UN May Legalize Ivory Sales from Africa to China

Most discussions of China’s search for resources in Africa focus on oil, minerals, and timber. Often overlooked is China’s equally huge appetite for ivory.

A paper published last year in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed poaching and trafficking of African elephants for their ivory tusks is is now at the highest rate since the international ban on the ivory trade took effect in 1989. Most of the poached elephants come from central African nations like Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Gabon. However, illicit ivory is also traded in Sudan, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, where Chinese arms deliveries have also been directly related to access to the country’s ivory markets. 

The paper goes on to say that:

[…] compounding the problem, ivory smuggling has become increasingly the province of organized crime, with narcotics and other contraband often being shipped with the tusks. Ivory prices have skyrocketed, Wasser said, and the incentives for killing elephants for their tusks have never been higher. […] Chinese demand for ivory is driving the black market where the material sells for $750 per kilogram, up from $100 in 1989 and $200 in 2004. The high prices have attracted organized crime, which runs sophisticated trafficking networks.

Now comes news from the Telegraph that:

China is expected to be given the green light by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) at a meeting in Geneva on Tuesday. The upcoming auction of 108 tonnes of ivory, which China would be able to participate in, is also likely to be given the go-ahead. In previous sales, only Japan had been allowed to take part.

An ivory ban was first imposed in 1989 after the number of African elephants fell to 625,000 from 1.3 million in 1980.

The ban was intended to be fully operative by 1997, but, led by Robert Mugabe, four south African countries – Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa – were allowed to opt out, on the basis that their elephant populations were stable or increasing, and they would only sell tusks of elephants that had died of natural causes or had been shot as rouges.

As a result, Cites allowed an auction of 50 tonnes of ivory from the four countries in 1999 for approved buyers only.

Allan Thornton, of the Environment Investigations Agency, said China’s participation in the next auction would catalyze a massive appetite for ivory. He said: “In a country of 1.3 billion people, demand for ivory from just a fraction of one per cent of the population is colossal. If these new legal imports go ahead, they will provide a gigantic cover for illegal ivory to be sucked in.”

From the BBC:

Giving China the right to import more ivory legally will simply fuel the black market, critics say. They add that China’s verification of where its imported ivory really comes from remains weak.

The discussions in Geneva are likely to be heated. Some environmental groups accuse Cites officials of ignoring the advice of their own wildlife experts, and bowing instead to pressure from China.

While China has been increasingly lobbying to be allowed to buy ivory, it has also been caught out by reports that it is the biggest market for illegal ivory.

In today’s Sunday Standard, a Botswana newspaper, there is a report that:

Botswana and South African police are investigating local elephant poachers believed to be linked to “international organized crime which run sophisticated trafficking networks.” […] Botswana Police and their South African counterparts mobilized the joint operation after it emerged that Botswana ivory is being smuggled into the South African black market from where it is believed to be shipped to China, United States of America and Japan. […]

[A] report released last month by the conservation group, Care for the Wild International, revealed that the commercial trade in elephant ivory is thriving despite an international ban. The report finds that the U.S. is a major importer of ivory, second only to China. 
From 1979 to 1989, about 600,000 African elephants were killed for their tusks, the report says, which is about half of the continent’s elephant population.

China’s has also historically had lax enforcement of ivory import restrictions, and the AP reports today that there may be reason to suspect resistance to legalizing the sale of ivory to China:

China’s government lost track of 121 tons of elephant ivory over a dozen years that probably was sold on illegal markets, according to a previously undisclosed Chinese report to U.N. regulatory officials.

The “shortfall” in ivory described in the document between 1991 and 2002 — equal to the tusks from about 11,000 dead elephants — could provide fodder for representatives of a U.N. accord to reject China’s attempt next week to gain permission to import more ivory. “We have not been able to account for the shortfall through the sale of legal ivory by the selected selling sites in the country,” Chinese officials reported in 2003 to the Swiss-based U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES. “This suggests a large amount of illegal sale of the ivory stockpile has taken place.”

For more information see:

* CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora)
* International Fund for Animal Welfare


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