Image: African bush elephant skull, © JimJones1971 at English Wikipedia

Professor Keith Somerville

Ivory and elephants have for decades been very emotive topics among conservationists, wildlife departments and NGOs in states which have elephant populations and in Western countries which believe they have a right to tell others how to manage their wildlife resources. This has led to a constant state of verbal and media warfare over the international trade in ivory and the best approaches to conserving elephants. The arguments have centred on Africa’s elephants – the main source of illegally traded ivory.

On 24 September this year, South Africa will host the 17th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).  The regular CITES conferences have since the late 1980s been the main battleground for the competing camps when it comes to the relationship between the trade in ivory and the conservation of elephants. This year’s meeting in Johannesburg from 24 September to 5 October will be no exception. The trenches are already being dug and the opening skirmishes have taken place more than two months before the delegates gather.


©Keith Somerville. Madiwke, SA

The basic divide is not over whether or not to try to conserve elephants or combat the scourge of poaching and smuggling of illicit tusks, but over whether the existence of a legal trade in ivory encourages further poaching or whether a regulated legal trade would serve to reduce incentives to poach. This divide has been with us since the 1980s, when pressure grew from East African-based conservationists and conservation/animal welfare NGOs to ban the legal trade in ivory as a major tactic in fighting the massive wave of poaching that had started in the 1970s and continued into the 1980s. Between 1979 and 1988, elephant numbers fell from around 1.3 million across sub-Saharan Africa to under 700,000 (Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton, Battle for the Elephants, London: Doubleday, 1992). The drastic fall in numbers was almost entirely due to poaching to meet massive demand in Hong Kong, Japan and, to a lesser extent, in North America and Western Europe. Ivory prices had increased tenfold between 1970 and 1979, reaching $74 per kg – prices in China (now the main market) are currently in the region of $1,200 per kg, having dropped recently from $2,100 (Lucy Vigne and Esmond Martin, Sharp Fall in the Price of Elephant Tusks in China).

Quota system ‘failed to overcome the massive corruption’
Concern over the drastic fall led some conservationists and most NGOs/advocacy groups (notably the US-based African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), the Born Free Foundation and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) to demand a ban on all ivory trading. At first not a single African elephant range state agreed and all believed that the legal ivory trade had a role in elephant conservation. Southern African states – notably Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe – had growing elephant populations in contrast with East, Central and West Africa, where poaching had decimated herds.

CITES tried but failed to introduce a quota system to control the trade, but this was poorly operated and failed to overcome the massive corruption that was involved in illegal ivory trading and enabled poached tusks to be passed off as legal ones. Eventually, after Kenya and Tanzania were won over to the ivory ban camp, CITES voted in 1989 to put all Africa’s elephants on its Appendix 1 of most endangered animals and ban all trade in ivory between CITES member countries. This was opposed by the southern African states, who inserted a caveat that they could apply to have their elephants down-listed in the future to Appendix  2, which would allow trade in ivory if agreed by CITES. This was later agreed at the 1997 CITES meeting in Harare and two one-off legal ivory sales were sanctioned by CITES with auctions of legal ivory in 1999 and 2008 at which Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe sold legal ivory from their stocks to Japan and China – the stocks consist of natural mortality ivory and ivory seized from poachers.

NGOs like EIA and Born Free argue that one-off legal sales have actually served to encourage further poaching. The evidence presented for this is weak, circumstantial and lacks any convincing causal link, though legal sales undoubtedly give a signal that the purchase of ivory is acceptable and so undercut attempts at demand reduction. The NGOs and pro-ban states like Kenya, argue that the legal sales have encouraged trading and led to a surge in poaching in the early 2000s and the first three years of the current decade, basing the argument on the coincidence of increasing poaching and one-off sales. But there are far more convincing arguments that the rising prosperity of China and its emergence as a huge market for ivory prompted the huge resurgence in poaching rather than one-off sales. The major increase in killing for ivory led to the deaths of an estimated 1,000,000 elephants in 2010-2012. Poaching rates are still thought to be around 20-30,000 a year, with very heavy poaching in southern Tanzania, northern Mozambique, Central and West Africa.

