This week the Standing Committee of CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife and Flora) meets in Geneva. Among other things, the Standing Committee will consider adopting recommendations and directives to address the illegal trade of ivory and poaching of elephants.
Almost every day I read(1) about elephants being killed throughout Africa and Asia, not only, but primarily, for their ivory tusks. Poaching is perhaps the most pressing, but not the only threat to the survival of elephants as a species, and there is “mounting evidence” that ivory is now the primary reason elephants are poached in Africa. (2)
How bad does this look for the survival of elephants as a species? According to CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife and Flora), between 2002 and 2006, 4 out of every 10 dead elephants were killed by poachers. (3) Appalling! Even more shocking and almost incomprehensible: CITES now says that 8 of every 10 dead elephants are killed by poachers.(3) Clearly this is a crisis situation that demands immediate action.
Africa’s elephant population is down from approximately 1.2 millions in the 1970s, to less than half that number. Numbers are approximate, and vary dramatically depending on who is providing them, but there is no disagreement that the threat is dramatic and real. Asian elephants have far less habitat and face a myriad of threats to their survival, poaching for ivory among them.
As someone who cares deeply about the survival of endangered species, elephants have a special place in my heart. Aside from all of their important contributions to the ecosystem, suffice it to say that I see a world without elephants as a very sad – and very real - possibility
Given the upcoming meeting of the Standing Committee, I have thought more about this problem, which has led me to ask: What is so special about ivory, that drives humans to kill our largest land mammal, on two continents, in order to satisfy what seems to be a growing and insatiable demand for it?
There are many reasons, experts say, but ivory is used in China, as well as other countries, for jewelry, carvings, other art, as well as for billiard balls and ivory piano keys. Ivory is a traditional symbol of wealth and status. As those who have these values have become wealthier, there has been a desire to display their status.
China, with approval from CITES, allows “old ivory” (ivory sold before the international trade of it was banned by CITES in 1989) to be sold by manufacturers accredited by the China’s State Forestry Administration. If the sale of anything other than old ivory is illegal, how is so much of it acquired? Most of it sold on the black market.(4) A lot of it is sold by registered manufacturers exploiting and circumventing the registration system.
According to a report and survey by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in 2006(4), and other news reports, problems with the legal sale of ivory in China include: “accredited retailers with illegal carving factory, registered manufacturers selling ivory overseas, illegal manufacturer registered as legal one, certificates used only for government inspection, unregistered ivory products made of registered raw ivory, registered manufacturers selling ivory products to illegal dealers.”
"Investigations reveal that antique market, arts & crafts store, gift shop at 4/5-star hotel, crafts trade fair and auction are the main illegal ivory trading channels. Similarly, illegal ivory trade was also found at on line auction, e-commerce websites and collection sites. The illegal ivory products in the black market are traded in a variety of ways, from door to door sales to filling orders by customers, some of whom are from overseas."
The IFAW report and survey, though six years old, is comprehensive about the question of “why ivory” and answers many questions. I hope it will be updated. This report is depressing, but also has a number of recommendations, which if implemented might help. I hope that educating not only the Chinese dealers on the difference between legal and illegal ivory will make a difference, but more importantly, that educating the Chinese public will convince them that the price in elephants’ lives is too high a price to pay for the pleasure or status of owning ivory.
How high a price? According to a September 20, 2011 piece in the Wall Street Journal (5), ivory pieces in China have been going for as much as US$7,000/kg, up from US$157/kg in 2008 according to one source. Other sources put the numbers lower, but it really doesn’t matter. The point is that serious money is being made through the illegal ivory trade, that is has its own currency, and that the increase in demand and black market price in just over three years is startling and not good news for elephants.
CITES banned the sale of ivory in 1989. It seems that this ban resulted in some success. In 2008, CITES approved a “one-off” sale of over 100 tons of ivory (either seized from poachers or taken from elephants that had died) from 4 African countries to China and Japan. There were a number of good reasons for the legal sale of ivory, as well as reasons why it is not such a good idea. (6) It was a controversial move, and undoubtedly well-intentioned. Whether it contributed to the increase in the demand for ivory or not, it didn’t help as demand has increased dramatically since then.
Based on articles I have been seeing, especially recently, on seizures of ivory shipments from Bangkok and Dubai, among others places, there are many efforts underway to stop poachers to combat the problem. It seems that these efforts are having some degree of success. In addition, taking the opposite approach from the one-off sale idea, Gabon recently burned its stockpile of ivory (collected from seized ivory and tusks from dead elephants).
