How can it be that the United States, which takes a very tough stance against tyrants, drug lords and terrorists, is such a pushover when it comes to two-bit, would-be ivory dealers? That's the lingering question after a delegation from the United States, led by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe, voted against an African proposal to extend full legal international protection to all African elephants. The disgraceful no vote was cast at the 2016 meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Conference of Parties held in Johannesburg, Africa, Sept. 24 to Oct. 5. The proposal would have restored all African elephants to CITES Appendix I, a classification that would prohibit commercial trade globally— the change we need to end the exploitation of elephants before it’s too late. Sadly, the U.S.’ no-vote contributed to the overall defeat of the proposal and shocked many of America's African allies who are desperate to protect their elephants from the current poaching crisis that has decimated 30 percent of Africa’s elephants over the past seven years. It sent the message that the United States is willing to tolerate loopholes in the international ivory control system—which is the opposite of what the Obama Administration has been advocating for nearly eight years.
And to top it all off, the vote snubbed the request of nearly five dozen members of Congress, who specifically asked the U.S. delegation to support the Appendix I listing proposal. The U.S. delegation’s move also stimulates the hopes of illegal ivory dealers—giving them the impression America is weak and ambivalent on the ivory issue.
To make matters worse, the shameful U.S. position was shrouded in secrecy until the last minute. Despite a large number of American non-government organizations being present, the U.S. delegation and Ashe, soon-to-be president of the Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, kept tight-lipped about its deceitful intentions. There was no transparency at all.
WHY THE PROPOSAL WAS CRUCIAL
The proposal would have closed a festering loophole known as “split-listing,” a bad mechanism created by CITES in 1997. A split-listing separates Africa’s elephants into two categories. Most elephants are on CITES Appendix I, which means that all international trade is prohibited. But the elephants of four southern African countries—Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe—are listed on Appendix II, which means international trade in their ivory can be conducted under certain circumstances. CITES-authorized legal trade in ivory was conducted first in 1999 and again in 2009, with a total of about 155 tons being sold to China and Japan.
The loophole was promptly exploited by the illegal ivory dealers, who pushed thousands of tons of contraband ivory (the lives of more than 100,000 elephants) into the flourishing legal markets of Asia over the past two decades. All a criminal syndicate needed to do was smuggle its ivory to a country with legal domestic markets and mix it in with the legal stocks. This illegal trafficking has resulted in many crimes of violence, including the murder of more than a thousand African park rangers, and has generated enormous profits for criminals, terror groups and violent militias.
The illegal ivory trade today has a retail value of at least $1.8 billion annuallyy—enough to attract the most greedy and violent lawbreakers.
BEHIND THE SCENES AT CITES
When the African proposal came to the floor of the CITES meeting, the original 13 sponsors—Benin, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sri Lanka and Uganda—were joined by another 19 African countries, including Botswana, which courageously acknowledged its previous position to be an error. They became the African Elephant Coalition; 32 African countries standing against the remaining three hold-outs: Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. It was clear to all that the vast majority of Africans wanted to shut down the split-listing loophole. But certain Asian countries and their sympathizers were not so keen on closing the loophole. And the European Union, which votes as a block of 28 countries, was persuaded to oppose the Appendix I listing, even though individual European delegations privately said they favored uplisting all elephants. Had the U.S. and the E.U. both voted in favor of the African proposal, all elephants would be on Appendix I today, and the hope of future ivory trade extinguished. But the proposal failed to achieve the required two-thirds majority, and Africa’s elephants today remain vulnerable to the vicissitudes of a split-listing.
Unfortunately, these delegations failed to see the consequences of validating the Appendix II listing for some of Africa’s elephants. The Appendix II listing enables the horrific ivory trade and is critical to its future. Ivory, like any commodity, responds to market forces. In particular, the illegal ivory trade has many characteristics of the commodity futures market, where investors essentially speculate on marketability and potential profits at some time in the future. When prospects of a future market become brighter, the price goes up and the effort to acquire a commodity intensifies. In other words—intensified poaching!
The U.S. delegation claimed that it voted against the African proposal because it opened up the potential for member nations to take a “reservation” and use a victory on Appendix I uplisting as a back door to resume trade. A reservation is a legal option that gives countries the right to reject CITES decisions. But that does not mean it would open the back door—or any other door—to any trade.
“During discussion about the proposal, Namibia explicitly stated its intention to take a reservation. We are unalterably opposed to resumption of commercial ivory trade, under any terms. Therefore, because of the risk it represented, we felt compelled to oppose a proposal that we would otherwise support,” the U.S. delegation explained.
The United States may want to blame being bullied by Namibia for not supporting the Appendix I proposal, but the situation begs the question: Did Namibia’s threat have any substance at all?
Even if Namibia went rogue and decided to export ivory—who would buy it? What country would openly disregard CITES? The U.S. knew that even if Namibia did take a reservation, it wouldn't have any place to sell its ivory, because no market country had even suggested interest in conspiring in some rogue ivory deal. Even China, the world's largest ivory market, has announced its intent to shut it down. It is one thing for a country to turn a blind eye to smuggling, and ignore the abuses of shady domestic markets. But a country openly welcoming a boatload of contraband from a defiant exporter is another. The United States delegation knows CITES has practical experience with elephant ivory reservations and their empty threats. Back in 1989, CITES voted to put all African elephants on Appendix I, and a rash of southern African countries, along with co-conspirators in Asia, filed reservations to reject the decision. Even the British jumped in—on behalf of their then-colony Hong Kong.
Despite all the noise those countries made, the Appendix I listing had a decisive impact. The price of ivory collapsed and poachers, not willing to risk their lives for pennies, quit poaching. Elephant habitats remained relatively peaceful until the split-listing decision of 1997.
The U.S. delegation should be ashamed of itself for knowing there is a catastrophic poaching epidemic in Africa and ignoring that an Appendix I listing has proved to be a successful remedy in the past. How could the U.S. delegation ignore that an Appendix I listing was supported by 90 percent of the African elephant range countries, some of which are in dire straits trying to fend of waves of criminal gangs. How could it turn a blind’s eye to their misery?
Somehow it all seems so disingenuous. Add to that the U.S.’ furtiveness regarding its intentions, an affront to anyone who believes in governmental transparency, and one gets the disturbing feeling that there was some other shady deal influencing the decision-making process.
ALL IS NOT LOST
While some nations failed African elephants—the CITES conference was not entirely bleak for elephants. Participants did manage to pass resolutions calling for the closure of domestic ivory markets, the disposal of ivory stockpiles, tighter restrictions on international sale of baby elephants and termination of the insipid Decision Making Mechanism that used CITES budget, staff time and other resources to plan the trading mechanisms for a future ivory market— even at a time when elephants are being killed in the tens of thousands each year.
And don’t forget, Ashe is on his way out. In the meantime Friends of Animals members can donate toward bolstering anti-poaching efforts in Africa. And we continue our work to protect other wildlife in Africa, such as chimpanzees through the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project in the Gambia, and scimitar-horned oryx through the Guembeul Faunal Reserve and Ferlo National Park in Senegal