Bangkok, March 27, 2013
As the two-week CITES CoP16 (the 16th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) was winding up in Bangkok on March 14, tired delegates and NGO representatives headed back to their hotels, anxious to return home. At the same time, 89 elephants, among them 33 pregnant females and 13 calves were being slaughtered in Chad, reportedly by a group of Sudanese poachers. As with tens of thousand of elephants in the past two years alone, their ivory tusks were their death warrants.
Extensive media attention to the African Elephant Crisis before and during the CoP gave the impression that the elephants’ plight was the main topic in Bangkok. There was a call by a number of leading NGOs for a ban on the trade of all ivory and it seemed like the obvious solution. Yet, I was confused. Asian and African elephants were already listed on CITES Appendix I, so the international trade in elephants (including their tusks and other body parts) was already prohibited. What more could CITES do?
TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, presented a report entitled “Elephants in the Dust” available online, which states that at least 17,000 African elephants were killed in 2011. It made the case for a causal link between demand for ivory and the killing of elephants and confirmed that organized crime syndicates play a key role in elephant poachings and the ivory trade. The report named eight countries, China, Thailand (“demand states”), the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, (“transit states”) Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania (“range states”) as the major culprits in the crisis.
Moving on to other items on the Elephant Agenda, a proposal to require DNA testing for ivory seizures of 500 kilos or greater was adopted, as were amendments to an existing directive addressing the process for range states to request approval for one-off sales of ivory from state-owned stockpiles at future CoPs. The eight countries named in the TRAFFIC report were directed to submit national ivory action plans, detailing how they planned to curtail their roles in the ivory trade.
Requiring ivory action plans seemed liked a potentially major step in the right direction. Still, I could not help but wonder who would decide if the plans were any good? What would happen if a country were to fail to comply with its plan? In spite of these questions, I was encouraged that eight countries, singled out as they were, appeared to have accepted responsibility in the crisis facing African Elephants and pledged to take action to help stop the massacre from continuing.
Following the formal closing of the CoP on Thursday, March 14, 2013, the Standing Committee of CITES, in a meeting open to observers, reviewed a document prepared by the Secretariat entitled “National Ivory Actions Plans. ” Only two pages, it proposed that the Standing Committee adopt several recommendations to provide some structure for the plans. The United States proposed amending the recommendations to provide for the possibility of some unspecified “action” to be “considered” in the event a country did not submit a plan or failed to implement it. In the course of heated debate over the proposed amendments, China voiced its objection to being blamed for the killing of elephants, saying that it was the responsibility of the African countries to protect their elephants from poachers. The range states complained that without additional funding they would have a difficult time implementing their plans. Malaysia questioned why it should have to have an ivory action plan at all, since it just happened to be located in a place that smugglers found convenient for moving ivory shipments. Seemingly surprised and overwhelmed by the debate, the Standing Committee adopted it as presented without the U.S. amendments.
I was disappointed. It had seemed as though there had been some progress, and yet the countries at the heart of the problem were acting defensive. This was consistent with my conversations with some members of some of the delegations, but I considered those to be personal opinions and certainly not official positions. Under these circumstances, where after two weeks of meetings and enormous media attention the eight countries were still expressing these views, would the ivory action plans work, and if so, how long would they take to work? Had anything really happened in Bangkok that would help save elephants?
Pondering these questions and others, I thought about the 89 elephants killed in Chad. Trying to put aside the horror of the slaughter, it struck me that while expectations were great, CITES does not hold the key to stopping the African Elephant Crisis. It is a convention that regulates trade, and in doing so it has saved thousands of species from extinction. Elephants were already endangered before the current ivory crisis, which has doubled since 2007 and tripled since 1998 (when measured by ivory seizures). The international trade of ivory is in the same league as illegal drugs, arms, and human trafficking. Can CITES really be expected to put an end to something so profitable to organized criminal syndicates and those who collaborate with them?
The CoP took some action, and National Ivory Action Plans may be a step in the right direction. Better national laws, national and international law enforcement and cooperation, public pressure and diplomatic efforts will help, but will not end the demand for ivory. Military action should be taken where feasible -- and reportedly will be taken in response to the Chad massacre. As long as demand continues, no elephant with a tusk is safe. The only way to win the war to save elephants – and it is very much a war -- is to convince the people who desire ivory, and the governments who enable the ivory trade, that the lives of elephants are worth much more than ivory. Every effort must be made to do this, and we must hope it can be done before there are no more elephants left to save.