Many competent and well intentioned non-profit organizations, as well as African and Asian nations, are working on protecting elephants from poaching, and the U.S. Government is helping some of these efforts. It is a member of INTERPOL and a signatory to CITES and has investigators and law enforcement officials working on the problem at USFWS. In the U.S., CITES is implemented through the Endangered Species Act of 1973. In May 2012, Senator John Kerry held a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May on the ivory trade, and the Department of State and Congress, I have been told, are actively working on the issue on the diplomatic side.
Last week the focus on illegal ivory sale turned to New York City. New York? How can that be? The Manhattan District Attorney brought a case against two Manhattan jewelers who were selling elephant ivory in plain sight. One forfeited more than US$2,000,000 in ivory items and will pay a fine of US$45,000; the other forfeited US$120,000 in ivory and will pay a fine of US$10,000 in fines. The fines will be donated to the Wildlife Conservation Society. It’s fortunate that these jewelers were caught, however they were apprehended not by a sting operation but as a result of an observation of an off-duty U.S. Fish & Wildlife officer. In any case, I doubt the fines are sufficient to deter ivory sales in the U.S. or elsewhere.
The World Wildlife Fund, which together with IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) operates TRAFFIC, the largest wildlife trafficking monitoring organization, went so far as to criticize U.S. efforts to crack down on ivory sales, saying its effort lag behind those of, well even China. WWF did not criticize the work of USFWS, but made it clear that it does not believe USFWS has resources to combat in a major way the ivory trade in the U.S.(7) If the U.S. can’t fight the poachers in the U.S., which makes up only a small part of the ivory demand, what can we expect from other countries?
What is to be done about this problem? What can all of these well-intentioned (and in some cases, well-funded) organizations, African and Asian governments, the U.S. government and the United Nations do to stop elephants from being slaughtered in the face of an insatiable demand for ivory and a criminal network for distribution?
I am not an expert and do not presume to know more about the illegal wildlife trade than those who have been fighting this problem for years. But I will go so far as to make a few suggestions:
1. CITES: Do not approve the sale of any more ivory stockpiles.
2. African nations: Follow the lead of Gabon and burn your ivory stockpiles. I know you need money, but there must be better ways to raise funds.
3. NGOs, US Government, UN, China: Focus more attention and devote more resources on the demand for ivory where it would have the biggest impact: China. It is 2012 and not that difficult to disseminate information in China if the government is willing to do so! Educate the Chinese population so that the public is painfully aware that ivory comes from elephant tusks, and that elephants are killed for their tusks. I don’t believe the Chinese would enjoy ivory as much as they do now if they were to see pictures of dead elephants on billboards with messages telling them not to buy ivory (just an example).
4. Law enforcement: Nations must strengthen the laws against poaching and illegal trafficking of wildlife and ivory and ENFORCE them. There was an impressive seizure of ivory at Bangkok's main airport just last week, which resulted from cooperation among law enforcement agencies. Much more needs to be done! (I saw ivory items for sale in plain sight in Bangkok as recently as November 2011.) But here in the U.S. we must be careful not to point fingers: A $45,000 fine to one jeweler for selling illegal ivory in New York City is a step in the right direction, but cannot be viewed as a major deterrent.
5. People: Don’t buy ivory! Whether it's jewelry or art, if you see it on eBay or other auction sites (eBay has restricted but not completely banned the purchase and sale of ivory from its site (8)) or elsewhere, don't buy it. It’s not harmless! If you’re on vacation and see a beautiful ivory carving or necklace, don’t buy it - call the police! It is almost certainly illegal.
There is a lot of work to be done, and the stakes are high.
The views expressed here are entirely my own and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person or organization.
(1) A project of Save the Elephants, the Elephant News Service run by Melissa Groo disseminates news reports about Asian and African elephants through a free list serve almost daily.
(2) News Release, Experts Report Highest Elephant Poaching and Ivory Smuggling Rates in a Decade TRAFFIC Website (June 21, 2012).
(3) Press Release, Da Vance Announces Guilty Pleas of Dealers for Selling Illegal Elephant Ivory (July 12, 2012).
(4) International Fund for Animal Welfare, Ivory Market in China - China Ivory Trade Survey Report (June 2006).
(5) Alexandra Wexler, China Demand Revives Ivory Trade Wall Street Journal (September 20, 2011).
(6) Richard Ruggiero, A Bellwether Species, Wildlife Society News (June 8, 2012).
(7) Miguel Llanos, US Tough on Saving Elephants from Slaughter? Hardly, say WWF NBC News Website (July 17, 2012).
(8) eBay's Policy on the Sale of Wildlife and Animal Products (posted on eBay’s website as of July 23, 2012).