Fate of elephants hangs in balance at meeting of world nations

Monday, 2 October, 2006
Geneva, Switzerland
The fate of elephants will be decided this week at the 54th Standing Committee meeting of the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Geneva. The debate regarding elephants hinges on whether the Standing Committee will give its approval to a "one-off" sale of ivory stockpiles held by the governments of Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. Combined stockpiles amount to 60 metric tons of ivory, representing thousands of elephants. Conservationists with IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare – www.ifaw.org) are concerned that approval of this sale will add fuel to an already thriving black market in illegal ivory and ivory products, resulting in the deaths of more endangered African and Asian elephants.
The CITES treaty came into force in 1975 amid growing concern over the human impact of unregulated trade in endangered species. Since then, CITES has recognized most elephant populations as critically endangered, and has strict prohibitions on the international trade in ivory. Pro-trade nations have tried to weaken the Convention, and to reframe it as a tool to advance trade rather than to protect dwindling populations of wildlife from exploitation and extinction.

In 1997, and against vocal opposition by conservation groups, including IFAW, CITES allowed one-time exports of ivory from Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to interested countries (like Japan) subject to a number of conditions. The decision sent a message to poachers that it was once again open season on elephants. In the years following this decision, more than 64,000 kg of ivory, or 13,333 tusks were seized. In the last 12 months alone, officials have confiscated more than 17,576 kg (3,662) of ivory. Yet it is widely accepted that these numbers represent just the tip of the iceberg, as only little illegal ivory in trade is seized.

Peter Pueschel, Program Manager for IFAW, is concerned over what will happen if the ivory sale goes forward, saying that “while only certain elephant populations are recognized by the Convention as critically endangered, poachers do not make this distinction. And because some range countries have been successful in protecting their elephant populations, these healthy populations serve as a magnet for poachers. Few elephant range states possess the capacity to patrol the ranges or, just as critically, police the import and export of illegal ivory.”

With the sale of ivory products already pervasive on the Internet, as highlighted in a 2005 IFAW report titled Caught in the Web: Wildlife Trade on the Internet, dealers in black market goods are free to conduct business without any threat of consequences so that even the slightest release of ivory serves to stimulate demand in raw ivory and ivory souvenirs.

Also at issue at the meeting is whether Japan, who is under consideration as a prospective importing country for the stockpiles from southern Africa, has met the minimum requirements for regulating ivory trade. Japan is a key destination for illegal ivory trade, indicating that the country lacks the enforcement capacity required under CITES.

“The previous one-off sale of ivory to Japan has spun the ivory markets in Asia out of control.” said Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia Regional Director for IFAW. “With over 17 tons of ivory under investigation, all of which was confiscated in Asian ports in the past year, it is ludicrous to even contemplate allowing another sale to any country”.

IFAW believes that a strict ban on trade in ivory is the only way to protect elephants. A majority of elephant range states also support this position. In August 2006, delegates from 19 African elephant range states at the Elephant Conservation Symposium in Accra, Ghana signed the Accra Declaration calling for a total ban on trade in ivory and related products.

The Standing Committee meets annually, and as a permanent committee of CITES, provides policy guidance to the Secretariat concerning implementation of the Convention. The next meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP) will take place in June 2007 in The Hague.

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