Politics and Ivory Trade

About CITES:    

CITES is the abbreviation for Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. It is the so-called Washington Convention of the United Nations.

It is CITES’ mission to regulate the trade of animals and plants in such a way that endangered species are being protected. CITES, however, only regulates the international trade and not the domestic one; every country keeps their respective national sovereignty.

Endangered plant and animal species are being divided into three different levels of protection, which are listed in the so-called appendices.

Appendix I stands for the highest level of protection and includes the species which are critically endangered, i.e.  threatened with extinction.  International trade with these animals or their body parts is only permitted under exceptional circumstances.

Appendix II includes species which are endangered – therefore all trade must be controlled in order to avoid extinction.

Appendix III is the lowest level of protection and includes species which are not endangered by international trade.

Every three years the CITES member states meet for the CoP (Conference of Parties) – conference on species conservation - to amend their legislation in order to adapt to the current situation.

The CITES secretariat is located in Geneva, Switzerland, and is administered by UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme).

CITES decisions on Elephants:    

Within only 10 years elephant numbers plummeted from 1.3 million in 1979 to 0.6 million in 1989. In order to put a halt to this dramatic development and to protect the elephants, the members of the standing committee decided in 1989 to list all elephants on appendix I.

In 1997, the elephant populations from Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe were downgraded to appendix II. One-off sales of ivory stockpiles were permitted.

Consequently, in 1999, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa sold 50 tons of ivory to Japan. The price for ivory increased – and so did the poaching.

In 2002 the South African elephants were downgraded to appendix II as well.

In 2008, after different stages of negotiations Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa were licensed to sell 108 tons of ivory, 62 tons of which was sold to China, the rest to Japan. This amount of ivory was to flood the market and to saturate the demand, thus curbing poaching.

China, however, never even thought about flooding the market:  at very high prices, the state sold approximately 10 tons of ivory to its licensed ivory carving and -processing factories per year and already a few months after the one-off sale, poaching reached dramatic levels.

Current CITES listings of Elephants:     

Appendix I

Elephas maximus (Asian elephant) and Loxodonta Africana (African elephant) – with the exception of the populations in Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

In Appendix II lists the elephant populations of Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa with an annotation explaining export permits for the following exceptions:

- Export of hunting trophies for non-commercial purposes

- Export of live elephants to appropriate and acceptable destinations for Botswana and Zimbabwe and for in situ protection programs for Namibia and South Africa

- Exports of hides

- Export of leather goods for commercial and non-commercial purposes for Botswana, Namibia and South Africa and for non-commercial purposes for Zimbabwe

- Trade in certified Ekipas (traditional ivory jewellery of the Ovambo people in Namibia) – for non-commercial purposes for Namibia and carved ivory for non-commercial purposes for Zimbabwe

- Export of registered raw ivory (whole tusks and pieces, for all four countries) in compliance with the following conditions:

- Only registered government-owned ivory - no confiscated ivory and no ivory of unknown origin, i.e. only ivory of elephants that died a natural death, were culled or legally shot (so-called problem elephants) may be exported

- Trade only with trading partners certified by the CITES secretariat, i.e. countries with effective laws and trade controls, in order to make sure that the imported ivory cannot be re-exported again

- Trade only upon CITES secretariat’s control of the future import countries and their respective ivory stockpiles

- Trade in raw ivory in compliance with the regulations of CoP12: Botswana: 20 tons, Namibia: 10 tons, South Africa: 30 tons

- Additional quantities (over and above the quantities mentioned at CoP12): government-owned ivory of all four countries which was registered and checked by 31st January 2017 may be sold in a one-off sale under strict supervision by CITES

- Trade profits are to be used exclusively for elephant conservation, community support and development programs in elephant territories

All of the above listed trade concessions are subject to the following: no applications for additional trading permits for ivory from the Appendix II countries are to be submitted for a period of nine years – starting date:  CoP14 and one-off sale of ivory allowed as per above.

All other cases in trading as well as body parts of elephants are to be dealt with as if listed in Appendix I.

Full version can be found at: https://www.cites.org/eng/app/appendices.php

Annual quotas for hunting trophies are determined each year, and additional trading permits are issued for trophies which fall under this quota system.

