19 September 2016
Wildlife Crime: Fanning the Ivory Pyres
Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth
story highlights

Stopping wildlife crime has truly become, as the title of a recent International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress (WCC) high-level dialogue pronounced, “Everybody's Business.”

Stopping wildlife crime has truly become, as the title of a recent International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress (WCC) high-level dialogue pronounced, “Everybody’s Business.” And it seems everyone – from multilateral organizations to national governments to the private sector and to non-governmental organizations – is getting in on the action.

The plight of the African elephant continues to galvanize the most attention, arguably serving as the face of the fight against wildlife crime. So far this year, the elephant poaching crisis was the focus of two UN Days and a motion at the September meeting of the IUCN WCC, and has spurred numerous celebrity, private sector and national announcements taking aim at stemming their illegal slaughter and trade in ivory.

Through the lens of the elephant, this policy update investigates how international pressure to stop wildlife crime has grown and changed this year. It recounts key actions taken by an array of actors in the policy spectrum, illuminating some of the positions likely to impact the upcoming Conference of the Parties (CoP) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Fauna and Flora (CITES). Here governments will debate over 60 proposals to amend CITES appendices, which determine the level of protection afforded to elephants, among numerous other species, as well as regulations on trade in ivory.

The Global Stage

Wildlife crime has transcended from policy buzzword to an actionable issue at the highest policy levels. For the last two years, the UN General Assembly, led by the world’s governments, has adopted resolutions linking poaching for ivory, and wildlife crime in general, to transnational criminal networks and financing for terrorist groups, thus elevating the issue to a national (and international) security concern. Resolution (A/RES/70/301), adopted in July 2015, calls on Member States to make trafficking involving organized criminal groups a serious crime in accordance with national legislation and the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. As a follow-up to the resolution this year, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released the first-ever global assessment of wildlife and forest crime, noting nearly 7,000 different species accounted for more than 164,000 seizures in 120 countries. In his speech introducing the report, UNODC Director General Yury Fedotov called for criminalizing the possession of illegal wildlife. The 2016 version of the resolution was adopted by the UNGA in early September, calling for a high-level discussion to be held on the 2017 World Wildlife Day. With regard to the text, Herald Braun (Germany) noted that globally, illegal wildlife trade was valued at around $19 billion annually.

Also at the multilateral level, the UN dedicated two “International Days” – World Environment Day and the World Wildlife Day (WWD) – to raising awareness on the elephant crisis, as well as on stopping wildlife crime overall. The WWD subtheme was, ‘The future of elephants is in our hands,’ and at a high-level panel held at UN Headquarters in NY, US, multiple speakers called for addressing the demand and supply side to the ivory crisis.

The 5 June 2016, World Environment Day heavily promoted the UNEP Wild for Life Campaign against illegal wildlife trade, a collaboration with UNDP, UNODC, CITES and others. The campaign, launched at the second UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-2) in May, worked to garner celebrity as well as broad civil society participation. A joint INTERPOL-UNEP report, titled ‘Rise of Environmental Crime’ and launched on the Day, highlights that transnational criminal networks profit up to US$258 billion per year from environmental crime, including in wildlife, a figure that “dwarfs the illegal trade in small arms.”

Stopping illicit trade in wildlife products has also become enshrined in the missions of UNEA, the world’s highest-level decision making body on environmental issues, as well as in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the universal plan for achieving environmentally sound economic growth and development. The resolution adopted at UNEA-2 links wildlife conservation to sustainable development and calls on Member States to make illicit trafficking in protected species of wild fauna and flora involving organized criminal groups a serious crime. SDG target 15.7 calls for “urgent action to end poaching and trafficking of protected species of flora and fauna and address both demand and supply of illegal wildlife products.”

National Signals

While dialogue, resolutions and reports have been produced at the multi-lateral level, perhaps more important are the moves countries have made on an individual basis – the kind of announcements that can frame and push policy-making and implementation of these internationally agreed goals.

