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World body that could protect elephants—decides not to

Earlier this month the nations of the world met to decide on how to deal with the sale of wild animals and their parts. Yes, that is still the relationship we have with them. Highest on many minds was the most acute driving force behind the most talked-about, most widely cared-about conservation issue on Earth at the moment: how to save elephants. How to stop the bloodshed and precipitous decline of Africa’s elephants due to killing for their tusks.

The nations decided to do almost nothing.

Ivory is about elephants. Elephants that are intelligent and sensitive and social and live with their families and need their mothers. But for many people and many governments, ivory is about “trade.” Sales. Commerce. Enforcement. Money.

International trading in ivory and other “wildlife products” is regulated through a treaty called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES, pronounced SY-tees). The many nations that abide by this treaty meet every three years to consider new proposals and adjustments. They keep lists. If they put a species on the list called Appendix I, sale of that species across national borders is not allowed.

Twenty-nine African countries went into the recent meeting in Johannesberg wanting a total ban on ivory sale. But South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana—with the largest remaining elephant population of any country—wanted to extend the possibility of selling ivory and killing elephants. During intense debate Botswana surprised everyone by joining the others in calling for an all-out ban. Even China came out strong. It was looking promising.

Philo, a large bull elephant, Samburu, Kenya, 2013. Photo: Ike Leonard
Philo, a large bull elephant, Samburu, Kenya, 2013. Photo: Ike Leonard

Then an amazing thing happened. The European Union, voting as one “member” of CITES but with each of its 28 countries still—nonsensically and disruptively—getting a separately counted vote, came out against the total ban. So, did the United States. And so, incredibly, did the World Wildlife Fund. WWF’s wants more enforcement toward ending the illegal ivory trade—as if a total ban would not help do that.

Instead of a ban, the CITES nations agreed to tinker around the edges. The procedure for deciding how to let South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe sell ivory was suspended, leaving the countries that want to sell in limbo about how to proceed; they’ll be back. And all nations were advised to end internal sale of ivory. The recommendation is non-binding. Japan has already said it won’t comply. If you want to look at that glass as half-full, then drink deep. If you care about elephants, then you’ll want something stiffer.

Philo, dead. This photo was taken four days after previous photo, in the adjacent Buffalo Springs Reserve, Kenya, 2013. Photo: Carl Safina
Philo, dead. This photo was taken four days after previous photo, in the adjacent Buffalo Springs Reserve, Kenya, 2013. Photo: Carl Safina

Many conservation organizations who worked hard for elephants have put a positive spin on the outcome, since this is what they got and it’s a little better than nothing. For my part, I’m disgusted—with the dithering, the murky messaging, the politics, the weakness. If we cannot take a strong stand for elephants—the world’s most beloved and most recognizable creature—is there hope for a better deal between humanity and the living world? Indeed, is there simply even hope for elephants?

In understand there are problems. In understand that humanity’s decision to manage elephants and banish them to reserves and parks requires money. I understand that expanding farms often come in conflict with elephants and that local people may be more inclined to keep elephants around at all if they can kill some for cash. I understand that elephants will eventually die of old age and leave tusks worth money. I understand that a ban does not end criminal activity unless there’s enforcement.

I also understand this: whenever anyone is allowed to sell some ivory, there are people ready to kill elephants illegally wherever elephants live. By now everyone should know this in spades.

In the 1980s CITES enacted a legal ivory sales-quota system. It didn’t work. Elephant numbers continued plummeting because continuing to allow selling certain ivory facilitated easy laundering of any ivory. That was Lesson One.

The only thing that has ever worked was a bitterly won worldwide ivory ban, first implemented in 1990. Zero allowed. Ivory prices instantly collapsed. Elephant populations slowly increased. The ivory ban worked. Lesson Two.

But it lasted only until 1999. That year CITES allowed Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia to sell 50 metric tons of stockpiled ivory to Japan, calling it a “one-time-sale.” Then China wanted in. In 2008, CITES administrators let China buy stockpiled ivory from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe—the second “one-time” sale.

Failure to learn from mistakes is unwise, but failure to learn from success takes true determination.

