A call to end the ivory trade, led by Africa

A herd of African elephants in Kenya in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro.

A herd of African elephants in Kenya in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro. (© Ian Lenehan/500px)

The international community on Sunday voted to recommend the closure of domestic ivory markets worldwide, following a growing coalition of 14 African nations united against the ivory trade.

Members of the African-led group, known as the Elephant Protection Initiative (EPI), have each committed to halt their domestic trades in ivory, to put their stockpiles beyond economic use and to forego future international sales for at least a decade. Launched in 2014, the initiative includes some of the countries hardest hit by the poaching and illegal trade of ivory plus allied nations from across the continent. Since then, the United States, China, Hong Kong and France have announced their intention to enact similar bans.

On Sunday, the international community followed with a resolution of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the global treaty organization responsible for wildlife trade.

Though not legally binding on member states, the high-level statement nevertheless represents a strong stand for the 182-nation multilateral body. Building on a similar resolution at last month’s World Conservation Congress, the vote underlines a growing global consensus that trade in ivory must cease in order for elephant populations to survive.

African elephants in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.

African elephants in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. (© Jon McCormack)

Conservation International (CI) and Stop Ivory are currently serving as Secretariat to the African-led EPI.

“This is an African stand for African elephants,” said Keith Roberts, CI executive director for wildlife trafficking. “Legal domestic markets make it extremely challenging to monitor and enforce law against wildlife crime. The voluntary closure of these markets highlights that countries the world over recognize that we are facing an elephant poaching crisis and are taking a stand to support enforcement actions through the closure of loopholes.”

“The Elephant Protection Initiative is an African coalition implementing coordinated African solutions to a common threat: the destruction of elephants,” said John Stephenson, CEO of Stop Ivory. “Legal markets provide the cover for the illegal trade in ivory, and their closure everywhere will be a significant contribution to ensuring that the African elephant remains for future generations.”

An African elephant roams the savanna of Tanzania.

An African elephant roams the savanna of Tanzania. (© Conservation International/photo by Russell A. Mittermeier)

The question of regulated trade has been debated since the international community banned cross-border trade of ivory in 1989. Since then, four countries have been exempted from the most stringent restrictions, and additional countries have been approved for one-time, regulated sales to fund elephant conservation initiatives.

Though elephant populations have declined sharply in eastern, western and central Africa, the trend has been less clear in southern Africa, with some country populations even increasing in recent years. This uneven impact has made it difficult to reach international consensus on how to handle a global trade that does not distinguish by country of origin.

Recent research suggests that legal trade may have unintended consequences beyond the borders of a single country, resulting in corrupt registration schemes, stimulated market demand and an overall increase in elephant killings. New biological evidence further argues that elephant populations are too depleted to support even a well-regulated ivory trade.


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Illegal wildlife trade is worth billions of dollars annually and is part of a direct connection between international conservation and global economic and national security interests. And the question of trade is just one component of the complex development challenge inherent in African elephant conservation.

“In reality, there is no such thing as a sustainable trade in ivory,” said Roberts. “There are too many loopholes in the regulatory and control framework that can be exploited. We have seen this happen, and it can happen again.”

Jamey Anderson is a senior writer for Conservation International.

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  1. Susie Silook says

    While I understand and support the movement to protect the elephants, the lack of clarity between walrus ivory and elephant ivory is damaging a truly sustainable walrus ivory market derived from the inedible portions of food sources for Inuit people in the circumpolar region. In our world, oftentimes the only resource is from our food sources, and the animals are not endangered. In fact, sea mammal populations in our part of the world have recovered from the devastation wrought from commercial European hunting in the 1800s. The fact that the walrus have now, by some estimates, achieved capacity, recovering completely from the slaughter for oil and ivory, is proof that the Inuit, who’ve continued to harvest walruses for food sources during the recovery period, are in fact already conserving the sea mammals we depend on for food and income. There are villages with a 75% unemployment rate, where poverty is already present, and this careless all inclusive move to destroy all ivory markets through behavioral change sciences, mass emotive emailing, and erasure of our issue when it arises, is unconscionable. We are not imperiling the elephant at all, but the current over reach of this movement is putting us into peril. Human beings first.

    1. Ann Hughes Devereaux says

      Not sure if millions of people would agree with your statement, it’s not to do with us puttin us first! It’s about money greed and cruelty. And the unnescary destruction of species. We can coexist.

  2. D. Roy Mitchell IV says

    We certainly should ban trade in elephant ivory to save the elephants! We also should *not* interfere with the traditional and sustainable harvest of walrus by Alaska Natives and other northern indigenous peoples, for whom artwork and handcraft of walrus ivory (and fossil mammoth ivory from the Pleistocene) has been an important part of their livelihood for over a century. Ban trade in *elephant* ivory, not *all* ivory, please!

  3. John Craney says

    To stop animal trading the death penalty must be used. Fines are a joke. Jail time is a joke.
    I contribute monies monthly for years and years but that does not stop the poachers. Death will!!!
    They will never do it again…. case solved.

  4. Robert M. Deems says

    I Happen to AGREE with the Inuit Responders. Banning the Trade in Walrus Ivory is Counterproductive BUT Trade In “ALL OTHER” Ivory MUST Come with SEVERE Penalties for BOTH the Seller and the BUYER!

  5. Eva Thielk says

    I agree with John Craney. Leave the elephants AND walruses be and impose the death penalty. An eye for an eye. Humans are a cancer on the face of the earth. When we destroy the wildlife, we are destroying ourselves in the end but greedy, sociopathic behavior seems to always prevail. ANIMALS FIRST.

  6. Lisa Scharin says

    We absolutety MUST BAN the Ivory Trade-regardless of any “tradition” or “culture”. The walrus is also now struggling to survive in many areas due to pollution, climate change and human greed.
    We are WELL into the 21st century and humans have to adjust their habits and lifestyles so the health of ecosystems and our future is ensured.
    We no longer use whales for oil or slaves for help, all societies have to adjust and change in order to survive. The Inuit people can keep the ivory from walruses among themselves as family heirlooms. They can make other crafts to sell that do not involve the death of another living being!!!
    Elephants and TOO many other animals are in dire need of protection from humans and it is Unconscionable to allow ANY to go EXTINCT!!!

  7. Pingback: Our critical allies for elephants | Human Nature - Conservation International Blog

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