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There is an extraordinary truth to the expression “it’s written all over your face.” It was 1994 and I was an observer at the CITES Conference in Fort Lauderdale, USA. These huge decision-making events take place every two to three years and attract thousands of government delegates, lawyers, conservationists, traders, scientists, journalists and NGOs. It was my fourth CITES conference and I’ll readily admit that, for me, they come close to some of my worst experiences, such as seeing live pilot whales carved up in front of me. But I was there to fight for wildlife. I found the room number I had been given for a meeting and quietly entered. Thirty to forty men were gathered, some standing in groups, others sitting with coffee. They turned as I appeared and a cold heavy atmosphere hit me as a hush descended on the room. I recognised a few of them as wild bird and reptile traders and realised it was the wrong room. I saw sadness, these scheming men lacked joy – I know because together with their suspicion, it was written on their faces.

"JOY" a drawing of African elephant orphans running towards a water hole by Gary Hodges © Gary Hodges

CITES 17th Conference has just started in Johannesburg. Over the next two weeks 3,500 delegates will attempt to persuade the 183 countries present to vote for or against a raft of proposals which will directly affect wild animals and plants all over the world. Sometimes the debate is simple, uncomplicated by politics. At other times, such as in the highly controversial and politicised debate on elephants, nations will influence their allies, persuade others with inducements or threats, while consultants fish for the next commission. Some wildlife traders will be meeting corrupt government officials and dealing among themselves. There’s something for everyone and it is a very dirty business. Since CITES approved a sale of ivory to China and Japan in 2008 elephant poaching has gone through the roof. Tanzania has lost two thirds of its wonderful herds, an elephant has been poached every fifteen minutes and ivory prices, especially in China, have soared. Hundreds of rangers and poachers have died and criminal networks have grown, attacking many of the poorest African countries’ governance. The battle lines are already drawn for the elephant decisions. On the trade side, Japan has teamed up with South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe. In the “enough is enough” camp are Kenya, the USA, most of the rest of Africa and the vast majority of experts and NGOs. On the fence with convoluted and defeatist arguments sit the EU, the CITES Secretariat, WWF , all advised by TRAFFIC (WWF and IUCN’s trade monitoring arm). Two weeks ago the arguments were rehearsed at the four yearly IUCN World Conservation Congress in Mexico. Crucially, since many of the delegates are the same, the IUCN came down on the “enough is enough” side supporting a global ivory ban, international and domestic.

Ranger inspects a bullet hole in "Hope" at one of CITES most monitored sites © Dave Currey/EIA

So what is going to happen?

There are proposals to uplist the elephant populations of Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa to send a clear and vital message to the world that ivory will not be traded now or in the future. WWF argues that if forced these countries may enter a “reservation” which absolves them from any regulation for elephants. This blackmail has prevailed for thirty years and is spurious. They may well enter a reservation, but no other CITES country would dare buy the ivory. Let them stamp their feet. It’s better than more dead elephants. Another important decision is whether or not to recommend the closure of all domestic ivory markets. This is part of what the IUCN agreed two weeks ago. CITES can make recommendations on domestic issues, but because it is an agreement on international trade, it would not be mandatory for any member. However, with some countries already banning domestic trade and importantly China stating it intends to, it would be a vital decision from CITES encouraging swift action. This is opposed by TRAFFIC and WWF, and the usual suspects. It is very hard to understand why so I will not even try. WWF and TRAFFIC’s agenda is for further discussions and decisions on a CITES process of National Ivory Action Plans (NIAPs), to tighten up regulation. Once again, although very useful, in isolation from any other decisions, it perpetrates the perception that ivory trade will continue and can be regulated. History proves otherwise. It is unlikely there will be much opposition to further work on NIAPs. CITES is still in denial over its role in kick-starting the current elephant crisis. Its approval of sales of ivory to Japan in 1999 and China and Japan in 2008 broke the international ivory ban agreed in 1989. The 1990s were a decade when elephants across much of their range recovered and innovative conservation strategies were financed rather than resources pouring into a bush war. Since the successful ban was broken, poaching and trade increased throughout the 2000s, rocketing after the 2008 sale. The IUCN decision two weeks ago is an important development. Additionally the recently published Great Elephant Census report should provide sobering reading for CITES delegates. In the most comprehensive elephant population survey ever accomplished it reveals 30% of all savannah elephants were slaughtered in the seven years since 2007, the year CITES agreed ivory could be sold to China. But can CITES save the elephant? It will take the strength of most African countries, conservationists, and the courage of state delegates to push against these powerful self interests. They did it in 1989 when they agreed the successful Appendix 1 listing for all African elephants and they can do it again. The elephant crisis has created an overwhelming outpouring of shock across the world. If elected officials are listening and they instruct their CITES delegates, there can be a future for elephants and the economies of many poor countries that rely on safari income. If governments ignore this global empathy for elephants and hide behind lawyers and processes, CITES will forever be seen as the body that ignorantly and deliberately oversaw the end of the world’s largest land mammal. If governments can live with that, we’re not that far behind.

African elephants at play © Dave Currey

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