Full version can be found at: https://www.speciesplus.net/#cites_quotas

Ivory trade kills elephants  

African elephant numbers are in alarming decline. There seems to be no end to the great killing and elephant populations are dwindling. The survival of the grey giants heavily depends on political decisions.

According to PIKE (Proportion of Illegally Killed Elephants) 100,000 elephants were poached between 2010 and 2012 alone. Current figures reveal that poaching continues at an unabated pace, above all in regions which had been spared until now. In Selous (an area which consists of 80% hunting concessions) elephant numbers are down from 100,000 to 13,000. Criminal poaching syndicates are now targeting other regions, such as Ruaha-Rungwa, Mozambique and Zambia.

Elephants listed in appendix I and II – why split-listing is deadly for elephants

If an animal or plant species is listed in different CITES appendices –as it is the case for elephants - we speak of ‘split-listing’.

This split-listing is fuelling the ivory market and therefore has a devastating effect on elephants. Experience has shown that illegal trade and poaching are massively increased by split-listing. Even the CITES regulations themselves provide a warning for the species which is subject to split-listing.

Therefore the elephant populations of Namibia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana which are all currently listed in appendix II must urgently be upgraded to the highest level of protection and moved to appendix I.

Reasons for this are obvious and manifold:

Clear message – simple implementation

To list all elephants in appendix I would send a clear message in favour of elephants and underline the political will to shut down the ivory trade once and for all. Such a forceful statement would lead to a substantial reduction in poaching and smuggling. The current exceptions and grey areas would be abolished, and the trade ban could be enforced more effectively. Experts assume that the mere prospect of the legal trade being banned would lead to a substantial reduction in poaching and smuggling.

Anticipation of future trade fuels demand and poaching

As long as the elephant population of one of the four countries is still being listed in appendix II this opens up the definite perspective of a future ivory trade after the lapse of the 9 year moratorium, which has been in place since 2017. Continued legal ivory trade will cost the lives of many elephants: studies have confirmed that the mere prospect of any future trade fuels poaching.

There is not one sound argument why elephants of the four countries in the South of Africa should be listed in appendix II – unless, of course, there is speculation for further one-off sales of ivory in the future. The latter must be avoided at all costs, since from past experience we know that any trade with legal ivory leads to a sharp increase in illegal ivory trade. Past experience has shown that ivory one-off sales in countries that still have stable elephant populations will have disastrous consequences and will lead to a significant increase of poaching in other parts of Africa.

Studies conducted by IFAW and Save the Elephants report an immense expansion of ivory trade after one-off sales, especially in China. The fact that legal trade was authorised lead to a considerable increase in demand.

Combined with the above is the increase in poaching and smuggling, as proven by ETIS/Traffic reports about the ever increasing amounts of confiscated ivory.

One of the conclusions made in a study conducted in Princeton/Berkely is that attempts of the past to curb poaching through legal sales of ivory stockpiles are proven wrong. According to the same study smuggling of ivory has experienced an increase of 71% after the one-off sales.

The argument that profits made from the legal sale of ivory or live elephants would benefit conservation programs is questioned by local experts.


The majority of African countries votes for appendix I

During the last CITES Conference of Parties which was held in Johannesburg in 2017, the 29 countries of the African Elephant Coalition proposed to list all elephant populations in appendix I, which manifests that a clear majority of African states supports this endeavour.

CITES criteria for appendix I are met!

CITES criteria for appendix I are more than fulfilled. Under C of CITES resolution 9.24 (Rev. CoP16), a marked decline in population size in the wild by 50% or more within three generations is being stated. In the case of elephants this would refer to a time period of 75 years.

In 1980 1.2 million elephants inhabited Africa. According to IUCN’s African Elephant Specialist Group this number dwindled to anything between 401,000 and 479,000 in 2013, which equals a decline of 61-66% within 33 years or in other words 1,3 elephant generations.

In 1940 there were approximately 3 – 5 million African elephants, thus a dramatic decline of 84-92% can be recorded over the course of three elephant generations (75 years).

Elephants do not adhere to borders

Since elephants migrate and cross international borders it makes no sense to examine the elephant populations separated from each other according to countries. A study conducted in 2017 reports that 76% of all African elephants cross international borders regularly.

