Like abolishing slavery, like eliminating apartheid, like halving poverty- there has to be a grand goal. The IUCN motion to ban the domestic ivory trade in all countries, backed by the support of 217 member countries, moves us closer to the grand goal of banning the international ivory trade once and for all. Never before have so many governments come together to call on this. It’s not a law or a policy, but a plea, a commitment of sorts, a concretisation in the minds of the influencers and the decision-makers of what we all want.
Yes, there are the outliers, as there are in every community make-up: Japan, Namibia, South Africa and Canada who believe that regulated trade is the way to go. Though they are thankfully the minority now, and this way it will stay.
At the end of the day, this was a win for the elephants and the animal kingdom in general.
But what does this realistically mean, what change will this invoke? What does having an endangered status slapped on an elephant mean, anyway?
Twenty-seven years ago, the international ivory trade was banned, but the killing of elephants for their ivory continued unabated, arguably because there was an exception to this ban: in Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, once-off sales were permitted. That, combined with the black market, enabled tusks to flow, enough to decimate the population by 30% between 2007-14.
The CITES Endangered status of the African elephant in all countries directly prohibits countries to sell their ivory as ‘once-off’ transactions to another country, however, and is especially significant considering the stockpiles some countries are sitting on. Flooding the market with ivory will simply stimulate supply, but more scarily, demand, all over again. We need only look at what previous once-off ivory sales did to reinvigorate poaching on a grand scale and the havoc it wreaked on elephant numbers.
An endangered classification will make the trade illegal and guide cabinets about what they should be aiming towards, but we need more- the black market has to be addressed by bolstering a score of other actions in other areas: governance, corruption, law enforcement, strengthening on-the-ground anti-poaching efforts, community and education initiatives. They play equally important parts. We also need to share intelligence, improve the judicial systems on wildlife protection laws, strengthen training of law enforcement agencies, further militarise anti-poaching units, and target people along the chain through smarter undercover operations and forensic science.
And that’s only the supply side of the issue- with rising populations and more disposable income in Asia, more ivory is purchased, fuelling the trade through ignorance, human greed and selfishness.
While a classification is critical, for endangered statuses and trade bans to make real and meaningful change, it needs to backed by unified political will and commitment from all governments, worldwide, and better partnerships between and across all international conservation organisations. Only then will the elephants stand a chance.
The recent motion by IUCN to call on world governments to shut down domestic ivory sales shows we are on the right track. The recent IUCN outcome could very well be a precursor of good things to come.
Significant change rests on an Appendix I classification, when elephants are afforded the highest protection and all ivory sales are banned.
Judgement Day, CITES conference, 24 Sep - 5 Oct, Sandton, Joburg.
Let’s go, world. Just ban the trade already and let elephants live.