“Ivory is illegal; don’t buy it” is a clear message to consumers, law enforcers, and governments. “Some ivory is illegal, but some is OK,” creates confusion that offers perfect cover for killing elephants. Giving China some stockpiled ivory opened floodgates to laundering illegal tusks. Immediately, poaching surged, condemning tens of thousands of elephants to death while fueling human bloodshed. In Kenya, for instance, killing ballooned eightfold from fewer than 50 elephants killed in 2007 to nearly 400 in 2012. Aggressive enforcement has recently brought that number down. But we have very far to go to ensure a future for elephants. From an estimated ten million elephants in the early 1900s, there are fewer than half that now. And an estimated 30- to 40,000 elephants are being killed every year—an elephant every 15 minutes. Today Africa’s elephant population is about 100 fewer than yesterday’s.

All of this robs elephants of course, but people too. In Kenya alone, 300,000 people rely directly on tourism for employment and every tourist comes wanting to see elephants. Poaching for profit is a poverty-maker.

Acutely, an elephant’s problem is ivory. Chronically the problem is shrinking space. Rich or poor, humans seem too much of a good thing. One wonders where this trend of growing human numbers and appetites, afflicting elephants and humans alike, is headed. The smallest slices of any pie get cut at the most crowded tables. Can we afford to value elephants, and human beings, any less than we do? Can we afford not to value them more? I am very fond of civilization, but what’s the plan?

How with this rage will beauty hold a plea.

—Shakespeare, Sonnet 65

Comments

  1. kristi gordon
    ut
    November 28, 9:52 pm

    At kilimavalley.com we love elephants, and want them to always be protected.

  2. Megan
    CA, USA
    November 17, 10:20 pm

    Can you provide a source for the claim that WWF voted against the ban?

  3. Audrey
    Scotland
    October 28, 9:25 am

    Thank you for your informed perspective Carl. Thanks too for signposting us to Wild Aid and Big Life Foundation. As an ‘ordinary’ human with a deep love of Earth and all her wonderful creatures, I find I read too many articles that leave me feeling utterly helpless. I feel very strongly that it’s incumbent upon anyone who writes about issues as important as these to help their readers understand what they can do to help. All of us who care, and there are many of us, need to organise and DO more. Let’s hear people’s ideas please. Lobby our local politicians – yes (thank you Rachelle). I like to help organise a massive fundraiser for anti-poaching patrols and education – A world-wide Carnival for the Animals. Who’s in?

  4. Carol Dorn
    Pennsylvania, USA
    October 22, 10:18 pm

    What in this world is the problem America!? Are you people losing your minds!? Why didn’t you vote to ban trade! You have made a serious mistake and in ten years from now you might figure it out by then! When your grandchildren can no longer see elephants in Africa! Or for that matter no where else in the world!? Republicans!!! Your idea!! No doubt!!!

  5. Nalini Ouditt
    Trinidad & Tobago
    October 22, 3:36 pm

    Years ago I stopped reading most articles about animal cruelty, [even my inbox updates] particularly of these beautiful magnificent behemoths which are my favourite. Recently I joined Twitter so every morning I’m confronted with these grotesque images. Man’s cruelty to sustain his greed is probably the only thing that’s sustainable since those who actually think of sustainability in any area on a daily basis are few. Far less for animals and wildlife. It’s just heartbreaking.
    That truth about WWF is very disappointing as they’re also in my inbox.

    For those of us who care about our planet and share a passion for nature, wildlife, it gives us another reason [276 and counting] to ensure that the vile, vacuous, orange colored millionaire [or billionaire, no-one’s seen taxes] does not become the World’s leader, as we know his sons are ardent animal killers, one of whom can become the ? Interior Minister I think it’s called. Humane Society’s ad

    https://youtu.be/uktZk7iIgyU
    http://m.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/oct/7/humane-society-ad-warns-trump-presidency-would-be-/

    So in addition to all the other obvious reasons for not voting for the GOP candidate which is a terrifying prospect, there’s also this.
    Americans need to vote wisely and realize they’re choosing the World’s Leader and not only the POTUS!

