failed to reduce illegal trade.

“EIA remains deeply concerned that any more ‘legal’ sales – or discussion of ‘legal’ sales – of ivory will further stimulate the ivory market, supporting the perception that international trade has resumed and increasing demand for illegal ivory,” Rice said this week.

“In addition, the availability of ivory from both legal and illegal sources further challenges law enforcement agencies in their efforts to tackle the criminal networks behind the trade,” she said.

From 1996 through 2004, the African elephant was listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. In 2004, after the ivory trade ban had been in place for 14 years, the IUCN listing was upgraded to Vulnerable.

Rice says that in the 20 years the EIA has been probing the illicit ivory trade their investigators have found that any legal trade in ivory sends mixed messages which confuse consumers and provides an opportunity to launder black market ivory onto the market.

“The consultants behind this report are seeking to put in place a mechanism for decision-making without providing or discussing vital information such as the ecological sustainability of an international ivory trade, the impact of such a trade on illegal killing, enforcement challenges and linkages between legal and illegal trade,” said Rice.

Four of the five authors of the report are veteran African elephant scientists. They are long-time colleagues experienced in elephant monitoring and statistical studies with many publications to their credit. The fifth operates a taxidermy business serving trophy hunters in southern Africa.

The authors are:

Rowan B. Martin, an ecologist and wildlife management specialist in Zimbabwe; who has consulted for CITES on elephant management since the 1980s.

David H.M. Cumming, an ecologist and conservationist in southern Africa since the early 1960s. He is an honorary professor at the University of Cape Town, a research associate at the University of Zimbabwe, a freelance consultant, and advisor to the AHEAD-GLTFCA initiative.

The husband and wife team of G. Colin Craig and Debbie St.C. Gibson of Namibia are co-authors.

Craig is an elephant population scientist specializing in the African Elephant Database. He is a former head of research with the Namibia Ministry of Environment and Tourism, co-author of “Biodiversity and Development in Namibia: a 10 year strategic plan of action for sustainable development through biodiversity conservation: 2001-2010.”

Gibson and Craig have co-authored books and studies on African elephants, served together as members of the African Elephant Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, and worked together on the Southern African Elephant Monitoring Project, ELESMAP, which produced standardized and coordinated surveys starting in 1995.

The close and long-standing relationship among these four authors was described by Katy Payne in her 1998 book “Silent Thunder: in the Presence of Elephants” in a chapter on an elephant-collaring expedition in Zimbabwe’s Sengwa Wildlife Research Area.

“The … Martins, Debbie and Colin have spent years together in Sengwa with each other and with the institute’s First Family, Dave and Meg Cumming,” wrote Payne. “Rowan, a bagpiper trained by the queen’s own piper during his college years in England, used to attract elephants by playing his bagpipe….”

The fifth author, Debbie A. Peake of the Botswana Wildlife Management Association, runs Mochaba Developments, a taxidermy business in Botswana.

Emphasizing that the proposed system is “no more than a starting point for negotiation” amongst the elephant range states and ivory importing states, the authors propose the establishment of a Central Ivory Selling Organisation (CISO).

“We have drawn on some of the lessons learned from examining the practices of De Beers in their conduct of the diamond trade which was highly successful for over 100 years,” they wrote.

“We are not proposing a monopoly in the sense that De Beers was,” they authors wrote. “The new institution would effectively be owned by the stakeholders and be accountable to the Conference of the Parties to CITES.”

“Whereas De Beers’ sole aim was to maximise the income from diamonds, the CISO would have multiple objectives,” the authors explained, “to obtain the best possible returns for the primary stakeholders, to gain control of the currently illegal market and, ultimately, to reduce illegal killing of elephants.”

Clarifying their position, the authors emphasize “that it would not be the aim of the CISO to promote the killing of elephants for trade in ivory.”

“We are unaware of any national policy or elephant management plan that has ever advocated the use of elephants for this purpose. However, the de facto management situation in many range states is that elephants are being exploited (illegally) for their ivory,” they write.

In 1990 the African elephant was placed on CITES’ Appendix One, which forbids international trade between member countries, resulting in a worldwide ivory trade ban.

But in 1999 and also in 2008 CITES allowed legal sales of government ivory stockpiles, acquired from elephants that died of natural causes, problem animals and ivory confiscated from poachers. Namibia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana sold a total of about 116 tonnes of ivory to China and Japan.

Conservationists have long argued that permitting legal ivory sales masks illegal sales and encourages poaching. Now it appears the world is again experiencing an elephant poaching crisis.

Proponents have argued that the sales would yield conservation funding and the low prices would diminish demand for high-priced illegal ivory. That is the position the authors take in their report.

“Elephant populations will inevitably produce ivory through natural mortality and a range of management practices such as problem animal control, culling and trophy hunting. It seems entirely beneficial for conservation (including higher-valued land use) that the value of this ivory should be re-invested in the areas where it originated,” they write. “The aim of the CISO would be to secure this value for the producers of ivory.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.

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