The Second Elephant Disaster

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I pointed the small hidden video camera at George Poon outside one of his clandestine ivory factories in the UAE. When he realised we had just filmed his ivory cutters churning out bangles from poached ivory he screamed, his eyes glaring furiously. Turning on our heels, Des Hamill from the UK’s ITN Television News and I ran across the dusty street, threw the camera in our baking car and pulled away. Poon, shouting in Chinese, ran after us, held on to the front door and tried to reach the camera through the window. As I accelerated he fell off. I’ll never forget the image of him in the car’s wing mirror, shaking his fist in the dirt thrown up by our speeding Toyota.

It was 1989 and the footage would soon be beamed across the world together with the visual evidence we had uncovered over two years of undercover investigations into the ivory trade across three continents. Six months later at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting in Lausanne a proposal by Tanzania (which we had commissioned) to include the African elephant in an international trade ban, was confirmed after a bloody political battle.

When we had started our investigations there were four of us at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). Despite being told we couldn’t stop the trade, we focused on our goals like a bull on a red flag. In Africa the bottom dropped out of the market, elephant populations slowly recovered and the massive ivory trade was brought to its knees.

So why has the elephant tragedy returned and how can we stop it? For me, so involved in fighting the ivory trade in the 1980s, the answer lies in understanding the players, many of them the same as thirty years ago.

I smelled, saw and photographed my first two decaying elephants in 1988 and I still remember, even feel, the sadness. EIA’s investigations revealed the criminality and violence of the trade, deception of the bureaucrats and allies of the killers. Every sale of ivory stockpiles “registered” by CITES was a gift to the illegal trade, providing the cover for ivory from poached elephants to be laundered into the legitimised market.

The ban was always opposed by a handful of southern African countries which claimed their elephant populations were healthy. This position, at least behind the scenes, was supported by WWF and their trade monitoring arm TRAFFIC. It was this combined lobby that had overseen the disastrous failed attempts at quotas and ivory controls within CITES in the 1980s, supported at this time by a pro-trade CITES secretariat.

Throughout the 90s this group slowly chipped away at the successful “no ivory” message and in 1999 persuaded CITES to allow ivory stockpiles from Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana to be sold to Japan. After this sale CITES set up a project to audit illegal ivory sales run by TRAFFIC’s Tom Milliken, based in offices in the leading pro-trade country, Zimbabwe.

In 2002 the Chinese government blamed the Japanese sale for its increasing problem with illegal ivory, saying that many of its citizens now believed the ivory trade had resumed. Reports by NGOs also showed an increase in illegal ivory in Japan. Ignoring this and despite the CITES information being very incomplete, partly due to the failure of some crucial countries to report any data, Milliken claimed there was no correlation between the sale and an increase in illegal sales. It was this advice that gave the green light to a second sale in 2008 which has led to the second elephant disaster.

This time the same countries along with South Africa were given permission by CITES to sell new stockpiles to Japan and China. This decision was vehemently opposed by 27 African elephant countries and most NGOs, but notably not WWF and TRAFFIC.

Most of us were stunned that the world’s largest growing consumer market, with a deserved reputation for importing illegal timber and endangered species, was approved by CITES to buy ivory. It was clear from the evidence of history that this was a death sentence for elephants. The ivory stockpile was bound to act as a laundering mechanism for ivory from poached elephants in a growing and possibly uncontrollable market. TRAFFIC, seemingly unperturbed by the scale of consumption in China, stated they expected ivory prices to fall.

China is reported to have immediately devised a ten-year plan to annually release five tonnes of ivory on to their market at vastly increased prices. They initially raised their wholesale price by 650% and retail prices spiralled upwards. Undercover investigations have since revealed around 90% of ivory on sale in China has been laundered into the system from poached elephants.