  6. Nalini Ouditt
    Trinidad & Tobago
    October 22, 3:35 pm

    Years ago I stopped reading most articles about animal cruelty, [even my inbox updates] particularly of these beautiful magnificent behemoths which are my favourite. Recently I joined Twitter so every morning I’m confronted with these grotesque images. Man’s cruelty to sustain his greed is probably the only thing that’s sustainable since those who actually think of sustainability in any area on a daily basis are few. Far less for animals and wildlife. It’s just heartbreaking.
    That truth about WWF is very disappointing as they’re also in my inbox.

    For those of us who care about our planet and share a passion for nature, wildlife, it gives us another reason [276 and counting] to ensure that the vile, vacuous, orange colored millionaire [or billionaire, no-one’s seen taxes] does not become the World’s leader, as we know his sons are ardent animal killers, one of whom can become the ? Interior Minister I think it’s called. Humane Society’s ad https://youtu.be/uktZk7iIgyU
    http://m.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/oct/7/humane-society-ad-warns-trump-presidency-would-be-/

    So in addition to all the other obvious reasons for not voting for the GOP candidate which is a terrifying prospect, there’s also this.
    Americans need to vote wisely and realize they’re choosing the World’s Leader and not only the POTUS!

  7. Rachelle Adam
    US
    October 19, 3:45 am

    CITES’ decisions are guided by rules of sustainable use of wildlife as a trade commodity, rather than moral consideration of the individual animal and the agony and sheer terror it undergoes through trade. Trade in wildlife must come to an end because of the cruelty it entails. Of course the challenge is convincing governments, traders and consumers that we will all be better caring for earth’s remaining wildlife rather than capturing and killing them for luxury items for the world’s elite.
    As for what we can do, lets start at home. International law including CITES has failed the elephant (see Michael Glennon’s 1990 iconic article “Has International Law Failed the Elephant?”). A better way to go is working on domestic law – each one of use should be out there convincing our politicians of the need for a law banning all trade in ivory within our countries, a total ban that includes ancient ivory as well. The more domestic bans on the ivory trade, the better the chances of creating customary law and a rule of “erga omnes” – a rule that applies to all countries – delegitimizing ivory, not just its trade but its possession as well, both internationally and nationally. So lets all get out there and start working for legal bans on the ivory trade, in our cities, states, and countries.

  8. Rachelle Adam
    US
    October 19, 3:38 am

    CITES’ decisions are guided by rules of sustainable use of wildlife as a trade commodity, rather than moral consideration of the agony that trade causes the individual animal. Trade in wildlife must come to an end because of the cruelty it entails. Of course the challenge is convincing governments, traders and consumers that we will all be better caring for earth’s remaining wildlife rather than capturing and killing them for luxury items for the world’s elite.
    As for what we can do, lets start at home. International law including CITES has failed the elephant (see Michael Glennon’s 1990 iconic article Has International Law Failed the Elephant?). A better way to go is working on domestic law – each one of use should be out there convincing our politicians of the need for a law banning all trade in ivory within our countries, a total ban that includes ancient ivory as well. The more domestic bans on the ivory trade, the better the chances of creating customary law and a rule of erga omnes – a rule that applies to all countries – delegitimizing ivory, not just its trade but its possession as well, both internationally and nationally. So lets all get out there and start working for legal bans on the ivory trade, in our cities, states, and countries.

