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#InOurHands: Stopping the Ivory Trade to Save Elephants

By Danielle Fest Grabiel, Senior Policy Analyst

Today is World Wildlife Day, a time to celebrate as well as critically evaluate how well we are addressing the most pressing threats to wildlife, in particular wildlife trafficking. EIA has been working to put an end to the illegal trade in wildlife for more than 25 years, and among our top priorities is ending the blood ivory trade. EIA has completed more investigations into the ivory trade than any other organization. Our findings have shown again and again that legal ivory trade is not compatible with elephant conservation.

At the dawn of the 20th Century, it is estimated that 1.3 million elephants roamed the African savannah. By the late 1980s, nearly half of these magnificent creatures had been wiped out to supply the then-legal international ivory trade. In response to this first global elephant poaching crisis, the first-ever ivory import ban was implemented by the United States.

The U.S. ban on ivory imports was crucial in cutting off a major ivory market. It prompted similar policies from other major ivory consuming nations and provided the impetus for a total international trade ban, which was agreed on in 1989. The global ban worked. The world’s major ivory markets were shut down, the price of and trade in ivory dropped, the illegal killing of elephants declined, and many elephant populations began to stabilize and rebound.

The international ban on commercial elephant ivory trade worked because it sent a simple, clear, and public message to the ivory consumers of the world: buying ivory leads to the slaughter of elephants and it would no longer be tolerated. It worked because it made enforcement straightforward. Trading ivory across borders was illegal. The markets responded, demand plummeted, and domestic trade collapsed.

We are facing another global poaching crisis because the international ivory trade ban has been undermined. When the countries of the world agreed in 1999 and 2008 to allow “one-off” exceptions to the ban – to permit the sale of ivory to Japan and China – a dying industry was resuscitated. Consumers, particularly increasingly wealthy middle-class Chinese consumers, once again believed it was okay to buy ivory.

Proponents of the “one-off” sales theorized that the sales would meet the demand in China and Japan, flood the domestic markets, and reduce ivory prices as well as the demand for ivory goods. Instead, the sales helped to stimulate the market demand, confuse consumers, and provide an avenue to launder illicit ivory from Africa through poorly regulated legal domestic ivory markets.

For example, in Japan it’s legal to trade in ivory acquired in one of the two “one-off” international sales and in old “pre-ban” ivory, yet the documentation required to prove an ivory tusk’s origin is essentially nonexistent. Loopholes permitting illegal ivory to easily enter the legal domestic market are pervasive.

Consumers assume anything for sale openly is of legal origin, which is problematic when the system is not robust enough to ensure it is. This is further complicated by the fact that the overwhelming majority of Japan’s ivory imports before the 1989 CITES ban on international trade in ivory derived from poached elephants.

“Legal” domestic markets, ineffectual enforcement, and corruption remain the primary drivers of the sharp rise in elephant and rhino poaching in Africa today. For the 37 African elephant range states, the loss of these majestic animals is both a national tragedy and a dangerously destabilizing impact as the ivory profits are funneled into criminal and terrorist networks.

Fortunately, leading consumer nations are beginning to take action to shut their ivory markets down. In October 2015, the United States and China made a joint commitment to “take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory,” and we await the realization of those commitments. Following suit last month, Hong Kong announced that it would commit to phasing out their own domestic market, while stepping up enforcement.

African nations are calling for markets to be shut down: in 2015, under the Cotonou Declaration, 22 African nations agreed to “enact, implement and enforce legislation prohibiting domestic ivory trade and support all proposals and actions at international and national levels to close domestic ivory markets worldwide.”

Unfortunately, other key consumer nations, like Japan, have yet to step up and close down their markets. While Japan’s legal domestic ivory trade may have been given international approval twice, in fact its ivory controls have never worked and illegal ivory continues to make its way onto the market. If Japan moves to close its ivory market down, it would send a clear signal to the world that there is no place for the ivory trade. The fact is, it’s not possible to control the trade in ivory – there will always be loopholes to exploit.

Though Africa’s elephants still face dire threat, it is clear that many nations are taking action to avert such a senseless tragedy; however, if any major market is allowed to persist, it will continue to undermine international efforts at protecting African elephants. EIA urges every nation, particularly those with large consumer markets, to publicly commit to close down their domestic ivory trade to ensure that future generations can continue to glimpse an elephant in the wild.

To save elephants and protect their future, the most important thing we can do is close down all ivory trade permanently.

For a brief overview on the importance of closing domestic ivory markets, click here.

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