Illegal trade in ivory is an exceedingly hot topic now. Ivory is big business. The controversy surrounding poaching and the illegal trade in ivory is widely publicised, with programmes such as Hugh and the Ivory War on BBC One and documentary films like The Ivory Game on Netflix being extremely popular. Trying to imply people are ignorant to elephant poaching for ivory would be arrogant. We are familiar with being bombarded with facts, figures and statistics about alarming rates of extinction, but with the focus on ivory being in Africa and Asia, it is often easy to dissociate ourselves from this monstrous act.
It is without a doubt that the economics and politics surrounding the ivory trade is exceedingly complicated. It is comprised of an intricate network of suppliers and buyers. It is far more convoluted than poachers aimlessly killing elephants with AK47s and shipping the resulting ivory off to the Far East for a hefty profit. I had so many questions when I first began researching this topic, questions which I feel as though the media sometimes swerve away from. As a member of the public who has no power whatsoever politically, what can I do to help this problem? Are the current laws in place enough? Are they enforced? What loopholes are there? If ivory is illegal, then why can you still buy antique ivory pieces online? What is the prison sentence for being caught with ivory? Is there a minimum requirement of weight you must meet before you can be prosecuted?
As you can tell, there are a plethora of questions surrounding the ivory trade, both legal and illegal. And I don’t have all the answers, I wish I did. In recent years, there has been an increase in the destruction of existing raw ivory by governments, with most recently Vietnam destroying an estimated $7 million of elephant tusks and rhino horns just the other week. But is destroying existing ivory the best way forward? The destruction of confiscated ivory is designed to deter poachers against murdering more elephants, but surely it makes ivory more lucrative? Surely, if there is less ivory, the remaining ivory increases its existing value, making it more desirable? Recent studies and documentaries have suggested that Asia’s expanding market is the main culprit for increasing levels of poaching, particularly in China where ivory is viewed as a symbol of wealth.
In 1975 the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITEs) came into force, under which both African and Asian Elephants are featured. A few years later, in 1989, the United States of America issued the African Elephant Conservation Act (AECA), designed to “perpetuate healthy populations of African elephants”. Additionally, the AECA aimed to fund conservation projects across Africa to prevent the slaughter of African elephants. This all seems well and good, but the ivory problem isn’t just occurring in Africa. No, ivory is much closer to home for me, and a lot of you probably too. Gone are the days when we could share a heartfelt moment as we watch conservationists succumb to the terrors that unfold before them, after which we would mutter ourselves something about how barbaric the whole thing is. The ivory trade is right on our front doorstep, in Europe, and it probably has been for a while now.
Ignorance truly is bliss. But we are no longer ignorant to the loopholes the Asian market are using here in Europe to evade international laws. The European Union is the biggest exporter of legal ivory, that is mammoth ivory and pre-1947 ivory; although the various discrepancies are incredibly complex. In Hugh’s latest documentary Hugh and The Ivory War, an ivory vendor can be seen stating that “Heathrow at 4am” is the best time to export ivory, because there are “no customs”. I find this atrocious. But the truth is, ivory sellers have participated in this black market trade for almost 30 years since the international ban in 1989. They know these loopholes and how to get around them. If there’s nobody to enforce the law, can we really blame them for utilising the gaps?
What makes matters worse for me personally, is that in 2016 the European Commission said that they would rather promote sustainable management of elephants within countries with average populations than enforce an all-encompassing ban. I fail to see why both management strategies cannot be employed. Recently, a coalition of 29 African states, known as the African Elephant Coalition (AEC) called for elephants to be listed under Annex I of CITES, which would enable a complete ban on any future domestic ivory trade. The European Union has one of the biggest stakes in CITEs, with 28 member states enabling vital funding and trade levers to the developing world, making it vital to CITEs decision-making.
It has been stated that the demand to fuel the ivory trade has now led to one elephant being killed every 15 minutes by poachers. Every 15 minutes. That’s staggering. By the time I have finished 1 lecture, 4 elephants have been poached. That’s 32 elephants whilst you sleep, if you manage to get the recommended 8 hours per night. Equating to a distressing 224 elephants per week for the time you’re not even awake to do anything about it.
I, personally, am absolutely astounded by the European Union’s stance on the ivory crisis. And I am not alone. Member of the AEC’s secretariat, Patricia Awori, has exclaimed that “when you consider that there were 600,000 elephants at the start of the crisis which led to this Appendix I proposal and there are now less than 400,000, I am at a loss to understand why this is not more troubling for the EU”. One of the most troubling parts of CITEs is that elephants are under a different appendix depending on what country they are in. They are not counted as an endangered migratory species. “An elephant that wakes up in the morning in Angola as ‘Appendix I’, could be in Namibia under ‘Appendix II’ in the same afternoon”, stated the director of Uganda’s Wildlife Authority, Andrew Seguya, according to The Guardian.
If one thing is clear from my investigation into the ivory trade in Europe, I have only just scratched the surface. There are a number of issues that are being covered up by governments, in my view, to protect the economic interests of the ivory trade. I was aware of the corruption operating in many African countries toward elephant conservation, but I am startled at the unwillingness of the European Union to commit to the cause and enforce an outright ban on the trade in ivory. Without sounding like I’m getting on my soapbox, I feel incredibly let down and taken back, that supposed leaders in the developed world feel as though they cannot be ambassadors for environmental change. By passing and enforcing an outright ban, a very large difference will be made. A species will be saved. A species that is becoming extinct through no fault of its own. A species that is dying because of it’s ability to produce large amounts of dentine and enamel. It’s a joke.
If you take one thing away from this post, I hope it’s the devastating fact that every 15 minutes one elephant is killed to fuel an unsustainable demand for ivory. I hope that when you’re aimlessly bored and notice 15 minutes have passed, you are reminded of the somber thought that, somewhere in Africa, an elephant has just lost it’s life to the ivory trade. I hope it inspires you to do something about it. Sign a petition, donate to an NGO or even just tell a friend about the issue. Everything matters. The more people are aware of the damages being done, the more demand there will be for something to be done about it. We truly are running out of time to save Africa’s elephants, please don’t let it become too late.
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