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“It’s just sitting there, worth a fortune” explained a frustrated and committed wildlife warden in South Africa. We were sharing a beer around a fire, the cool night air providing a celestial display only seen in the bush. “Our work is starved of funds. Sell the ivory and we can use it for conservation.” It was the 1990s.

Across the border in south-eastern Zimbabwe we visited a wildlife conservancy, restored from a cattle ranch where a bore-hole and water pump had recently been installed for the local community. I was told a few elephants were hunted each year by rich Americans and Europeans who funded the community and restoration project with their fees. “We need trade. They have to be able to take their trophies home.”

Elephant family in better times © Dave Currey

I get it. Wildlife conservation is starved of funds, especially in some of the poorer parts of Africa. True. I argue now, and I argued at the time that allowing ivory into international trade removed any control the communities thought they had. In the 1980s the sale of ivory stockpiles had exposed elephant conservation to African criminals connected to organised crime in Asia, Europe and America with 70,000 elephants killed annually - and any future ivory stockpile sales would do it again. Only the unequivocal international ban agreed in 1989 had tackled the killing.

The southern African nations (South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana) have never agreed with the ivory ban arguing that consumptive (killing) sustainable use was necessary to make wildlife pay. They have been supported by WWF and its trade monitoring arm Traffic as long as I can remember. If you’re surprised to hear WWF supports some ivory trade that’s because they don’t boast of this with their US$144 million worldwide fundraising expenditure despite over half their US$1,071 million worldwide income (2014) coming from animal loving supporters.

Overseeing the elephant disaster is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the agreement between 181 governments to ensure international trade does not threaten wild species. Its elephant decisions are advised by two projects set up to answer questions regarding elephant poaching and the ivory trade. Both projects rely on data supplied mainly from national governments and both projects suffer from incomplete data because many countries don’t report. The CITES ivory trade project is run by Traffic, WWF’s monitoring arm, from pro-trade Zimbabwe by a long time proponent of ivory trade, Tom Milliken.

Elephant using its tusks © Dave Currey / EIA

The cause of the current elephant slaughter, perhaps the most serious conservation disaster of this decade, was a decision made in 2008 as the forces of the pro trade lobby came together to support China as a buyer of stockpiled ivory.

Tom Milliken was part of a three day CITES mission to China which declared its ivory control system could “eradicate, or at least significantly reduce, illicit trade.” In 2008 he stated that China had been aggressively cracking down on its domestic market.

Ivory seized from Chinese at Nairobi airport © Dave Currey / EIA

Appalled with the risk CITES was taking with an experimental sale of ivory to the world’s fastest growing consumer society, many spoke in opposition. Twenty seven African countries with wild elephant populations opposed the sale as did Oceania, Israel and India. Ghana even questioned the CITES report on China requesting a new independent investigation. Over 100 NGOs from every corner of the earth, many with intimate and expert knowledge of the ivory trade and elephant conservation, vehemently opposed the sale, warning of an impending elephant poaching crisis if the sale went ahead.

The southern Africans, supported by Japan and China, naturally supported this sale. CITES, advised by Traffic, claimed the price of ivory and poaching would fall. WWF’s spokesperson stated “We have no evidence that this one-time sale will stimulate increased poaching or increased illegal trade in ivory."

Influenced by these recommendations, WWF and Traffic’s support, and ignoring the mountain of expert opposition, the UK, representing all EU states collectively pushed the decision through. In 2008 102 tonnes of ivory was sold to Japan and China from stockpiles in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia and Botswana for US$15.4 million.

In Africa the price for tusks skyrocketed along with poaching levels. At CITES’ most intensely monitored site “illegal killing increased markedly after 2008 and was correlated strongly with the local black market price and increased seizures of ivory destined for China.”

"Resilience" a collared elephant in CITES most intensely monitored site 2011 © Dave Currey / EIA

So much for expert advice. The recommendation to allow the experiment was made by a CITES Secretariat that, even years later, struggles to understand the ivory trade. Its main advisor needs “hindsight” to see what had been obvious for years: Legal ivory acts as a laundering mechanism for illegal ivory into an internationally authorised consumer market.

It is widely reported that since the 2008 sale around 20,000-40,000 elephants have been killed annually for their tusks. Hundreds of people have lost their lives with fatherless families driven into worsening poverty. There has been increased corruption and wildlife tourism has been hit.

WWF’s worldwide income has increased by 58%.

I wish I was back in South Africa sitting around a fire with the committed but underfunded wildlife warden now facing increased poaching pressure. I would reassure him that he didn’t need to sell ivory because people all over the world want to help. As proof I would tell him WWF now raises over one billion dollars a year, more than half from animal lovers.

Crazy idea I know – but perhaps his team should get some of that.

In a few days time - Part 3. Thailand, a new ivory laundry?

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