Ivory Trade in Focus Ahead of CITES Conference

14 July 2016

Preparations are well underway for the upcoming Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora (CITES), scheduled for late September in Johannesburg, South Africa. In the run-up to the meet, one of the hot items on the agenda is again expected to be ivory trade.

CITES has been in force since 1975, and was designed to protect endangered species by regulating their international trade. The accord does so by allotting the endangered species into one of three Appendices, depending on their risk and need for protection. Any trade in those species also requires approval through a licensing system.

The initial ban on international elephant ivory trade was put in place in 1989 by CITES, with proponents crediting the move for helping eliminate major ivory markets and lower illegal elephant killing, leading to localised recovery of some elephant populations.

However, in 2008 the ban on ivory trade was lifted temporarily to allow a one-off sale of the 108 tonnes of ivory stockpiled in countries within Africa, with the proceeds to go to elephant conservation activities. According to detractors of the decision, the singular lift of the ban led to a sharp increase in poaching almost immediately. The ban was also previously lifted briefly on other occasions. (See BioRes, 31 October 2008)


Ahead of the 24 September – 5 October meet, a series of proposals and position papers have been tabled relating to the ivory trade subject, among the various other topics also on the agenda.

Among the positions confirmed to date is a push by the so-called African Elephant Coalition (AEC) for an Appendix I listing of all African elephants, which would outlaw all international trade for commercial purposes, in order to prevent extinction.

The 29-country group includes Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Togo, and Uganda.

Various members of this group have already tabled a formal proposal on the subject to CITES, according to the COP website. While some African elephant populations are already in Appendix I, this document calls for including the populations from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe as well. This would therefore put all African elephants under this listing.

The proposal was put forward by Benin, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sri Lanka, and Uganda.

Another proposal has also been backed by Angola, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kenya, Niger, and Senegal that calls for all CITES parties and non-parties to “adopt all necessary legislative, regulatory, and enforcement measures as a matter of urgency to close their domestic markets for commercial trade in raw or worked ivory.”

Meanwhile, other African countries such as Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe are pushing to revive a previous proposal from earlier COPs that would involve a decision-making mechanism regarding future ivory trade.

For its part, the European Commission released a draft position paper on 1 July calling for clarifications over the scope of a proposed closure of domestic markets to ivory. The EU represents the biggest voting block at CITES, with Brussels set to conduct internal discussions on its final position before the CITES Conference in September.

“The call for a general closure of domestic ivory markets does not seem justified but the EU could show openness to initiatives aiming to restrict domestic ivory trade, provided that the measures are proportionate,” the document says, suggesting instead that countries with growing elephant numbers should be encouraged to “sustainably manage” their populations.

On the proposals relating to Appendix classifications, the European Commission’s proposed position for the Council questions whether to transfer the elephant populations from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe to Appendix I.

“These four national populations have an increasing population trend [to be confirmed for Zimbabwe] and do not meet the criteria for transfer to Appendix I,” the paper says, suggesting those countries continue their efforts to address poaching and “sustainably manage their elephant population.”

Elephant species are still at risk, with some data indicating a 61 percent population drop of African elephants between 1980 and 2013, mostly due to illegal poaching. Despite the measures taken, illegal wildlife trade is believed to have increased in East Africa, with over 25,000 elephants being killed illegally each year. The increase in poaching has become even more devastating within recent years. From 2010 to 2012 alone, over 100,000 elephants were killed illegally.

Some experts predict that this trend could lead to the extinction of elephants in Africa within 15 years (See ICTSD Opinion, 21 June 2016, and Bridges Africa, 10 March 2016).

A recent report by WildAid suggests that demand for illegal ivory is being fuelled partly by legal markets. Deficient regulatory systems allow ivory traders to replenish legal stocks with illegal ivory from poached African elephants. Rampant corruption also plays a role in encouraging illegal activity. Furthermore, illegal ivory trade is often used to fund conflict in unstable regions in Sub-Saharan Africa.

ICTSD reporting; “African wildlife officials appalled as EU opposes a total ban on free trade,” THE GUARDIAN, 6 July 2016; “On the frontline of Africa’s wildlife wars,” THE GUARDIAN, 8 May 2016; “Kenya to burn biggest ever stockpile of ivory,” THE GUARDIAN, 29 April 2016; “African Conservation Group With Unusual Mission: Enforcement,” THE NEW YORK TIMES, 12 October 2015; “100,000 Elephants Killed by Poachers in Just Three Years, Landmark Analysis Finds,” NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, 18 August 2014; “How World's Largest Legal Ivory Market Fuels Demand for Illegal Ivory,” NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, 22 October 2015; “China given green light to buy African ivory stockpile,” THE GUARDIAN, 15 July 2008.

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