A Horrible Elephant Déjà Vu

Thousands of elephants have been orphaned in the last few years because of CITES decisions. © Dave Currey 2016
Thousands of elephants have been orphaned in the last few years because of CITES decisions. © Dave Currey 2016

I spent a great deal of my life in the late 1980s undercover, following the sound of drills carving out ivory name seals for the Japanese market and crude souvenirs for tourists.

Hong Kong ivory traders set up small factories in Africa, the Middle East and across Asia. I met many of them, discussed their business and learned their scams. These were the people behind the slaughter of around 70,000 elephants every year.

Thirty years later I hear the same failed arguments and proposals for ivory trade, often from the same people and organisations. It is with a degree of disbelief I see the international community arguing the same points as if nothing has been learned from the past. Apparently it hasn’t. Even the same countries (Zimbabwe and Namibia) are petulantly stamping their feet and threatening to stop talking if they don’t get their way at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Conference to be held in South Africa at the end of this month. It’s all a horrible déjà vu.

The ivory trade has run rings around politicians, statisticians, economists and conservationists while profiting hugely from the horrendous carnage created by their business. It would be foolhardy and exceedingly naïve to believe the criminals whose networks were developed during the 1980s are not pulling some of the strings now.

In the last forty years there have been two periods of uncontrolled poaching of hundreds of thousands of African elephants. Both have resulted in the murder of hundreds of wildlife rangers, the death of hundreds of poachers, and fuelled dangerous corruption and criminality in some of the poorest countries in the world.

The first in the 1980s was a period when the international community through CITES attempted to set up an ivory control system to allow international and domestic sales of ivory. As part of this system large stockpiles of ivory were registered by CITES and subsequently legalised.

This system helped to increase the power of the criminal networks which owned the newly legalised stocks. Its failure as a system, and indeed as a concept, is well documented. If science needs any further evidence of the abject failure of the idea, it lies in the carcasses of almost a million African elephants gunned down during this period and the well-funded birth of sophisticated international ivory criminal networks.

Following the international ivory ban agreed in 1989 elephant populations in some of those hardest hit by the poaching started to recover. Major consumer markets collapsed and poaching levels in the 1990s were brought under control allowing precious conservation funds to support innovative policies rather than fight a bush war.

"Hope" poached in Kenya 2011 within one of CITES most intensely monitored sites. © Dave Currey / EIA
“Hope” poached in Kenya 2011 within one of CITES most intensely monitored sites. © Dave Currey / EIA

The second period of uncontrolled poaching is with us now. It started in the early 2000s when the CITES ban was lifted for a “one-off” experimental sale of ivory to Japan. Ignoring evidence of increased poaching and a growing illegal trade in ivory in China, CITES repeated this “one-off” foolhardy experiment with a second sale in 2008 to China and Japan. Since then around 200,000 elephants have been poached, thousands orphaned, hundreds of rangers and poachers killed, and many of the ivory networks are stronger and wealthier than ever before. These “experiments” have caused an appalling wildlife and human tragedy.

As the CITES delegates listen to the arguments for a global ivory ban proposed by 29 African countries, I would like them to consider their responsibility for the current poaching crisis and their past failure to learn from their mistakes.
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I have written a short report with more detail (download here) but I list below many of the well-known scams ivory traders have repeated and how CITES has enabled their criminality by ignoring history and an enormous expert resource:

1) Ignoring on-site experts from around the world while focusing on CITES consultants with a questionable track record.

Then: The CITES ivory control system devised in the 1980s failed so badly around 70,000 elephants were poached each year in the lead up to the 1989 ban. Rowan Martin, the deputy director of research in Zimbabwe’s department of wildlife helped design the system. At the time he stated “Closing the illegal trade gaps is a waste of time … the problem is not the foreign importers.” He could not have been more wrong.

Now: Rowan Martin, yes the same, was hired as a consultant by CITES for reportedly $50,000 to prepare a report on a future centralised ivory control system for the last CITES conference in 2013. Although his ideas were heavily criticised, this mechanism for future ivory trading is still on the agenda.

Then: WWF and TRAFFIC (WWF’s trade monitoring arm) opposed the 1989 Appendix 1 listing of African elephants trying to negotiate an opportunity (which failed) for some southern African countries to be able to trade ivory again in only 2 years. Tom Milliken was TRAFFIC’s lead on the issue.

Now: Tom Milliken heads the CITES Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) as TRAFFIC’s ivory expert. His assurance that the Japanese sale in 1999 had not increased illegal trade and poaching (strongly criticised and refuted by many others) and that the 2008 ivory sales to China and Japan would be likely to reduce prices and poaching, heavily influenced the CITES decision to make the second disastrous one-off sale. Other experts from around the world strongly warned against such a decision but were ignored. Ivory prices rocketed by 650% and poaching increased to levels not seen since the 1980s.

2) Registration of stock and its subsequent legalisation increases the value of ivory, providing increased profit to dealers who illegally obtained ivory.