  9. Elizabeth Volkmann
    October 18, 9:19 pm

    Dear Mr. Safina, Thank you so much for writing this piece, a voice to counter the pat-on-the-back pieces that were being written about how CITES was a huge success for elephants. These pieces have been infuriating for their lack of admittance at what was lost without uplifting all African elephants to Appendix I. I, being simply an arm-chair elephant warrior, had no credentials to legitimize my argument and thus had to be content offering my perspective on CITES in “comment” sections of articles, FB, etc. Thank you for also mentioning WWF. It is so important that activists and advocates understand the complexities of conservation organizations and what kind of influence (positive and negative) they have on decisions (large and small) in the work being done to protect animal species.
    In the USFW statement it says that Appendix I was a proposal that the US would support but the threat made by Namibia to potentially pull out of any CITES agreement made the US wary of taking action. This seems like a very weak argument from a very powerful and influential country. I understand that the majority of African nations supported Appendix I, including (brave) Botswana who has a third of the African elephant population.
    Surely the US (and others) could have thrown their influence and support behind these nations and strengthened their stance in elephant protection. But instead they chose to hold up one small nation’s threat as a reason to deny across the board protection.
    What I would like to know: (1) what precedence is there is for nations who threaten noncompliance at CITES? Has this been done in the past and by whom? And what were the consequences for the action?
    It is hard to believe that limitations on zoo transfers and trophy hunting were not part of the motivation to keep elephants within the status quo. What other possible motivations are part of an effort to deny full protection?
    What can be done going forward? If the elephant census was not enough to prove that indeed elephant populations are being decimated (as though that wasn’t known before)— what else is there to do, for activists, advocates, people who want to fight for elephants but are not able to travel the world dedicating their lives to the cause? The large organizations are hard to contact let alone influence. I have asked smaller organizations such as WCS to speak out about CITES but no reply – though I know they have tooted their horn about the ivory ban – but not on Appendix I. I think transparency is essential for those of us who often can only donate to groups who purport to work on behalf of the species we want to protect.
    The Appendix I failure has certainly been left on the floor to be covered by the confetti of celebration of the ivory ban – and yet the work has been made that much harder and rings much more hollow without the grandest prize of full protection.
    Thank you again for writing and for caring and for continuing to speak up and inspire. And thank you for any pieces of this complex puzzle you can help to solve.

    • Carl Safina
      October 18, 9:53 pm

      CITES has a mechanism for countries to formally not comply with the overall determination of the whole voting body. It’s called “taking a reservation.” They could have voted to put the elephants all on Appendix I, and any countries who wanted to sell ivory anyway could have invoked a “reservation.”

      The good news is that most countries do have a ban on trade. And the “mechanism” by which the other countries can apply to sell stockpiled tusks has been discontinued. So for all practical purposes, there is no legal international trade at present. And now various countries are stopping their own internal selling of ivory. China, the biggest market in the world, has pledged to do that. If the US and EU follow through on their statements to do the same, there will effectively be almost no country—except perhaps Japan—that is a substantial market for tusks.

      The shame is that even though they effectively did indeed outlaw ivory selling, they did not have the integrity to stand up and declare that they had done so, or come out soundly and roundly for living elephants. They still think of elephants as “resources” for possible eventual renewed “trade.” We should by now be far beyond the idea that we can murder the grandest animal on land so someone can carve two teeth.

      Narrowly speaking, ivory is not the problem; the problem is killing elephants for their tusks. All elephants eventually die, and if they get to die naturally they will die with bigger tusks than if they are killed younger. In a better world, people would just find large tusks of dead elephants and it would be no problem. The problem is that any legal ivory sales create a cue for people who lack empathy to kill elephants both legally and illegally, and the profitability of ivory is incentive for corruption. In that sense it’s not really ivory that’s the problem, the problem is people killing elephants. Because people cannot seem to stop killing elephants, selling ivory must be banned. And wildlife crime must be vigorously fought, and must get the tools and money necessary.

      You say you’re not sure what to do. I continue to support the anti-trade, anti-poaching efforts of groups like WildAid and Big Life Foundation.

      Finally we should all take heart in the fact that huge strides have been made in just the last three years when poaching was rampant AND smuggling was easy AND penalties were few. There’s more to do, but the fact that a lot has been done should give us renewed energy to press forward, firmly on the side of life and room for elephants to live, because they deserve the chance to live, and because they belong on Earth.

      Another article with a similar take on the 2016 CITES meeting’s decisions on elephants is here: http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_round_up/2988188/proposal_for_a_ban_on_international_trade_in_elephant_ivory_is_defeated_at_the_cites_conference.html

  10. Rachelle Adam
    US
    October 18, 3:02 am

    Thanks for writing the truth about the recent CITES CoP and the EU and US voting record on elephants. Regarding the World Wildlife Fund’s position against a total a ban, history is repeating itself. In the 2007 CITES CoP, the World Wildlife Fund supported the sale to Japan of 60 tons of ivory stockpiles from South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. Complaints about the decline of the African elephant under CITES watch are countered-argued that without CITES the situation would be far worse. But the elephant is on the way to extinction, so how much worse could it get? Lets start thinking of powerful counter initiatives to CITES’ failure to totally commit to protecting the elephants, before its too late.

