A landmark 1989 decision banned the international trade in elephant products, placing the African elephant alongside the highly endangered Asian elephant on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). For close to a decade following the ban, the African elephant retained its overall Appendix I status; poaching for ivory in most African elephant range states remained at relatively low levels and many populations began a slow recovery.

Controversial downlisting contributing toward current crisis

In 1997, however, the Convention voted to allow three African countries - Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe - to down-list their countries' elephant populations to Appendix II and permitted a one-time sale from existing legal raw ivory stocks. Then, in 2000, CITES voted to allow South Africa to down-list her elephant population to Appendix II. The resulting "split-listing" (Appendix I, banning trade, and Appendix II, allowing limited trade) and partial reopening of trade has been associated with the last few yeards renewed spike in the seizures of illegal ivory.

The big battle at CITES in March 2010

The 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties was held in Doha from 13-25 March 2010. ElephantVoices attended as part of the Kenya Elephant Forum team supporting the African Elephant Coalition. The day before the vote, ElephantVoices' Joyce Poole joined Iain Douglas-Hamilton and Sam Wasser to give a presentation on the illegal trade and its impact on elephant populations. Some 350 CITES participants squeezed into the meeting room with tens more having to be turned away at the door for lack of space. The presentation generated heated debate from the proponents of trade and many delegates commented that the data presented regarding the scale of the problem was an eye opener. It is probably fair to state that the presentation had a significant impact on what transpired the following day when the proposals from Tanzania and Zambia requesting down-listing from Appendix I to Appendix II and sale of their stockpiles were rejected.

The nine-year moratorium on trade (effective from November 2008) remains still in place though the Secretariat was reluctant to clarify whether the moratorium applies to all range states or only to those who traded in 2008. Our interpretation and that of the African Elephant Coalition is that there is a resting period on all stockpile sales until 2017. But the amibiguity caused by the Secretariat may lead to battles ahead. Whatever transpires, there will be no let up on poaching. Until the demand in Asia and elsewhere can be stemmed, poaching will have a life of its own. Several large seizures took place in the month following the meeting - and those confiscated are just the tip of the tusk of the illegal trade. 2011 was the worst year so far in terms of seizures, and the situation have worsened in 2012 and 2013.

Bangkok 2013 - careful steps forward but demand left in peace

The Sixteenth meeting of the Conference of Parties of CITES was held in Bangkok, Thailand, March 3-15, 2013. CITES entered its 40th year with many important issues to address, the decimation of African elephants among them. The worldwide concern for elephants was reflected in many of the opening presentations, which highlighted the mass poaching crisis, which is fueled by the international ivory trade. Presenters on the issue included the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, Achim Steiner, and the Secretary General of CITES, John Scanlon [1, 2]. Steiner recommended addressing cross-border crime syndicates, law enforcement, and supply chain issues related to the poaching crisis. Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, addressed attendees via video, emphasizing the threats to African elephants and rhinoceroses, and encouraged the parties to work together to address these critical issues [2, 3]. On March 4th, Iain Douglas-Hamilton of Save the Elephants, presented the documentary, “White Gold,” which highlighted the decades’ long battle against poaching in Tsavo, Kenya’s largest national park [4].

There were some positive outcomes of CoP16, including the African Elephant Action Plan, which was a plan of action to protect African elephants across 38 range states. Additional measures to protect elephants included an agreement to conduct DNA analysis on confiscated ivory in quantities greater than 500 kg, and to provide greater support to law enforcement. Also, Tanzania withdrew its proposal to sell their ivory stockpiles, reducing tensions with countries who oppose stockpile sales [1]. The potentially contentious discussion of whether there should be a trade in ivory, or the “Decision-Making Mechanism” for future trade in ivory, was delayed until the next meeting, in 2016. Thus, the ban in ivory trade remains in place [2,3]. However, some note that even the discussion of a future Decision-Making Mechanism risks driving up the demand for ivory, as it sends the message that ivory trade might eventually be legalized [5].

Another positive development was the commitment by the Cites Secretary-General to cooperate with the UN Office of Drugs & Crime regarding the close connections between elephant killing, illegal ivory smuggling, and national security implications. However, a proposal to take national security implications to the UN Security Council failed [1].

Despite its successes, CITES CoP16 failed to address an extremely important issue: demand. It is widely recognized that global demand for ivory is fueling the poaching crisis, yet CITES did nothing to hold accountable the three main ivory consumer states, China, Japan and Thailand, who have failed to address the illegal ivory trade in their countries for years [5].

ElephantVoices standpoint is that all elephants should be on Appendix I of CITES, and that commercial trade in ivory should not be allowed.