I have been asked by quite a few people what is happening to the ivory trade and what can be done to save elephants. It may be too early to know the effects of this year's Chinese phase out of legal ivory, but there are plenty of indications it is already helping quell the market. So why do elephants continue to be slaughtered and shipments of ivory still get seized? I have tried to look at the issues below with my personal thoughts. I hope it provides a useful update.
The nine year poaching crisis has again focused the international community and there are reports that in a few countries poaching has reduced. This is really no surprise. In many countries the elephant population has been so badly decimated it will be more difficult to maintain the annual 30,000 elephant deaths recorded over recent years. The awful news from Gabon of 25,000 poached elephants in just ten years reminds us the world must do more to close markets and imprison the influential criminal ivory traders. Gabon's shocking statistics seriously dent the assumed 100,000 population of African forest elephants.
China, the world's largest legal ivory market and destination for so much illegal ivory is ending its legal trade by the end of this year. The USA has introduced a near total ban and the EU is discussing such proposals. However, markets in Hong Kong, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and others still provide the cover for illegal ivory to enter trade.
I have heard from the field that although there may be less Chinese ivory traders operating in some parts of Africa, the number of Vietnamese criminal groups are growing. It also appears that Nigeria is playing an ever more important role.
The best news is probably raw ivory prices in China falling. In 2014 the price was around US$2,100/kg but in January 2017 had reportedly fallen to US$730/kg. This is a substantial change and, as long as other markets don't stimulate trade, might be expected to fall lower as the Chinese total ban comes into effect. Falling ivory prices preceded the 1990 international ivory ban as major consumer markets introduced their own bans.
In 1988 most wildlife experts I met in Africa were desperate. The elephant poaching crisis had been raging for years undermining their efforts, yet ivory was being consumed in countries so far from the problems they feared the carnage was unstoppable. Less than two years later CITES agreed to place all elephant populations on Appendix 1, banning all international trade in ivory. Poaching slowed down to manageable levels and the bottom fell out of the ivory market. It was an extraordinary turnaround which allowed time and resources to be spent on increased enforcement and innovative conservation schemes.
Embroiled in a second elephant poaching crisis, the big question for CITES in 2016 was can poaching be beaten again? Many good decisions were made last September but for me one crucial element of success was missing: the recognition of what went wrong.
In 2008 CITES provided China and Japan with the mechanism to buy ivory stockpiles from four southern African countries. Although twenty seven African elephant range countries and over 100 NGOs with enormous expert knowledge vehemently opposed the decision, it was pushed through by the southern Africans, the UK representing the EU and was supported by CITES, WWF and TRAFFIC. Poaching accelerated across the continent, rangers and poachers lost their lives and international criminal networks boosted their profits in ways not seen since the 1980s.
The proponents of ivory trade are well known addicts to the "lethal sustainable use of wildlife" experimental mantra. As in any programme to help an addict, the first step they must take is to admit their problem. At the CITES conference, these countries and organisations denied the 2008 decision had contributed to poaching. They then successfully opposed a proposal to place all elephant populations on Appendix 1, the part-solution that had reversed the poaching trend in 1990.
The one noble exception to this was Botswana, the country with the most wild elephants. Reversing his country's pro-ivory trade policy Tshekedi Khama, Botswana’s Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism stated “There is a clear and growing global consensus that the ivory trade needs to be stopped if elephants are to be conserved effectively. We therefore support a total, unambiguous, and permanent ban on the ivory trade."
It is my belief WWF provides the cover for the entire pro-trade group. If WWF were to echo Botswana's support for a permanent ban, the rest of the group would lose the authority that keeps it together. Then wild elephants would have a chance.
There has been increased cooperation between international enforcement agencies over the last few years as they have recognised the dangers these criminal networks pose for all kinds of illegal trade. Once the networks are operating they can move arms, slaves, wildlife, drugs - anything. An essential part of these networks are corrupt officials and government ministers who also threaten their nations' governance.