In Africa armed poachers and criminal networks flourished, reversing successes from the 1990s and undermining government attempts to protect elephants, a vital resource for important tourist dollars. An elephant is now killed every twenty minutes and Tanzania has lost 53% of its elephant population in five years, Mozambique 48%. In 2014 sixty two wildlife wardens lost their lives and many more died in 2015. There has also been a huge loss of poachers’ lives, often family men in extreme poverty exploited by powerful criminal networks which use ivory dollars to increase their influence in poor communities.

There have been some encouraging signs the world has finally woken up to this tragedy. China and the USA have stated they will ban their domestic ivory trade in a “timely” manner and Hong Kong has indicated it will follow with an import and export ban and to work towards banning sales. Thailand has changed its legislation to only allow sales from “registered” ivory from domestic Thai elephants. There are recent reports the price of ivory has fallen in China.

However, there seems to be little sense of real urgency considering the rate of the killing. There is no date for these domestic bans and Hong Kong, probably the world’s largest ivory laundry, may take a long time to close its domestic ivory market. Japan, a huge ivory consuming country, has resisted calls for change as its illegal market flourishes.

Thailand, despite its legislative changes, has “registered” an extraordinary 220 tonnes of ivory claimed by 44,000 people to be from domestic elephants. With Thailand’s current domestic elephant population, it’s unlikely even half a tonne could enter the market annually. Thailand, already trading its “registered” stocks, seems ready to compete with Hong Kong as the world’s ivory laundry.

CITES, presumably with its collective heads buried deep in the sand, is still advising countries on how to control “legal” ivory trade. WWF continues to campaign against illegal ivory trade, but I have seen no clear message that they have changed their policy to oppose all ivory trade and sales. In a BBC interview TRAFFIC’s Tom Milliken stated “Did allowance of legal ivory to go into China exacerbate a situation? One could probably argue now, with hindsight, that indeed it did.” I see this as a pathetic response to an historic and widely predicted conservation disaster.

Meanwhile there is no solid evidence of the killing slowing down.

The world is a very different place this time around. I believe there will be action in 2016 to address this elephant disaster, but it will take considerable time to close these markets and prevent new ones opening. The criminal networks and trade routes are very well developed with greatly improved communication.

A 21st century campaign must also take advantage of the improved communication. We all have a voice through social media, blogs, petitions and the support of non-profit organisations. The internet has allowed groups to grow in African countries and reach out across the world. In 1989 it took TV news to push the agenda but in 2016 we can all spread the word using our own particular skills.

But let’s be clever with our targets.

For thirty years WWF and TRAFFIC have undermined experts and the worldwide concern for elephants by supporting southern African and Asian proponents of ivory trade, all for the sake of a disastrously failed experiment in sustainable use of this iconic species – the trade is legal but lethal. They have publicly masked their true position on ivory with clever marketing strategies and taken millions of dollars from an unwitting public. Don’t accept their publicity stating they are against all illegal ivory sales – we want them to be against all ivory sales and support a permanent ban.

At the moment CITES is not fit for purpose. Maybe, if the voices that promoted the 2008 sale are held accountable by the 182 nations that make up CITES and the world accepts a permanent ban on ivory trade, the African elephant has a future. Only then can precious resources be diverted from killing poverty stricken poachers and fighting international criminal networks to building innovative conservation strategies to benefit African communities and wildlife.

Each country in CITES has one vote although in the real world we know some countries carry huge influence over others. In September CITES meets in pro-trade South Africa and will discuss how to stop elephant poaching. Every government needs to have heard from their citizens that only a permanent ban on ivory is acceptable.

Dave-Currey-140x165As  cofounder of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) in 1984, its executive director for ten years, senior campaigner and board member for twenty five years, Dave has developed, led, and won campaigns with his focused strategies, persuasive documentation, team work, and hard work. His undercover exploits, illustrated with strong photographic images, have closely allied g in magazines such as LIFE, The Sunday Times, BBC Wildlife, and The Telegraph Magazine. For more information on his work please visit his website, follow his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @davecurrey1.

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