In June, the US, purportedly the world’s second-largest consumer of illegally poached ivory, announced a near ban on all domestic ivory trading. A few months later, in September, the US and China jointly agreed to ban domestic trade in ivory, with news outlets indicating that a Chinese timetable for reaching such a milestone would be published by the year’s end. An official US Government factsheet states that the two countries, “commit to enact nearly complete bans on ivory import and export, including significant and timely restrictions on the import of ivory as hunting trophies, and to take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory.” A National Geographic article notes how this is a complete role reversal for China, which historically worked to sanction trade in ivory, undertaking measures that often promoted illegal trade and increased poaching.

The US-China announcement came just before the IUCN, inclusive of 1200 governmental and non-governmental organizations, voted during its WCC Members’ Assembly to encourage all of its Members to ban all domestic trade in ivory. IUCN Motion 07 did not pass without controversy, with South Africa and Japan said to have lobbied against the motion. According to IISD RS, it was adopted after a closed contact group meeting and multiple hours of debate. In response to the vote, the head of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) wildlife crime initiative agreed that “it is time to end the trade.” Angola was another country to end its domestic ivory market 2016, doing so on WWD.

Ivory pyres were also employed as ways for countries to express their views on elephant poaching and the illegal ivory trade. At the end of April, Kenya burned the largest stockpile of ivory and rhino horn in history. The country did so in conjunction with the ‘Giants Club Summit,’ which brought together the four club members (Kenya, Botswana, Gabon and Uganda) with a variety of stakeholders, to advance elephant conservation and implementation of action plans, including finance. Giants Club members announced that Gabon would double staff at its National Parks Agency from 750 to 1,500; Uganda would construct an electrified fence around Murchison Falls National Park to reduce incidents of human­‐elephant conflict; Botswana would form an intelligence­‐led special operations unit to support wildlife rangers; and Kenya would launch a National Conservation Endowment Fund, the profits of which would fund conservation.

So many countries have recently burned ivory stockpiles that Benin, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Kenya presented a document (Doc. 47.3) to the sixty-sixth meeting of the CITES Scientific Committee (SC66), which met in January 2016, noting that in 2015, ivory destructions occurred almost every month and recommending SC66 endorse the action. In the end, the Committee watered down the language to “take note” rather than “endorse” these actions undertaken by China, Ethiopia, Hong Kong SAR, India, Kenya, Mozambique, the Republic of Congo, Thailand, UAE and the US, to protest the upsurge in elephant poaching and illegal ivory trade.

All Aboard!

With the ivory stockpiles burning, celebrity A-list support for ending the elephant crisis and wildlife crime added fuel to the pyres. So many celebrities have joined the cause that the Fashion and Style Section of the NY Times published an article on the trend. The article, ‘How the Elephant Became the Newest Celebrity Cause,’ documents the many sports stars, pop stars, actors, fashion icons and royals that have attached their name and influence to ending elephant poaching. The article compares elephant conservation now to saving the rainforest in the 90s, and calls “#SaveTheElephants[…] a rallying cry among the celebrity class.”

This increased public pressure on the demand side might be working. In January, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C, US, exposed the sale of illegal ivory on Yahoo! Japan. The EIA conducted an under-cover investigation from which it concluded that “six Japanese ivory trading companies that sell ivory via the popular shopping site Yahoo! Japan offered to engage in illegal activities to buy, sell, acquire, or fraudulently register an unregistered ivory tusk” and highlighted in a press release that the company is the largest online retailer of ivory in the world, selling more than US$10 million annually. The revelations were followed by an open letter to the company signed by 32 environmental and conservation organizations calling for the company to halt all elephant ivory sales on its shopping and auction sites.

Under the public eye, other large internet retailers have also announced steps to curb the sale of illegal ivory and wildlife products on their shopping sites. On World Elephant Day (12 August) this year, eBay, Etsy, Gumtree, Microsoft, Pinterest, Tencent and Yahoo! adopted a global, standardized wildlife policy framework in collaboration with World Wildlife Fund (WWF), TRAFFIC and International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). This framework followed a 2014 MoU between TRAFFIC and the Alibaba Group in Hangzhou, China, and a 2015 MoU between TRAFFIC and Tencent, a leading provider of Internet value-added services also in China, to reduce illicit trade in wildlife products and to educate consumers.

