Ivory trade

David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation’s (DSWF) position on the international and domestic trade of ivory.

Every year, tens of thousands of elephants are slaughtered for their ivory at a brutal and unsustainable rate driving the species towards extinction. In 2017, the Great African Elephant Census revealed huge declines in savanna elephant populations with an estimated 144,000 elephants killed across 15 African countries between 2007-2014 alone.

Criminal syndicates and ivory dealers employ armed poachers to brutally kill and remove their tusks before feeding them into the illegal market, driven by a growing and insatiable demand from consumer countries.

Fuelled by the subsequent down-listing of national African populations to (CITES) Appendix II, corruption, poor law enforcement and legal loopholes, alongside the failure of ‘one-off experimental’ ivory stockpile sales in 1999 and 2008 to Asian markets, the poaching epidemic continues at an alarming and unsustainable rate.

DSWF acknowledges the artistic and cultural merit of ivory, but we firmly believe that elephants are sentient beings and not a commodity to be traded to the highest bidder, something that markets, consumers and governments should reflect.

DSWF actively campaigns and works to support:

  • A total ban on the international trade in ivory
  • The closure of all domestic ivory markets
  • An improvement in the management of ivory stockpiles and the endorsement of their destruction.
  • An end to the export of live elephants taken from the wild
  • Ending any future discussions on all possible ivory trade

Current trade agreements and national listings are politically, not biologically driven and afford irregular and inconsistent protection across the continental species as a whole.

In an attempt to curb the escalating threats, DSWF believes that the only solution to mitigate the crisis is a comprehensive ban on the ivory trade across all populations. When it is illegal to trade ivory, the issue is purely one of law enforcement and not influenced by social, political, and economic aspiration.

The increasing scale and regularity of recent illegal ivory seizures from poached elephants has resulted in burgeoning domestic markets driven by voracious demand.

DSWF believes that a legal trade produces opportunities to launder poached ivory and creates a drain on the already limited enforcement resources.

Do legal markets contribute to the illegal trade of ivory and put elephant populations at risk?

Domestic ivory markets allow the laundering of poached ivory and the falsification of documents and certification under the guise of ‘Antique’ or ‘Pre-convention’ ivory legally acquired.

By convoluting a system that is already hard to monitor, measure and enforce, elephant populations will be put at risk unnecessarily.

When it is illegal to trade in a product both at an international and national level the issue is simply one of enforcement only, when a legal market exists the issues become, political, legal, social, economic and structural with greater room for laundering and error.

As a result, DSWF believes that conditional trade cannot be sufficiently regulated, and that conditional trade is unmanageable, unenforceable and simply unacceptable.

Could a legal market sustain demand?

In economic terms, limiting the supply of ivory can drive prices up and incentivise elephant poaching as a more desirable and harder to obtain product, thus increasing its value and appeal.

However, DSWF believes that any supported and encouraged legal trade, whether mass market or a more limited, controlled and higher value supply in ivory will equally accelerate demand, opening up markets to new consumers who couldn’t previously afford it.

This was highlighted in 2008 when CITES approved a second ‘one-off sale’ of raw ivory stockpiles to Asia with the intention of satisfying demand and reducing pressure on wild populations.

This sparked demand and fuelled a dramatic and deadly explosion in poaching and the illegal wildlife trade.

Although market dynamics are unclear, DSWF believes that where a legal trade exists a black market illegal trade will flourish and exacerbate poaching and the strains put on wild populations.

What are the impacts of the recent closures of domestic markets?

The recent closure of domestic markets by countries such as the USA, China, the UK and the announcement by Hong Kong that it will follow suit are setting a world-changing precedent about the real and notable value of wildlife in their healthy, natural and wild state and the important role countries are playing as protectionist enforcers.

These landslide decisions and closures have been driven by growing public and international pressure, spearheaded by African elephant range states who are at the heart of the fight against poaching.   

By banning domestic trade countries and governments are sending a clear message that illegal wildlife trade will not be tolerated, and recognition is finally being given to the contributing factor that domestic legal markets play in exacerbating the issues.

Is the politicisation of elephants at both a national and international level distracting from the real issues at hand – species extinction?

Current trade agreements and national listings are politically, not biologically driven and afford irregular and inconsistent protection across the continental species as a whole.  

As a migratory species, elephants should endure consistent legal protection across range states.  As sentient beings not grounded and restricted by geographical borders why should an elephant face hunting threats in Namibia, for example, where it wanders in the morning but face protection and sanctuary in Angola where it treads that same afternoon? 

Despite recognition for the cross-border migratory routes and behaviours, international treaties which aim to protect species and control the international trade in endangered species fail to recognise this by maintaining the fallacy of split-listing criteria for elephants across Africa.

Protectionist treaties and laws that aim to safeguard trans-boundary population should be at the forefront of government’s minds without being clouded by political and commercial distractions over ownership and belonging.

Are elephants on a doomed path to extinction due to the illegal trade?

African elephant populations are at threat and are being poached at unsustainable high levels across Africa. Despite this, fantastic efforts are being undertaken by dedicated conservationists around the globe to help save the species. 

From demand reduction campaigns being run in Asia aimed at changing consumer behaviour to public and stakeholder engagement in government consultations regarding the closure of domestic markets, change is underway and with growing reactions to ivory markets and the purchasing of ivory products we are ensuring the long term future for elephants.

What will the newly announced UK ivory ban look like?

Unbeknown to most, it is still legal to buy and sell antique ivory with the correct CITES certification within the UK, making it the largest ‘legal’ exporter of ivory in the world.

However, a welcome statement in April 2018 by Environment Secretary, The Rt Hon Michael Gove, announced the UK’s intention to ban the commercial trade in ivory with several exemptions.

Although DSWF acknowledges the ban is a huge step forward, we must be mindful of the short-term ramifications and oversights of the proposed ban. The exemptions proposed by DEFRA still leave room for legal loopholes and should be kept to the absolute minimum.

There must now be an impetus on all international governments to ban the domestic trade of ivory in a co-ordinated manner to ensure we avoid an ivory exodus to countries where legal markets still remain open in order to offload ivory before the ban is implemented.

DSWF welcomes further news regarding developments on timelines and the implementation process by the UK Government. The trade exemptions proposed are as follows:

  • De minimis: Pre – 1975 (Sic) items containing 10% or less of ivory
  • Musical instruments – Pre 1975 (Sic) containing 20% or less of ivory
  • Portrait miniatures painted on ivory which are older than 100 years
  • The rarest and vulnerable cultural and historic articles assessed by an independent accredited expert
  • Purchases by accredited museums

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