The situation in Angola and Namibia is a perfect albeit tragic example: 60% of all African elephants migrate through KAZA (Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area) territory. These are mixed elephant populations from all neighbouring countries, amongst others Angola. The final results of The Great Elephant Census show 3,400 animals for Angola – down from 200,000 animals living there in the 1970s. It is incomprehensible that these few remaining, distraught animals escaping from poachers and driven by anxiety into the neighbouring country Namibia (an appendix II country) should then be subjected to a lower level of protection there. And in the end they might even be accredited to those countries’ successful elephant management.

Desert Elephants – rare and extremely vulnerable

Two unique elephant populations are the last remaining approximately 350 desert elephants in Mali/Gourma – which are, according to MIKE reports, more threatened than had been expected - and the desert elephants in the northwest of Namibia. The small local population of approximately 180 desert elephants is threatened by human-animal conflicts and trophy hunting at the same time. The rare desert elephants belong to the species African elephants. They have, however, adapted to live in extremely arid regions and have developed specific abilities and features which allow them to survive in such difficult surroundings. Since the Namibian government denies the existence of desert elephants altogether, the animals have no conservation status.

Poaching is not limited to certain regions and is now moving south

All elephants are threatened by poaching. Even if some countries are less affected in one moment of time, this can change quickly.

It is obvious that poachers are active in regions where they expect to encounter little resistance, at the same time finding large numbers of elephants there – Tanzania being but one example. The slaughter has in the meantime also started in southern Africa.

Southern African countries are reporting an ever increasing number of poaching incidents and dwindling numbers of elephants. Proof can be found in the MIKE report which refers to dramatic findings in the Chewore area. Investigations in Zimbabwe also show that in the northern main areas elephant population numbers dropped by 40-75% since 2011 – in the whole of Zimbabwe by 6%. Reports about watering holes poisoned with cyanide and about unsecured ivory stockpiles are just as alarming.

Namibia, likewise, is experiencing an increase of poaching incidents. According to reports between 2014 and 2017 more than 240 elephants were poached. The illegal ivory trade gains importance, with fatal consequences for the elephants.

Past experience has shown that an effective local protection against poaching will not be feasible completely.

The necessity to shut down all domestic markets  

CITES can only regulate the international trade. The local markets, however, are being regulated by each and every single state.

Any legal market offers loopholes for illegal ivory products: a layman or non-professional, for example, can hardly differentiate between antique ivory and new ivory. In order to stop the entire ivory trade, the trade of so-called pre-convention ivory, antique ivory and mammoth ivory must also be banned as this trade, too, suggests that trading in ivory is legal. Moreover, huge amounts of illegal ivory with falsified certificates are being sold under the guise of ‘legal’ ivory. We therefore support the shutdown of all local markets.

The sooner this will happen, the more elephants will stay alive.

Politicians of all countries should put global thinking before the intention to support individual markets.

The increase in confiscations in the EU shows that the EU also must impose stricter controls and must stop any legal trading. The EU’s action plan intends to close down all national markets

Destruction of ivory stockpiles    

Ivory stockpiles involve high risks: lack of transparency, as well as loss due to sales to the black-market and speculation.

Since according to the CITES regulations confiscated ivory may not be traded anymore it makes no sense to keep it in stockpiles - because keeping a stockpile of ivory means speculating on extinction. Surely it cannot be the objective of any country to profit from the extinction of a species. On the contrary: the imminent extinction must be prevented by all means.

Ivory stockpiles all over the world must therefore be destroyed to put an end to any speculation on ivory products which might flow into the market, and to also remove the basis for any price developments.

In 2014 in London, Germany agreed to destroy its ivory stockpile - which has not yet happened! Italy destroyed approximately half a ton in 2016. Belgium destroyed 1,5 tons already in 2014.

