In March last year, the CITES Standing Committee singled out 8 countries most heavily implicated in the illegal trade of ivory. Vilified by the media as The Gang of Eight, three of the countries are African where ivory is sourced: Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Three are considered transit states: Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. The last two are referred as destination countries where demand for the product is greatest: China and Thailand.
The Committee stated that unless each of the offending countries submitted a detailed national elephant action plan to curb the illegal trade, a ban on all legitimate wildlife trade would be enforced. The national plans were to be urgently implemented, to begin no later than July 2013 with a deadline for full implementation the following July.
At face value, it appeared the Standing Committee meant business, but the big question since March is whether the Gang of Eight, despite paying lip-service to a full commitment of the CITES demands, have actually submitted any plans. If so, have the plans been fully implemented, or have the respective governments green-washed the whole affair in order to maintain a stay of execution?
To date no full plan has been officially publicised, either from CITES or the eight offending nations but with a little scratching I can report that all eight have timeously submitted their drafts (I know this because the plans have confidentially landed on my lap).
Apart from one, it appears from this drafts and resultant actions that all the offending nations have simply made a mockery of the demands that do little but pay lip-service to halting of the trade. In fact, reading between the scanty lines of each draft, it seems these countries remain intent on continually exploiting the illegal trade for their benefit. Making a show of compliance has now effectively masked their maleficence. Their aim, I believe, is to keep the CITES policeman from knocking again.
Reports of rampant poaching continue throughout Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Tanzania, whose Selous Game Resererve has seen elephant numbers plummet from 70 000 to under 13 000 in just five years, has vowed to take the fight to the poachers. In a controversial drive called ‘Operation Tokomeza’ (Terminate) the Tanzanian Government ordered a shoot-to-kill policy, which was briefly suspended by parliament amid rumours of human rights abuses on impoverished villagers. The ruling was subsequently overturned by the Tanzanian President. In early November officials seized 706 tusks in Dar es Salaam from the house of three Chinese traders. On the 13th November in Zanzibar police seized a container with an estimated several tons’ worth of ivory.
However, on the flipside Tanzania are making a big show of compliance but are conversely campaigning to down-list elephants so that they may be allowed a once-off sale for their growing stockpiles of illegal ivory. This is currently the CITES-approved status of the southern African bloc countries – Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The CITES insistence to clean up their act may work nicely for Tanzania’s campaign. By taking a tough stance on ‘poachers’ Tanzania is both placating CITES and growing their stockpiles. Should CITES reward them for their compliance by allowing a once-off sale, the Tanzanian government is set for a considerable financial boost, even though, paradoxically, their stockpiles are largely made up of illegal ivory.
Malaysia remains the major problem as a transit country with authorities being unwilling to halt or reduce the amount of illegal ivory getting through from Africa. The effectiveness of the Malaysian authorities remains dubious. In October two separate shipments weighting a combined three tons of illegal ivory were seized in Hong Kong and Vietnam respectively. Both had passed through Malaysian ports in crates labelled as seashells or soya. Malaysia thus continues to remain the worst offender of the three transit states.
Vietnam and Hong Kong have had some success halting shipments passing through Malaysia. Hong Kong is considered a transit port and accordingly has a separate plan from mainland China. In what officials called an “intelligence-based” operation last month, the city’s border control found 189 tusks in three containers. But while we know of some stocks seized, we will never know how many shipments get through undetected, so its impossible to gauge the real success of both these countries’ action plans, or that the seizures are just half-measures to prove compliance.
Like Tanzania, the transit states’ seizure of illegal ivory brings forth another nagging question as they too end up sitting on large stockpiles of illegal ivory. What are they going to do with them? So far only the Philippines has destroyed its stockpiles, meaning that the other two are possibly hoping for better days. Again by demonstrating compliance in seizing the odd container, are Malaysia, Hong Kong and Vietnam just attempting to curry favour with CITES for a future once-off sale with China too? This points to the real reason why any of these countries are keen seize illegal ivory. It is for their own eventual gain – a financial hedge – otherwise why do they not destroy their stockpiles?
The Philippines is the shining example of the Gang of Eight. They have not only demonstrated a public readiness but a strong commitment to halting the trade in ivory. The crushing of their entire stockpile in July sent a clear message that ivory is off-limits.
Thailand have muddied the issue with an inclusion of their domestic elephant population, and anyhow their legal system seems to be mired in red-tape, so I doubt we will be seeing positive results from them soon, if at all.
Mainland China’s plan is perhaps the most flippant, and dangerous of all. As the major consumer of ivory, the Chinese government is concerned primarily with making distinctions between the legal and illegal trade in ivory. The plan consists of implementing an improved certification card system for traders. There is also an undertaking to make consumers aware of the difference. Recently, they crushed six tons of ivory in a public demonstration but one that still underscores making a distinction. In short, China don’t see a problem with killing elephants, as long as it’s ‘legal’. The distinction would become somewhat shambolic, if China were ‘legitimately’ allowed by CITES to buy from those countries, like Tanzania, sitting on stockpiles of illicit ivory.
To conclude, it appears that apart from the Philippines, none of the countries have really taken the elephant crisis to heart. Their plans have been implemented just enough to comply with the CITES directive, and in some cases like Tanzania, Hong Kong and Vietnam, their plans are conversely manipulated to promote the sale of illegal ivory, rather than eradicate it.
China, as the major consumer country, is the real bogie of the group. Their insistence on keeping ivory – legal or not – as a consumer product will continue to fuel the trade and unless they, and CITES, commit 100% to the complete halt of ivory sales, elephants will continually get slaughtered throughout Africa.