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Will horse-trading at CITES threaten elephants' survival?

Our objectives for being here at CITES do not allow much time for giving comprehensive updates, nor for relaxation, for that matter. This is partly why we have given some links to other sources for CoP15 updates and related information here, and why we continue to update this page with links to media coverage about ivory trade and poaching. Take the facts and reflections in this news piece as our "one and only" proper feedback about our perspective of CITES and the CoP15 "in action". I am well aware that many of you might find the below rather technical, but in trying to reach people with different level of insight this is how it has ended up...

Friday (yesterday) was a day off in terms of the official program, and gave us a chance to catch up with important e-mails and preparations for the days and activities to come. In the evening we participated in a strategy meeting and dinner with the Afrian Elephant Coalition (AEC). A few hours ago we went to the Official Delegates' Dinner hosted by Qatar's Ministry of Environment, but raced back to our hotel for some more time on the computer after a quick meal and a couple of important conversations.

Improved CITES work processes strongly needed

It's a fact that enormous effort and money go into lobbying CITES delegates. This mean that politics, horse-trading and "friendly favors" among nations sometimes overtake CITES mandate of "ensuring that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival." Admittedly, I don't have a good gut feeling based on how CoP15 voted against increased protection for the polar bear and the blue fin tuna.

CITES member states rely heavily on the Panel of Experts (PoE), selected by the Secretariat. Their reports on Tanzania's and Zambia's proposals for sale and downlisting (available here) were distributed, without peer review, only a few days before CoP15. They contain conclusions that we disagree with and some core facts that are wrong. We honor the hard work of the Panel, but we feel that elephants deserve a more open and less rushed process. Handing out such crucial documents a couple of days before the meeting takes place is simply unacceptable.

We have contested the Secretariat's conclusion that Zambia's and Tanzania's populations do not meet the biological criteria to remain on Appendix I in Statement from Save The Elephants & ElephantVoices regarding Tanzania's and Zambia's proposal distributed to CoP15 delegates on 18 March. The opinion piece in Science 12 March, Elephants, Ivory, and Trade, highlights the need for engagement of the wider scientific community in CITES decisions regarding the future of elephants.

We have spent most of today working hard to prepare a presentation that Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Sam Wasser and Joyce will give at CoP15 tomorrow, Sunday. It pinpoint some hard facts and figures about the ivory trade and Tanzania's and Zambia's evident role in it while also describing the long-term consequences of poaching on elephant populations. The presentation will, furthermore, document what we view as a clear relationship between CITES elephant petitions, one-off sales and illegal trade and poaching. We argue that it would be irresponsible to break the spirit of the nine year moratiorium or "resting period" on trade that was decided at CoP14.

The "bigger picture" - and welfare for the individual elephant

Qatar is one of the sunniest places on earth, but we have hardly been outside. From our hotel windows we can see huge buildings shooting up all around - what probably is the richest country in the world, considering their oil and gas reserves, is a quickly growing financial powerhouse. It admittedly feels kind of strange to discuss conservation and wildlife surrounded by overwhelming signs of trade, luxury and (over)consumption.

While CITES mainly is about the "bigger picture" and trends, we shouldn't forget the welfare of individuals. During the last couple of days we have been through slides showing numerous ivory seizures, with three huge ones from 2009 representing 17,000 dead elephants. We have seen photos from markets or shops in Nigeria, Congo, Angola, Mozambique and Egypt exhibiting ivory equal to hundreds of elephants. During the presentation tomorrow gruesome photos of elephants whose genitals have been cut off will be shown for the first time. We cannot even imagine the trauma for families whose members are amongst the 30,000+ elephants that are estimated to be killed each year.

The fight against the ivory trade is in any case not over

It is late Saturday evening - during Monday we most likely will know if CITES will follow the Precautionary Principle and give elephants a much needed benefit of the doubt. Even with a positive decision the struggle is far from over, better law enforcement is another vital factor in this trade. The world society and African governments will have to put a lot of effort into closing down ivory suppliers and outlets, while authorities in China, Japan and Thailand must control and close down smuggling routes and illegal carving facilities. To change attitudes among willing buyers in the market place, educating people that ivory means dead elephants, is just one of many challenges we face.

We hope to bring you good news on Monday - but don't want to raise any expectations what so ever.

Petter, in Doha

Section of GB family in Amboseli wait for their one-tusked matriarch, Grace, to catch up. (©ElephantVoices)