EU opposes all-encompassing ban on ivory sales
As the Johannesburg CITES summit nears, Namibia and Zimbabwe have started the process of petitioning CITES to exempt their elephants from the CITES trade ban on the grounds that their populations are thriving and that income from selling ivory from legal stocks obtained from collecting natural mortality ivory and tusks from animals killed in legal control programmes, would generate income to improve funding of conservation and anti-poaching efforts. This bid will be opposed by the 29 African range states that make up the African Elephant Coalition (AEC), who want a complete and permanent ban on ivory sales.

The AEC not only wants a trade ban but the destruction of ivory stocks – leading AEC member Kenya burned 105 tonnes of ivory in April this year. But the southern African states do not belong to AEC and even Botswana, which banned hunting in 2014 and has not applied to sell ivory, has vehemently opposed ivory burning. President Khama was in Kenya for an elephant summit in April but refused to attend the ivory burning ceremony denouncing it as wrong and wasteful. Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe all oppose a permanent ban on trading and have long-held the view that the 1989 ban has been a costly and unsuccessful experiment that has signally failed to stop poaching – elephant populations have increased steadily in these states and they make up more than half the estimated 400,000-630,000 elephants remaining in Africa.

The southern African states will again be in the trenches opposing the Kenyans and other AEC members and the NGOs in favour of a complete trade ban. But what will make the CITES summit even more interesting and controversial is the decision by the European Union (whose 28 members are all in CITES) to oppose a total global ban on ivory sales. A European Union position paper on ivory released on 1 July indicated that the European Commission opposed an all-encompassing ban as suggested by Kenya and the AEC and supported by NGOs, and believed it would be better to encourage countries with growing elephant numbers to manage their populations in a sustainable manner. The sustainability argument has been a main plank of those arguing that the total ban is ineffective and counter-productive. As the current CITES-sanctioned moratorium on all ivory sales – including from the down-listed and so tradable southern African ivory stocks – ends in 2017. CITES will have to make a decision on this in September, along with the Zimbabwean and Namibian petitions.

Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe would like the moratorium on trade to be replaced with some form of regulated decision-making mechanism for future ivory trading. In the past the EU has generally supported the ban and the moratorium on all legal sales and the anti-trade camp, led by the AEC, has responded to the position paper with fury and shock. One of the AEC voices raised against the EU is that of Andrew Seguya, the director of Uganda’s Wildlife Authority, who told the Guardian that ‘If the EU prevents an Annex I listing, it will be the beginning of the extinction of the African elephant for sure.’  What he failed to mention is that the poaching of elephants on a massive scale in the last five years has practically all taken place in countries whose elephants are still on the CITES highly endangered list (rather than the down-listed populations in southern Africa) and that Uganda has become a major hub for the smuggling of ivory from Central Africa to the main markets in China and East Asia.

EU officials have defended the position they have adopted, arguing that while the ban is right for some countries, in southern Africa there are good arguments for not having a total ban and that the African range states need to reach agreement on this. But agreement has never been a word one could associate with the CITES elephant debates. The southern African states and the EU are in for a rough ride in Johannesburg in September and once more, discussion is likely to be based on hyperbolic and emotive declarations from entrenched positions rather than constructive compromise that could further the cause of conservation in a sustainable way.


Professor Somerville is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS), a member of the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, and teaches at the Centre for Journalism, University of Kent. His book on the history and politics of the ivory trade in Africa, Ivory. Power and Poaching in Africa, will be published in November). He is one of the recipients of this year’s Marjan-Marsh Award, which is given by the King’s College’s Marjan Centre for the Study of War and the Non-Human Sphere and the Marsh Trust ‘to someone who has made an invaluable contribution to an area where conflict and conservation overlap’.

This article first appeared on the Commonwealth Opinion blog as ‘Ivory – battle lines being drawn over the trade in tusks ahead of CITES summit in South Africa’.