Some countries least deserving of praise have discovered that sound-bite videos of seizures of ivory are a public relations triumph. Often occurring at a moment when criticism is coming their way, media orchestrated seizures are usually nothing to do with effective enforcement. To learn where, who, when a shipment of ivory moves requires well tried techniques including "controlled delivery" to catch and prosecute the importer and DNA analysis to ascertain the source.
In the ivory consuming countries, in particular Hong Kong, China and Japan, the criminals who drive the poaching are still roaming free. Without concerted efforts to arrest and convict these top feeders, the poaching will continue. Even after the last elephant has been killed these criminals will be profiting from some other murderous trade.
Elephants live in many different environments and circumstances ranging from African tropical forests to savanna and Asian forests with serious human pressure on their borders. There are very many efforts underway but from my experience, the most successful are usually when conservation programmes match the local circumstances.
In the end, if conservationists lose the long-term support of local communities, it will develop a conflict which elephants always lose. So community schemes which employ, educate and benefit locals are central to successful conservation.
In the last nine years the budgets for such schemes have been diverted to fight a bush war against the poachers, some of whom come from local communities. This is why many protected areas have required outside support.
I recently met Mark Hiley, a film-maker who dropped everything to set up Operation Safe Haven in Malawi's Liwonde National Park. Costing a mere US$85,000, the operation put together a team of mainly local rangers, provided them with uniforms, salaries and equipment, cleared 10,000 traps and snares, and arrested 70 criminal poachers most of which were fined or imprisoned. Once the Park was viable it was handed over to a long-term management company to run.
At the official opening of the new National Park Operations Centre Mark stated "African choirs sang, dancers danced and local people cheered; it was a very happy ending to an operation which changed the dark course of history, where the major charities had failed." Mark's new organisation National Park Rescue aims to replicate this success in other failing national parks.
It is very difficult to see what effect the closing of the Chinese legal ivory market will have without knowing the level of enforcement. The success of the 1989 decision to put all elephants on CITES Appendix 1 indicated to everyone there was a worldwide ban so the consumers stopped buying ivory.
Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos pose particular problems because they have all acted as intermediaries for Chinese consumers and in so doing have also built up local markets. Hong Kong in particular has played the greatest role in the elephant crisis and despite its clear responsibility is debating a 5 year phase out of its ivory business. As has been pointed out, this could result in a further 150,000 dead elephants and the associated tragedies. There are reports of many small Vietnamese networks now operating in different parts of Africa. Additionally, despite ample evidence Japan has continued to deny it has any problem with illegal ivory and refused to close its market.
In 1994 EIA uncovered a huge stockpile of rhino horn in China. This stockpile had been bought and sold by Chinese and Taiwanese rhino horn traders without it being moved. The traders were betting the horn would increase in value, especially if rhinos were poached to extinction.
I have a concern that elephant ivory may become a commodity in this gruesome futures market. If this was the case, closing the legal retail market would have little effect on the poaching. I am guessing we're not there yet, but the market reaction to the Chinese ban will indicate how close we are.
As long as there is some legal market for poached ivory to be laundered into, and the trade keeps ticking over, the future of all elephants is very grim. This is why I believe WWF's position is so crucial. Currently they are supporting domestic bans and action plans in various countries but their overall policy has not changed. WWF still support the idea that one day in the future countries should be able to sell their ivory stockpiles into a legal trade.
Slowly but surely, after the successful 1990 international ivory ban, its effectiveness was eroded. First by the removal of some southern African elephant populations from their Appendix 1 listing, then by the sales of ivory in 1999 to Japan and again in 2008. All these moves were supported by WWF. They helped keep the ivory trade alive.
It's time WWF stopped giving hope to ivory criminals and listened to the government of Botswana, home to over a quarter of the world's African elephants. "We ... support a total, unambiguous, and permanent ban on the ivory trade."