There has been considerable pressure on the UK government to honour two consecutive "total ivory ban" manifesto commitments. Its failure to act doesn't surprise me but it may shock many readers that over the last 30 years the UK's position on the ivory trade has been complicit in the widespread poaching of elephants in Africa.
In the 1980s the international community attempted an ivory control system, claiming it was better to bring the ivory traders into a well managed process. The failure of this idea cannot be exaggerated. In the late 1980s around 70,000 elephants were being killed annually and criminal networks grew on the fantastic profits they garnered from the killing. At the centre of this elephant disaster was the British colony Hong Kong.
At least three of the biggest African ivory networks were run by Hong Kong nationals with business interests in Hong Kong. In the late 1980s they diversified to take advantage of the CITES "control" system and weak or non-existent legislation, setting up in Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, the UAE and selling ivory to China and Japan. At that time Europe and the USA were major markets and Hong Kong supplied a great deal of the ivory through European and American capitals..
In 1989 the UK government was very slow to react to the growing calls for an international ivory ban and even while negotiations were taking place, attempted to get special treatment for Hong Kong. When the international ban was agreed and was enacted in 1990, the British Governor of Hong Kong, Sir David Wilson, who chaired the Executive Council (cabinet) and was President of the Legislative Council, kept its ivory market open for pre-ban (1990) ivory, despite it being clear that much, probably most, of the Hong Kong ivory, was laundered from poached elephants.
To understand the scale of Hong Kong's ivory business at the time, the 670 tonne pre-ban stockpile was the equivalent of over 100,000 dead elephants (at the average tusk size in trade at the time). The bloodbath this British colony had reaped across Africa placed British Hong Kong at the centre of the 1980s poaching crisis.
The Hong Kong ivory traders made extraordinary profits allowing some of them to buy up property around the world, move into selling smuggled luxury cars, and in the case of one family syndicate, use their international trade contacts to increase trade in shark fin. None were prosecuted in Hong Kong for their illegal activities and even throughout the 1989 media exposures of their business, very little ivory was confiscated. These families and their criminal networks grew in wealth and influence and massive profits helped them expand, some still operating today.
Although the 1990 international ivory ban coupled with effective consumer campaigns in Europe and America reduced prices and brought poaching down to manageable levels in most countries, it was important for the traders to keep their contacts and smuggling routes live. Hong Kong provided this service and remained the world's biggest ivory laundry until and after it was handed over to China in 1997. Although it has been illegal to import ivory since 1990, Hong Kong states it will take five years to phase out its trade to give licensed businesses a chance to sell their "registered" stocks. A recent enforcement operation carbon dated ivory in one of Hong Kong's ivory shops proving it to be from ivory since the ban and the Hong Kong Legislative Council will debate the five year phase out later this month.
The UK's complicity doesn't stop at the hand over of Hong Kong in 1997. In probably the worst international wildlife decision in recent memory, in 2008 the UK, representing the EU, voted to allow China and Japan to buy stockpiles of ivory from 4 African countries. Ignoring the warnings of over 100 NGOs and 27 African elephant range countries that this would be letting the genie out of the bottle and would cause irreparable harm to wild elephants, the UK joined a few southern African countries to push this through.
As a result poaching increased across Africa to levels not seen since the 1980s and the criminal networks strengthened and expanded to take advantage of their increased profits. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in the last nine years trying to find ways to put the genie back. It is uncertain if this can be achieved.
In blatant denial of the seriousness of the 2008 decision, the UK as part of the EU voting block, failed to accept its part responsibility for the poaching crisis and helped prevent an attempt by 27 African countries to call for a worldwide total ivory ban in 2016.
So we're back to 2017 and the UK government's failure to enact a "total ivory ban" manifesto commitment. Instead of a total ban they are proposing to continue to allow trade in "antique" ivory (pre 1947). This is despite evidence that this trade is being used to launder illegal ivory and enforcement officers have no real cost effective way of knowing the age of ivory items.. The UK is one of the largest exporters of ivory to China, a country that has politically committed itself to end all ivory trade by the end of this year.
In July 1989 at a vital meeting held in Botswana prior to the October CITES ivory ban decision, the Tanzanian representative and strongest ivory trade ban proponent Costa Mlay made a statement that is as relevant today as it was then. "Every worthwhile action requires an element of sacrifice. Loss of profits alone does not constitute an argument against a ban. We are talking of the survival of a species that is important to mankind and to Africa. Every generation will be judged by its moral courage to protect species that are in danger of extinction."
For the UK government: the jury is out.
Note: The UK government will be launching a consultation soon - if you want to act please contact your MP and tell them only a total ban (including antique ivory) is acceptable. To find the contact details of your MP : http://www.parliament.uk/mps-lords-and-offices/mps/