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Today is World Elephant Day and just a few days ago WWF came out in opposition to a global ivory ban proposed for next month’s important Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting which is supported by 29 African states representing 70% of the African elephant range.

This is unsurprising because WWF supported the sale of 108 tonnes of ivory to China and Japan in 2008 which kick-started the killing of over 200,000 elephants. This poaching crisis also caused the deaths of hundreds of rangers and poachers and the fuelling of corruption with blood ivory money. Now WWF is calling on the EU to oppose the global ivory ban proposal (Guardian 9th August) which, represented by the UK, also approved the fateful 2008 ivory sale. The EU's 28 votes would be likely to swing the result.

Africa's elephants are under serious threat as WWF and CITES give hope to future sales of legal ivory © Dave Currey

This is not the first elephant disaster in recent history. In the 1980s it was as cruel and deadly as the one being experienced across Africa today. It was the first attempt by the international community to control the ivory trade. Instead of curtailing it, the measures employed provided documentation and systems which allowed traders to smuggle and launder vast quantities of poached ivory within it. Hundreds of thousands of elephants died. This was the ivory-funded birth of the international criminal wildlife trade networks still operating across Africa.

I worked undercover exposing the ivory trade in the 1980s and 1990s and learned the trade’s secrets and scams used to circumvent and benefit from many of the regulations put in front of them. The findings were widely shown on TV, in newspapers, in EIA reports and a book. They were no longer a secret. Yet it troubles me that CITES ignored the warnings that many of these techniques would be repeated if they allowed the ivory sale to China and Japan in 2008. This is why most African elephant countries and most conservationists strongly opposed it.

So why did WWF support that sale and why do they now oppose a global ivory ban backed by at least 29 African countries representing 70% of the African elephant’s range? Their idea was China had good controls in place and the “legal” ivory would swamp the market and prices would drop, reducing poaching. At least that’s what they said in 2008. CITES listened to WWF, as did the UK and others that supported the disastrous decision.

After China received its “legal” stockpile of ivory from Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe it withheld the stock, dribbling it onto the market. This pushed prices up 650% and poaching shot up in Africa. History had already provided the precedent when CITES “legalised” a 270 tonne stockpile in Singapore in 1986. The owners of the ivory withheld stock, prices doubled and poaching increased in Africa.

"Hope" poached in 2011. She was in CITES' most intensely studied site in northern Kenya © Dave Currey / EIA

One reason given in WWF’s Colman O’Criodain’s piece in the Guardian for their opposition to a global ivory ban is to prevent an African split at CITES. That might sound sensible except that the split between a few southern African countries and most of the rest of the African elephants’ range countries has existed for years. The damage ivory trade has caused is so widespread that the anger against Namibia and Zimbabwe’s current proposals for renewed ivory trade is justified and needs venting.

The crux of WWF’s argument is that discussions around banning the global ivory trade will detract from the important decisions on CITES National Ivory Action Plans (NIAPs), which WWF's O’Criodain claims are “beginning to yield results.” It is true that in some of the 19 countries with NIAPs there has been some encouraging reduction in domestic ivory sales. However, there is no real evidence this has affected poaching levels. Far more important have been the USA ban and China and Hong Kong’s statement they will ban domestic ivory soon.

Many NIAPs require the country to “register” its ivory, a process which has been used since 1986 registered stockpiles in Singapore and Burundi. It is important ivory stocks are known and, where possible, useful enforcement information is gathered such as ownership, origin and trade routes. But stockpiles are also a security risk, with ivory leaking into the trade. Destruction is the best option.

In the case of Thailand, the registration of 220 tonnes of “domestic” ivory under its NIAP is of major concern. Given this ivory is supposed to come from domestic Thai elephants, the quantity is simply unbelievable. It is claimed to be owned by a staggering 44,000 people and is reported to be already in trade.

In the 1980s it was always important for criminal ivory traders to be able to use different regulations in different countries to their advantage. As it became less easy to move ivory through some countries, others were always developed. Hong Kong, the world’s biggest ivory laundry for decades has recently stated it will end its domestic ivory market, although to date there has been little action. If traditional ivory laundries such as Hong Kong close down the trade will always be developing new ones. This massive NIAP legalised stockpile in Thailand provides one such opportunity.

Tanzania's elephant population declined 60% from 2009-2014. Almost 66,000 elephants were slaughtered. © Dave Currey

WWF’s reluctance to discuss a global ivory ban has much more to do with their dogmatic stance that elephants have to be financially valuable to survive. However, their support of the ivory sale in 2008 raised only $15million and has led to the deaths of over 200,000 elephants so far, hundreds of human tragedies and far-reaching economic consequencies for countries fighting the criminal networks. The damage throughout Africa hugely outweighs any income gained by Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. In fact it might be reasonable to expect some recompense.

It has been shown repeatedly the public perception of future legal ivory on the market is an important factor confusing consumers and it is a message the proponents of ivory trade work hard to keep alive. WWF's O'Criodain's article does nothing to counter such a perception when he states "....not the time to contemplate even a partial resumption in the trade"- so there it is - WWF believes there will be a time. Hence their opposition to a global ivory ban.

Regarding the NIAP discussions, it seems reasonable and more effective to pursue the global ivory ban at the same time as tightening the NIAPs. This strategy would be far easier with WWF’s support.

History also tells us WWF’s position in the 1980s was a major obstacle to gaining the 1989 international ivory ban. Only after the ban did poaching decrease across much of the African elephant range, giving many countries an opportunity to spend their precious resources on innovative conservation programmes instead of militarised anti-poaching.

WWF’s ivory control experiments have tragically proven to be a total failure. It’s time they started learning from history. The ivory trade has always been far better at this bloody game than WWF’s career scientists, statisticians and lawyers.

As the WWF publicity machine spews out World Elephant Day messages to further build their multi-national presence, there can be only one response to this near US$1 billion organisation.

It’s the ivory trade that has to be killed off once and for all, not the elephants.

* Look out for my next blog on the techniques and scams repeated through the years by the ivory trade. The same scams those supporting ivory sales knew about ....

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