Read more about the destruction of ivory:
Warum Elfenbeinzerstörungen wichtig sind

Why it makes sense to destroy ivory and ivory stockpiles

In 1989 Kenya was the first country to burn its stockpile of confiscated ivory, thus declaring war on poachers, speaking out against the ivory trade loud and clear, and giving the protection of elephants high priority. Since poaching has increased dramatically in recent years, Kenya as well as other countries have repeatedly destroyed their stockpiles, in order to

  • send a clear message to the world that the monetary value of ivory is irrelevant, considering the loss of precious elephants lives, and that the possession of ivory should be a social taboo, thus making it worthless
  • take a clear stand not only against the smuggling of wild animals but also against poaching
  • highlight the key issue, the plight of thousands of elephants, falling victim to poachers (and hunters) and to raise awareness among the public that elephants are being poached towards extinction

The destruction of ivory stockpiles is meant to have a deterrent effect on criminals and to show them in no uncertain terms that poaching will never be tolerated - and that they will be severely punished when caught.

Consumers of ivory are made fully aware of the devastating effects of their purchase.

The destruction of governmental ivory stockpiles sends a clear message to poachers, smugglers, speculators and consumers that there will be no such thing as a legal ivory market ever again.

Any European country that destroys its stockpile of these ghastly goods demonstrates not only global environmental awareness, but also solidarity with all African and Asian countries fighting for their elephants.

Ivory stockpiles serve no purpose

To begin with, we must differentiate between illegal ivory (i.e. ivory from poached elephants which was seized from smugglers) and legal ivory (ivory from elephants that died a natural death, were culled or legally shot because they were supposedly ‘problem elephants’).  A different rule applies to each of these cases.

Stockpile of illegal ivory

The ivory will be stored as evidence until the criminals will have been sentenced.  Then, however, it should be destroyed.

According to CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) after any verdicts, the ivory in question may only be used for DNA testing in order to trace it back, or for scientific and educational purposes. Any sales are prohibited.

Stockpile of legal ivory

Currently the international trade ban on ivory is in force. For any state that signed the Convention, it would be illegal to export seized ivory in order to sell it.

One-off sales which have, in the past, been authorized by CITES only applied to legal ivory – ivory from elephants that died a natural death, were culled or legally shot because they were known as so-called problem elephants.

We therefore fail to see why stockpiles should exist

To store ivory is expensive and it could attract thieves.

States that keep ivory stockpiles do not send out a positive message: the fact that they keep their stockpiles means that they expect the trade ban to be lifted - and then to be able to sell the ivory profitably.

If the elephant species are to survive, there should never ever be a market for ivory again. The poaching crisis - which affects the elephants so dramatically - can only be solved if buyers and sellers take the situation seriously and accept that a trade ban is in force – bringing a full halt to the market.

Trade could only be considered once elephants are extinct. Therefore keeping a stockpile of ivory means speculating on extinction.

Arguments brought forward for the sale of ivory stockpiles

Argument: money from ivory sales could be used for elephant conservation.

Trade, however, is illegal (see above).

Argument:  if seized ivory is being destroyed, this will push up the market price for ivory.

The sale of illegal ivory is prohibited (see above).

Argument: markets could be flooded with ivory from the stockpiles, hence meeting the demand - which would result in a price decrease and would curb poaching.

Besides the fact that this is illegal (see above) the so-called one-off sales authorised by CITES delivered proof that such sales produce the exact opposite effect: after the one-off sales, the price for ivory skyrocketed - and poaching increased at an alarming rate.

The demand for ivory is currently even higher than all living elephants could satisfy with their ivory! This means that the market could never be flooded. Any sale of ivory stimulates the market and results in an increase of poaching. The demand is never-ending; the more replenishment, the higher the demand.

Since July 2014 CITES acknowledges this and therefore recommends the destruction of illegal ivory as opposed to storing it.


To insist on appendix II and on local / domestic markets equals a clear pro-trade stance which is exactly the opposite of the current trend: countries which used to have the highest ivory consumption (China, Hong Kong, and the USA) are about to finally shut down their markets.

Future for Elephants e.V. requests all countries to vote against potential applications for trading permits for exceptional one-off sales of ivory during the next CITES Conference of the Parties.  We furthermore request all countries to list all elephants in appendix I and for their local markets to be shut down. We are calling for a trade ban on ivory sales which must also include so-called pre-convention ivory and hunting trophies. Each and every ivory stockpile is to be destroyed completely.  This is the only chance for elephants to survive in the long-term.

Humankind has got the choice:

we either have elephants or we have ivory trade.

We cannot have both.

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