Global Ivory Trade: The Elephant Outside the Room

In 1989, when it was almost too late, conservationists were able to push an agreement to ban international ivory trade outright. It is the only possible solution and I will not stop until it is achieved again.

Suffice to say the International Fund for Animal Welfare delegation were shocked on Wednesday when non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were booted out of the room at the beginning of a discussion on elephant conservation at a Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

CITES is often lauded as one of the world’s most effective multilateral environmental agreements, it’s a real conservation treaty, with active participation from many nations and NGOs from around the world.

The move to exclude NGOs was clearly orchestrated by pro-ivory trade nations for whom secrecy is an ally.

NGO staff waiting to be “readmitted” to the closed Standing Committee discussion on an agenda item on elephants. - Photo source: IISD Reporting Services

Although I and our team were left steaming in the hallway, we didn’t sit on our heels! Using twitter and the media, combined with some friendly diplomatic action, we wound up being let back into the room a few hours later, but not before some very important discussions had already ended.

For example, NGOs were excluded from a discussion on the dire state of the Chinese ivory market and its direct correlation to the poaching of elephants in Africa. I personally was particularly upset that NGO experts were excluded from this discussion even though many had recently investigated and had relevant statistics to offer on the situation.

The incident is certainly a black mark on a treaty that is known for its transparency -- and elephants could be the ones who pay the price.

I’m not usually one to drone on about convention procedure, but there are some interesting elements in this particular timeline that make it clear who sat in what camp:

Here’s my analysis of how it went down:

  • Under Standing Committee rules, a Committee member can ask for the proceedings to be closed to all but the Committee and Party observers.
  • Kuwait (apparently asked by those Asian countries most interested in continuing the ivory trade, but not consulting with more conservation minded countries in their region) moved to close the session on most of the agenda items relating to elephants. This was supported by Botswana.
  • The United Kingdom and Kenya strongly opposed the motion, saying that closing the session would seriously damage the Standing Committee and CITES.
  • The Chair moved to a roll call vote, which resulted in seven votes for closing the session, six votes for an open session, and three abstentions.
  • The Chair asked all non-governmental organizations and intergovernmental organizations to leave the room.

The UK, on behalf of the EU, tried to stop the closure of the meeting. Once it was closed, the USA asked that all the proceedings be recorded and made public.

The head of the US delegation said the move cast doubt on the credibility of CITES, and that the NGOs were probably outside taking this to the media right now. Of course, he was completely correct.

Norway was approached and told that they had just violated their commitments under the Aarthus Convention, which is about transparency, openness, the participation of civil society and justice in environmental decision-making.

Though the Chair (also from Norway) waited until after the first agenda item was complete, he finally called on his countrywoman to explain her vote. She said her vote was “wrong” and moved to reopen the meeting. With Norway flipped, the vote came out on our side, and we were pleasantly ushered back in.

Perhaps most importantly, citizens of the countries that voted for secrecy should be wondering why their governments want to hide their positions on elephant conservation and ivory trade.

There is an indisputable link between legal one-off ivory sales and illegal ivory trade: The experiment was tried and it failed.  As long as markets for ivory continue to exist, elephants will be killed for their tusks. Anyone arguing in favour of trade is simply distracting attention from this fact.

I saw the massacres of the 1980s when 100.000 elephants were slaughtered each year to feed international ivory markets. In 1989, when it was almost too late, conservationists were able to push an agreement to ban international ivory trade outright. It is the only possible solution and I will not stop until it is achieved again.

NGOs like IFAW work wherever elephants are found in a global effort to save them from poaching and habitat loss. Specifically, IFAW knows the threats elephants face; our teams work with range states, their authorities and local people to end those threats, of which the killing of elephants for their ivory is one of the most frightening.

That all said, I’m afraid there may not be a bigger threat to elephants right now than secret, closed-door treaty meetings between countries that are placing national interest above the need to preserve and rebuild the planet’s biodiversity.

As annoying as it was at the time, however, the whole incident may have helped our efforts to protect elephants.  It gave us the hook we needed to get the ivory trade issue in front of the media and reported to the public, something rarely provided by this regular - and regularly pretty dull – technical meeting.  Our respectful fight goes on.

-- Peter Pueschel

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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
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