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You might be surprised by this question but I can’t find any WWF ivory trade policy on their colourful websites although they have plenty to say about the “illegal” ivory trade. Don’t be fooled by the word “illegal” – few would ever admit to liking illegal activity – it’s not really a policy at all. It’s like us not supporting “illegal” killings – murder in most of our thoughts. So why do I question WWF’s ivory policy?

If you’re horrified by the current killing of 30,000 elephants annually, confused or a supporter of WWF – read on.

Elephant with calf, Tarangire, Tanzania © Dave Currey

In a smoke filled bar near London’s Piccadilly Circus I met with John Hanks, WWF International's Head of African programmes based in South Africa. It was 1988 and I had been told he had access to money for investigations into the ivory trade. EIA was desperately short of funds and although I knew WWF opposed an ivory ban at the time, it was worth a meeting. He wanted to know the results of our recent undercover work in Dubai. “Huge amounts are going to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore” I explained. He didn’t seem to believe me stating that WWF’s top contacts “assure us that all ivory imports into Taiwan stopped in mid 1987.”

I pulled my briefcase onto my knee and clicked the latches, placing two documents on the table between us: air-cargo manifests showing 3 tonnes of ivory (about 500 dead elephants) imported to Taiwan in March and April 1988. I guessed WWF’s “top” contacts were a quasi-governmental organisation we knew supplied information to TRAFFIC, WWF’s trade monitoring programme. Hanks looked shocked, but despite such strong evidence I knew he would never support our work. He was clearly poorly informed but he was utterly opposed to an ivory ban and would consider us as bunny-hugging upstarts.

WWF confirmed my fears in 1989 when, as a Tanzanian NGO was persuading their government to propose an ivory ban using some of our international undercover revelations, Hanks flew to Dar es Salaam representing WWF to try and talk them out of it. He claimed the Japanese demand for ivory would continue unchanged and illegal trade would escalate out of control – a theory utterly disproved in the two years after the ivory ban was agreed later that year. The Japanese market shrank and the poaching of elephants dramatically declined giving ravaged populations a breather from the slaughter of the previous decade. He was wrong.

Seized ivory, Nairobi, Kenya © Dave Currey / EIA

Soon after my meeting with Hanks, in collaboration with Prince Bernhard he used the funds I had been told about to set up a unit of former SAS soldiers in apartheid South Africa to track down ivory and rhino horn poachers and traders in neighbouring countries. They trained people in Namibia and Mozambique and bought weapons from the notorious South African Defence Force (SADF). What could possibly go wrong!

It is reported this unit was infiltrated by the SADF, failed to account for the funds they were given and “lost” the rhino horn they had been supplied to “follow”. The affair was a huge embarrassment to the Prince and WWF but gave me an insight into WWF’s thinking at the time. They really did not understand how legal ivory trade provided the mechanism for laundering poached ivory in consuming markets, especially those in Asia. It also demonstrated the power of the apartheid South African argument within WWF that they needed to maintain their ivory trade to raise precious funds no matter how that policy decimated other elephant populations.

The current elephant disaster is a result of repeated attempts by southern African countries to weaken the ivory ban and sell their ivory. In 2008 their perseverance paid off when a sanctioned sale was allowed between southern African countries, Japan and China. This sale, and China’s designation as an approved buyer, was supported by WWF and TRAFFIC with TRAFFIC’s Tom Milliken saying there was no evidence of a link between the ivory sale and illegal trading. He also claimed China had been cracking down on illegal domestic trade.

Once again they couldn’t have been more wrong. Since 2008 the poaching of elephants has escalated horribly. Poachers and brave rangers have been killed, illegal sales in China have sky rocketed and, as in the 1980s elephants in some parts of Africa are in real danger of disappearing altogether. WWF have recently, along with others, linked the ivory trade with wars and “terrorism”, although many of us have been saying this since the 80s when wars in Angola, Mozambique, Somalia and Sudan were part funded by money from ivory sales.

WWF has fought hard to maintain some "regulated" ivory trade for over thirty years. Its policy has backed an experiment that has caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of elephants, not to mention countless human tragedies in many African countries.

Elephant matriarch "Hope" slaughtered for the ivory trade, Samburu, Kenya 2011 © Dave Currey / EIA

Does WWF still support the idea of future “legal” ivory trade?

In 2013 they fought an online campaign leading up to the Bangkok meeting of CITES, the convention which agreed the ban in 1989. It focused on ending the ivory trade in Thailand. WWF stated at the time “Ending ivory trade in Thailand – currently the world’s largest unregulated ivory market – will go a long way in stemming a global poaching crisis that is leading to the slaughter of tens of thousands of elephants each year and fuelling a global criminal trade in animal parts.”

Although useful to close any ivory market I thought at the time it was a diversion from their pro-legal ivory trade position. Note their use of the language – “unregulated market”. True, but China is by far the world’s really badly “regulated” largest market; so badly regulated you could argue the regulation assists illegal trade and sales. Why only attack Thailand when the world’s main market is China? The Thai campaign attracted new support for WWF with 1.5 million online petitioners – a boost for the organisation from elephant lovers.

This is where I’m appalled at WWF’s activities on ivory trade policy: their use of language and clever marketing tactics. If they believe elephant ivory should be sold on the "regulated" market (although for many reason no such thing really exists) – admit it to their animal loving supporters. It doesn’t take too much imagination why they avoid such direct honesty.

And why does this matter? WWF is listened to throughout the world and is invited to top level meetings. Its multi-national almost corporate approach enamours it to many political and corporate leaders. Its policies matter and its long time opposition to the ivory ban has weakened that ban's success and contributed to the appalling slaughter across Africa going on right now. Its position on ivory has undermined the work of many wonderful smaller wildlife charities and taken funds from many members of the public, many proud bunny huggers, who would not support them if they knew their actual policy.

So, back to my search on the internet for their current policy. I was thrilled to see WWF Hong Kong call for an end to all sales and trade in ivory. I’m interested to see that WWF and TRAFFIC have welcomed China and the USA’s pledge to end trade and domestic sale of ivory “in a timely manner”. Does all this mean a change in a long held policy?

If you’re as confused as I am we should ask WWF to explain their policy. Watch out for those diversions and the use of the word “illegal”. Feel free to use my question when you contact them: Does WWF oppose all trade and sales in ivory now and forever? Yes or No.

It’s time to come clean.

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