Elephant poaching and the UK ivory trade - what's the connection?
Over the past decade Africa's elephants have been brutally slaughtered in huge numbers, to supply ivory into seemingly insatiable illegal international markets. As many as 30,000 elephants are thought to be victims of poaching each year. In September 2016, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated the continental elephant population to be just 415,000, following what it described as the worst declines in 25 years.
As a result, the ivory trade has come under increasing international scrutiny, and calls for an end to legal trade in ivory have gained pace. The United States, until recently a huge market for ivory, introduced a near total ban on ivory trade in June last year. In September, a motion passed at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) World Conservation Congress encouraged governments to close their domestic markets for elephant ivory as a matter of urgency. The following month, delegates at the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) voted to end a decade-long discussion about the establishment of future trade in ivory, and passed a Resolution calling for the closure of domestic markets that contribute to poaching or illegal trade. On 30th December 2016 China, widely regarded as the major destination for illegal ivory, said it would stop all commercial processing and sale of ivory by the end of March 2017, and shut down its domestic ivory market by the end of this year.
In spite of repeated Conservative Party manifesto pledges to press for a 'total ban' on ivory sales, the UK remains one of the world's biggest exporters of legal ivory products. According to the CITES Trade Database , the UK declared exports of over 25,000 ivory items between 2006-2015, the vast majority for commercial purposes.
Although most of these items were declared to be 'pre-Convention' antiques manufactured from or containing ivory, there is real concern that the trade indirectly impacts wild elephants by stimulating interest in and demand for ivory products in key markets, and providing a means by which illegal, 'new' ivory can be 'laundered' into trade. In the BBC Documentary "Saving Africa's Elephants: Hugh and the Ivory War" (24th October 2016), radiocarbon dating on nine carved ivory pieces purchased online in the UK revealed that two thirds were likely to be illegal, with four of the nine consisting of or containing ivory obtained since 1947.
A government e-petition calling on the UK Government to make good on its manifesto commitment and implement a 'total ban' reached 100,000 signatures on 15th January this year, demonstrating the strength of public support for government action. As a result, Parliament debated the issue on 6th February. However, to date our Government has indicated that it only intends to consult on shutting down the UK's domestic and export markets for raw ivory and worked ivory items obtained since 1947, leaving the market for 'antique ivory' open.
Our Government has expressed its desire to "continue to lead the world in stopping the poaching that kills thousands of rhinos, elephants and tigers each year." To avoid being left behind and to help ensure the future of Africa's elephants, Ministers must take bold and decisive action on ivory trade without delay, and by doing so set a precedent that our European partners and the wider world can follow.