EU declines to completely ban ivory trade. Will elephants pay the price?

Looking ahead to the expiration of the ban on global ivory sales in 2017, Europe says it wants to preserve the loopholes.

Anjum Naveed/AP
Elephant 'Kaavan' takes a bath at Marghazar Zoo in Islamabad, Pakistan, June 2. The European Union has drawn criticism from animal rights activists for declining to issue a total ban on ivory.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta set fire to over $105 million worth of poached elephant tusks on April 30, demanding an end to international ivory sales. France headed the call that day, seizing on the symbolic moment to announce a complete ban on ivory trade on French soil.

The rest of Europe isn’t planning to follow suit in shuttering its domestic ivory markets, as the European Commission announced in a position paper released July 1. The European Commission said it would be open to initiatives that restrict domestic ivory trade, however. For example, it might close markets where there is evidence they had been used as a cover for illegal trade.

Also in the policy paper, which precedes the Convention on International Trade in International Species (CITES) conference in Johannesburg this September, Europe opposed labeling the elephant population of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe as a “species threatened with extinction,” an Annex I CITES listing, which would effectively outlaw international trade of ivory from all elephants across the continent. The elephant population in those countries is on the rise in recent years, so they're not eligible for the listing, according to the European Commission.

Andrew Seguya, the director of Uganda’s Wildlife Authority, says all African elephants should be considered a threatened migratory species.

An elephant that wakes up in the morning in Angola as ‘Appendix I’ could be in Namibia under ‘Appendix II’ by the same afternoon,” he said.

The African Elephant Coalition (AEC) – a coalition of 29 African states – is warning of a mass extinction on the continent within 25 years, unless all elephants are given an "Annex I" CITES listing, The Guardian reported.

The existing global embargo on ivory sales is coming under increased scrutiny since it’s due to expire in 2017. The European Commission supports the extension of the current ivory ban, preserving the exception of those four African countries.

But advocates for a complete ban claim that there is no way to prevent poached ivory from entering world markets when any legal ivory market exists.

Elizabeth Bennett,  vice president for species conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society, argues in an essay in Conservation Biology that corruption among officials charged with implementing wildlife-related legislation is so widespread that poached ivory easily enters the market – and once it has entered it’s nearly impossible to distinguish from legally acquired ivory that predates the CITES  ban. Poorly paid officials and highly financed criminal networks make a bad combination, she writes.

“Poachers and traffickers can rapidly pay their way out of trouble, so the financial incentives to break the law heavily outweigh those of abiding by it,” Bennett writes, and she predicts that the decades it would take to clean up the trade would be too late for wild African animals at the current rates of loss. An elephant is killed for its tusks every 15 minutes, according to the wildlife nonprofit Born Free.

The EU, the world’s largest exporter of the legal ivory that predates the CITES ban, has acknowledged that illegal ivory that has entered its market as well, and it seized around 4,500 illegal ivory items between 2011 and 2014.

There are undoubtedly cases of fraudulent EU documents in circulation, and it is possible that falsified or forged internal EU trade certificates are being used as a basis for re-export certificate applications,” says a 2014 European Commission report.

In addition to France, the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Sweden, and the UK have stopped issuing ivory export certificates within their borders.

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