  11. Rachelle Adam
    USA
    October 18, 3:00 am

    Thanks for writing the truth about the recent CITES CoP and the EU and US voting record on elephants. Regarding the World Wildlife Fund’s position against a total a ban, history is repeating itself. In the 2007 CITES CoP, the World Wildlife Fund supported the sale to Japan of 60 tons of ivory stockpiles from South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. Complaints about the decline of the African elephant under CITES watch are countered-argued that without CITES the situation would be far worse. But the elephant is on the way to extinction, so how much worse could it get? Lets start thinking of powerful counter initiatives to CITES’ failure to totally commit to protecting the elephants, before its too late.

  12. Elizabeth Volkmann
    MA
    October 17, 8:29 am

    Thank you! This is the article I was waiting for after some of the other back-patting pieces about the “success” of CITES based solely on the ivory ban agreement. Without proper credentials I felt ill-equppied to write what you have written Mr. Safina. Thank you NatGeo Voice for Elephants for publishing this. It is critical that we understand the networks, politics, ‘deals’ that block true conservation of species, specifically African elephants.It is not enough to care and to send out disparaging words – we MUST find a way to directly lobby our concerns to the proper individuals and organizations and governing bodies. This should not be “pet” project because the crisis is on the table – this is literally a do or die for one of the most needed and amazing species on the planet. Thank you again for publishing this. I hope it activates many of us to push on until elephants are truly protected.

  13. Carola
    United States
    October 16, 4:19 pm

    What a self-centered, non-beneficial breed are we! All we’re good for is devouring animals, consuming the planet’s resources, “culling” and “harvesting” other animals, and breeding more consumers!

  14. Richard Peppin
    Rockville MD
    October 16, 3:39 pm

    So much for supporting WWF. A sad time.

  15. Richard Peppin
    Rockville, MD
    October 16, 3:38 pm

    So much for supporting WWF. Horrible and sad.

  16. Gilbert
    October 15, 12:24 pm

    I used to donate to WWF. But recently they make awful decisions. I donate now to WCS, they do excellent work in Africa

  17. Jessica Pita
    Ky
    October 15, 9:16 am

    Now I understand why I never heard much about the outcomes of the CITES reunion. This is shameful. I’ve been a member of WWF for years and now feel deceived, naive or both. Thank you. #shared, everyone else please do the same

  18. ing
    pacific
    October 14, 9:47 pm

    totally agree. In a nutshell, there should be no trade in ivory, Rhino horn, Lion pelts, Tiger bones, Pangolin scales, Cheeta pelts etc…no hunting either. For that matter and humans aught to have lessons in parenting…keeping numbers of human births down to sustainable proportions and whatever comes with more
    pro-actively capping human expanse/births world-wide. How on earth can we contemplate draining all forests with all their bio-diversity and imagine then that we will survive alone on this planet without them? We seem to be bent on our own destruction …

  19. L Stauffer
    PA
    October 14, 8:34 pm

    1. Human/nature symbiosis; 2. Human greed;
    3. Human desperation; 4. Governmental greed; 5. Future generations: will they be able to see the Big 5?; 6. Respect; 7. Karma

  20. Claudette Dubois
    Santa Fe NM United States
    October 14, 11:46 am

    Need to rethink your decision. The protection of the elephant benefits the environment and future balance of nature

  21. Susana
    United States
    October 14, 11:28 am

    Please sick people respect animals lives!!!!

  22. Alex
    Okc
    October 14, 8:51 am

    We need to help to stop these heartless selfies superficial people with killing those elephants

  23. Sherrie Fairbrother
    CT, USA
    October 14, 8:18 am

    I guess no one cares whether our children have a planet worth living in, Barbaric !

  24. Sherrie Fairbrother
    CT, USA
    October 14, 8:17 am

    I guess no one loves their children or cares if this planet survives, barbaric.