Harsh Reality

Despite this flurry of activity from an array of stakeholders, the data continue to show that the international community is far from stopping wildlife crime and a long way from securing the future of elephants. Two CITES monitoring programmes, the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) and the Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE), released reports this summer showing that while the upward trend in poaching has leveled (a positive outcome), poaching remains high enough to threaten elephant survival. The ETIS publication states that from 2012-2013 illicit trade in ivory was the highest since the CITES ban on international trade in raw ivory went into effect in 1990.

In August, the Great Elephant Census released its results at the WCC. This multi-partner project meant to provide an accurate survey of elephant populations concluded that, between 2007 and 2014, Savanna elephant populations declined by 30%. In addition, due to poaching, the rate of decline is 8% annually and high numbers of elephant carcasses found in protected areas indicate that elephants are struggling both inside and outside parks.

Documented unsustainable levels of elephant poaching continue to threaten the species’ future and illegal ivory as well as other illicit wildlife products remain readily available for sale on the internet – fueling wildlife crime. A National Geographic article details the difficulty Google, Yahoo, eBay, Amazon and Craigslist have had in stopping the sale of illicit wildlife products through their sites, as well as describing how hard it is to tell if an ivory item is really legal and/or accompanied by proper documentation.


Next up this year will be CITES CoP17, which will take place at the end of September and into October. This is the meeting where governments decide how to regulate trade in ivory as well as the levels of protection afforded to an array of endangered species. Overall, the CoP will debate 62 proposals to amend its Appendices. (Essentially an Appendix I listing means no trade/the species is in danger, while Appendix II means regulated trade/the species could be in danger.)

With regard to elephants, Namibia and Zimbabwe have both submitted proposals to decrease protections on their populations (an unqualified Appendix II listing), noting that the ivory trade ban has been a failure, and that in the case of crocodiles (Zimbabwe) legal trade destroyed illegal trade. Zimbabwe and Namibia have both indicated that their populations are in good health and that their effective and sustainable conservation depends on regular open market sales of elephant ivory to fund management and enforcement actions. The countries are also lobbying to start talking about and establish a Decision Making Mechanism (DMM) to support future trade in ivory, which was previously agreed.

According to IISD RS, at the SCC66 in January, the CITES SC agreed “not to discuss the DMM, an issue that parties considered to be contentious, long recognizing that discussing the possibility of trade in ivory would send the wrong message to poachers―inviting them to poach more. Some parties viewed the decision not to discuss and ask CoP17 to revoke the mandate of the working group on this topic as positive. However, a number of parties also pointed out that this would have no influence on poaching, in light of the fact that ivory poaching happens mostly in countries where elephants would never be listed under Appendix II in the first place because of high levels of poaching.”

The downlisting of elephants and the establishment of a mechanism for international ivory trade stand in stark contrast to a proposal submitted by Benin, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sri Lanka and Uganda calling for African elephant populations to all be listed under Appendix I. This means that the current spilt list (some country’s population are Appendix I (no trade) while others are Appendix II (regulated trade)) would end, and all elephants would be afforded the highest level of protection, with zero trade in ivory permitted. This proposal is also being supported by the African Elephant Coalition, an independent consortium of 29 African countries, which is also supporting the closure of domestic ivory markets, the destruction of government stockpiles and ending the DMM process. The European Union, the world’s largest exporter of pre-CITES ivory, in a position paper, notes that “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…” It also notes that the populations of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe do not meet the criteria for an Appendix I listing, but that, given the poaching crisis, it is premature to resume the ivory trade.

Clearly the stakes are high going into the CITES CoP, with a diverse cohort of companies, citizens and civil society groups, and countries making their positions clear and watching for outcomes. It remains to be seen how governments will move forward on this issue at this meeting, and if they can do so in a cohesive fashion. Most important is that the outcomes from the CITES CoP continue and inspire further action to end wildlife crime and the elephant poaching crisis. As the problem itself has illuminated, it is much bigger than the scope of one Convention, and will require serious commitments by all actors, at all levels, well into the future.

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