Ivory: When is a ban not a ban?
Andreas Wilson-Späth
26 October 2016

The failure to effectively shut down domestic ivory markets at the recent COP17 in Johannesburg leaves the ban on international ivory trade as little more than an ineffective facade and greatly threatens the survival of Africa’s imperiled elephant populations.

Proposals for change

Trading ivory on the international market has been illegal since 1989, but the existence of domestic markets has continued to stimulate demand and driven poaching levels in Africa to catastrophic heights by providing easy ways to launder contraband ivory into legal markets.

Simply put, the international ban is futile as long as ivory can be lawfully traded within countries.

The 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES (CoP17) was seen by many as an opportunity to resolve this dilemma by instituting a complete ban on all domestic trading in ivory and by ‘up-listing’ all of Africa’s elephants to CITES’ Appendix I which offers maximum protection to endangered species (elephants in Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa are currently listed in Appendix II). An alliance of countries known as the African Elephant Coalition introduced proposals that, if accepted, would have made this a reality.

Africa’s elephants betrayed

Instead of agreeing to the outright closure all existing domestic ivory markets, the conference adopted a much watered down compromise that merely encourages countries to close those domestic markets that are considered to contribute to poaching or illegal trade, thus creating a gaping loophole which allows some domestic markets to remain in operation.

After voting in opposition to a domestic trade ban, Japan issued a statement claiming that the resolution adopted by the conference would not apply to it since there was no poached ivory in its market.

While efforts by Namibia and Zimbabwe to allow future international sales of stockpiled ivory were soundly defeated at CoP17, the proposal to include all of Africa’s elephants in Appendix I was rejected.

During the conference, Botswana, home to Africa’s largest elephant population, had made a surprise appeal in support of up-listing the species and banning all trade.

Tshekedi Khama, the country’s Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism announced that “we support a total, unambiguous and permanent ban on the ivory trade”. He added that “a threat to elephants anywhere is a threat to elephants everywhere. There is no time to waste. Botswana unequivocally supports the proposal to list African elephants under Appendix I”. Khama acknowledged that “there is a clear and growing global consensus that the ivory trade needs to be stopped if elephants are to be conserved effectively”.

In stark contrast, Edna Molewa, South Africa’s Minister of Environmental Affairs, once again expressed her government’s conception of wildlife conservation as a matter of ‘sustainable utilisation’ in which animals must ‘pay for themselves’ in order to survive.  She suggested that “selling ivory is a conservation tool” that “earns revenue which can be plowed back into conservation”, an assertion that critics have repeatedly refuted.

Japan: how domestic markets turn the international trade ban into a sham

Legal domestic ivory markets fundamentally undermine the international trade ban and contribute to the mass slaughter of African elephants. This is clearly illustrated by a closer look at one of the largest of these markets: Japan.

Since 1970, the country has imported the ivory of over 250,000 African elephants and has remained a major destination for poached and smuggled ivory even following the 1989 international trade ban, while also receiving CITES-sanctioned ivory from Southern Africa in ‘one-off’ sales in 1999 and 2008.

A shocking new report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) reveals how the Japanese system is being abused to launder contraband ivory from poached elephants into legal domestic markets. These findings contradict assertions made by Japan’s environment minister at CoP17, claiming that there was no poached ivory in his country’s internal market.

According to the authors of the report, “Japan’s ivory control system is plagued by loopholes and undercut by weak legislation to such an extent that no meaningful control exists at even the most basic level”. When undercover investigators approached Japanese ivory traders, 30 out of 37 “offered to engage in some form of illegal activity to buy, sell, or fraudulently register a tusk that did not qualify for registration”. In this way, “thousands of tusks of dubious legality have been registered in Japan and thus de facto legalized”.

The country has consistently failed to comply with CITES regulations. Its system for verifying and registering ivory is deeply flawed and unable to prevent illegal ivory from being laundered into the domestic market. Large and growing quantities of unregistered and illegal ivory are for sale in an unregulated manner on the internet in Japan.

According to EIA president Allan Thornton, “it is time for Japan to join global efforts to protect elephants and to permanently ban its domestic ivory trade”.

Ivory is also being unlawfully exported from Japan to China and Thailand. The report identifies Japanese companies that admitted “to conducting daily ivory sales to Chinese buyers”.

This is consistent with revelations  by veteran investigative journalist and filmmaker Karl Ammann, who has documented very lax controls at Chinese border crossings with regards to contraband wildlife products, the laundering of elephant ivory into the Chinese domestic market disguised as ‘mammoth ivory’, and the growth of ivory trading stores catering to Chinese tourists in neighbouring countries including Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.

Similar to Japan’s domestic ivory market, Ammann has found “a culture of window-dressing, corruption and lip service – from the street dealers, to the manufacturers, to the wholesalers, to the policy makers” in China and its neighbours. This is despite China’s support for a ban on all domestic ivory trading at CoP17.

By providing loopholes that allow these domestic ivory markets to continue to exist and operate in violation of its own regulations, CITES may have condemned tens of thousands more of Africa’s elephants to death.

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