Then: CITES legalisation of 359 tonnes registered ivory in the 1980s provided millions of dollars profit to criminal traders. It also provided cover for the laundering of newly obtained poached ivory into their markets.

Now: In Hong Kong, perhaps the world’s largest ivory laundry, the registered stockpile (pre 1990) has continued to be used as a cover for laundering ivory for over 25 years.

The same scam has been used in China, Thailand, Vietnam and most other ivory markets with “registered” stock. Through CITES National Ivory Action Plans ivory continues to be registered either for trade (Thailand) or providing expectation of future trade.

3) Increased profits to criminals allows them to dominate the trade setting up new operations and fund corruption throughout the chain.

Then: Owners of the 270 tonne Singapore stockpile in 1986 used profits to increase their network and set up ivory carving factories in countries such as UAE, Taiwan and South Korea.

Now: At the present time, Asian criminal networks, often in collaboration with local political and economic elites, completely dominate the supply of raw ivory out of Africa. This is exacerbated by increasing evidence of direct Chinese involvement in Africa-based ivory processing operations in many countries including Angola, Congo, Ivory Coast, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Report prepared for CITES by TRAFFIC, July 2016.

4) Sea-container traffic is so huge enforcement staff only inspect 1 – 2% of shipments. Poached ivory can arrive in any destination.

Then: In 1989 it was estimated that only 1% of container traffic entering Hong Kong was inspected. It was possible to reduce this tiny risk by bribing officials. Smuggled ivory could easily enter Hong Kong.

Now: “The port of Hong Kong handles more than 20 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) every year and it is only possible to inspect less than one per cent of all incoming cargo and detect only one out ten illegal wildlife shipments (Cordon & Mulqueeny, 2014)”.

5) Withholding ivory stocks increases prices which fuels poaching of elephants.

Then: After the 1986 ivory amnesty of Singapore’s 270 tonne stockpile the three main owners of the stock (all Hong Kong traders) withheld supplies from other traders, pushing up prices and fuelling poaching in Africa.

Now: Chinese and Japanese companies bought 115 tonnes of ivory sold by Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe in 2008. In China the government marked up the ivory 650% and devised a ten year plan to release only 5 tonnes into the market annually. Prices rocketed and poaching increased across Africa.

6) Paperwork/permits are more valuable than the ivory they relate to because they can be used repeatedly until required to prevent confiscation by enforcement officials.

Then: The trade in illegal ivory relied upon some legal trade to provide cover. In Hong Kong in the late 1980s CITES permits were said to be more valuable than the ivory they related to because they could be repeatedly used to “legitimise” poached ivory.

Now: Because it is easy to smuggle poached ivory into the markets, paperwork “legitimising” ivory is valuable. It is reported that ivory photo ID cards in China are a valuable commodity available on a secondary market to apply to smuggled ivory.

7) Different national legislation is used to the advantage of traders when moving ivory around.

Then: In the 1980s the main hubs for ivory in Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, UAE, South Korea, Malaysia, the EU and the USA all had different legislation. These different laws provided the experts in the trade – the ivory traders – with opportunities to bypass any new legislation in one country and maximise opportunities and profits.

Now: Legislation and ivory systems differ throughout the world. In Hong Kong whole tusks and larger cut pieces require marking with a serial number but smaller items do not. In China a photo ID system is in place. Both China and Hong Kong have registered stock through which poached ivory can be laundered. If greater restrictions are put in place it will be important for traders to use registered stocks in another country. Thailand has recently registered an incredible 220 tonnes of so-called “domestic ivory” claimed to be owned by 44,000 people. This would provide a new opportunity for traders in the region to launder poached ivory. Other neighbouring countries such as Vietnam and Laos could also become significant.

8) To maintain the market it is important to ensure the public perceive that it is alright to buy ivory and that controls have been relaxed.

Then: It was recognised that any pronouncement about ivory would affect the consumers. As soon as the perception that ivory was not acceptable because of the slaughter of elephants, major consuming markets recorded sudden lack of interest in the commodity. Major markets shut down.

Now: In 2002 the Chinese government warned CITES that the sale of ivory to Japan in 1999 had been the main reason behind the increase in ivory smuggling. It stated “Many Chinese people misunderstand the decision and believe that the international trade in ivory has been resumed.” It has since taken huge publicity campaigns to dent the consumer market in China. The attempts by a handful of southern African countries to continue to sell ivory is vital to the ivory traders to confuse the public.
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CITES failure to control the ivory trade and learn from history has resulted in tragic consequences. Efforts by ivory traders, WWF, TRAFFIC, the EU and a few southern African countries to question whether CITES decisions caused the elephant poaching crisis are a pathetic denial of responsibility. It is time CITES stopped forever any future “experiments” with lives of elephants and the brave rangers who try to protect them. It is time for CITES to recognise the 29 African countries which have called for a permanent global ban on ivory and listen to a wider pool of experts than those that have so ill-advised it over the years.


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Dave Currey

Dave Currey is an environmental campaigner, photographer, writer and film maker. He is the co-founder of the Environmental Investigation Agency.