CITES: Rhetoric and tiptoeing around elephant poaching

Given that the elephant poaching crisis was at the forefront of the minds of all at the 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES as never before, what was actually done by CITES to stop the killing of elephants across Africa?

The actual outcome was far short of what was expected and, indeed, what was needed to secure the fate of elephants.

Slaughtered family group of elephants in Tanzania, 2012 (c) Paul Lavender

Slaughtered family group of elephants in Tanzania, 2012 (c) Paul Lavender


Stage 1: Big talk (63rd meeting of the CITES Standing Committee, March 2, 2013)

When the CITES proceedings began on March 2, 2013 with the 63rd meeting of the Standing Committee, gripping speeches were delivered about “the elephant poaching crisis”, the “unsustainable” levels of elephant mortality for trade, “organised crime” and the need for “time-bound measurable action” to stop the killing and the illegal trade in ivory.

Shockingly, throughout the proceedings, there was one word that was avoided like the plague by the Parties – “China”.

This was a bizarre state of polite tiptoeing around a country, China, which had been “heavily implicated” as a destination for illicit ivory.

Despite official information presented to CITES about the laundering of ‘illegal’ African elephant ivory into domestic ‘legal’ ivory markets in China and Thailand, and despite an assessment that “any future decline in illicit trade in ivory will depend upon the actions taken by China and Thailand to deal with outstanding problematic issues in their ivory markets”, there were NO calls from governments to shut down the LEGAL domestic markets for ivory in both China and Thailand.

Black market ivory offered for sale to EIA undercover investigators (c) EIA

Black market ivory offered for sale to EIA undercover investigators (c) EIA

This blatant lack of pressure from the international community on China and Thailand is particularly appalling for several reasons, including 1) the flourishing ‘legal’ market in China for African elephant ivory was enabled by CITES Parties themselves when they decided in 2008 to allow certain African countries to sell ivory to China in a “one-off” sale that has had devastating impacts on African elephants, and 2) Thailand has for several years now been making tall claims to CITES about changing its domestic legislation to tackle illicit ivory trade in Thailand, although such action has not been forthcoming. Indeed there was much ado about the Thai Prime Minister’s inauguration speech where she said that as “a next step” the country “will work towards … the goal” of putting an end to ivory trade and to be in line with international norms.

Frankly, I’ll believe it when I see it. Until then, I will refrain from applauding the Government of Thailand for something they ought to have done years ago and have still not done – inaction which has lead to a burgeoning haven in Thailand for criminals smuggling ivory.


Stage 2: Denial, or looking the other way (CITES CoP16 Proceedings)

The progress that we did manage to achieve at the CITES conference included adoption of a recommendation that Parties report annually on government-held ivory stockpiles; adoption of a decision that Parties involved in ivory seizures of 500kg or more should collect and submit DNA samples from the ivory seized to an appropriate forensic analysis facility samples; and adoption of a resolution for implementation of the African Elephant Action Plan. These measures, if implemented effectively, will significantly help with combating the ivory trade.

Shockingly, although nine Parties identified as being of ‘secondary concern’ and six Parties identified as being of “importance to watch” were subject to a decision that directs the Secretariat to develop country-specific actions and deadlines on ensuring significant progress by July 2014 on the implementation of measures to effectively control trade in ivory and ivory markets, CITES CoP16 did not specifically address the roles of two Parties of “primary concern” ie, China and Thailand.

In addition, Parties failed to take stock of the impact of the previous ivory sales they had authorised and while on the one hand they called for actions to reduce demand for ivory, on the other they initiated the establishment of a decision-making mechanism for “a process of trade in ivory” that is expected to be adopted at the next Conference of the Parties in South Africa.

This mechanism will pave the way for adopting criteria and processes for future trade in ivory. But why did the CITES Parties not nip this in the bud in the face of the worst elephant poaching and illegal ivory trade levels, and a recognition that DEMAND is driving the poaching of elephants? As I said, denial and looking the other way.


Stage 3: Too late (64th meeting of the CITES Standing Committee, March 14)

It turns out the heart of the discussion on how to address the role of “primary concern” countries including China and Thailand was left to the very last minute, after the conclusion of CITES CoP16, in the CITES Standing Committee meeting that followed.

Malaysian officials with some of the ivory seized in December 2012 (c) Bazuki Muhammad & Reuters

Malaysian officials with some of the ivory seized in December 2012 (c) Bazuki Muhammad & Reuters

Such a meeting is typically for mundane housekeeping purposes and therefore lacks any significant attendance by Parties and NGOs. And so it happened that when most delegates had already left for the airport and the conference centre was mostly empty but for farewell hugs, photographs and organisers wrapping up, from about 5.30 pm in a barely half-full meeting room CITES discussed actions required by primary implicated Parties to curb the poaching and illegal trade in ivory.

No surprise at all that the Chair of the meeting concluded that there wasn’t much time to discuss this issue in great detail and they had to wrap up as it was getting late.

In brief, China and Thailand were bundled in along with other countries of ‘primary concern’ and they were all asked to submit “national ivory action plans” by May 15, 2013 aimed at reducing illegal trade in ivory and to report on implementation of these plans in July 2014 to the 65th meeting of the CITES Standing Committee in Geneva.

The decision adopted yesterday does not articulate what goes into these plans, whether they will be made public, whether there is anything CITES can do if the Parties submit meaningless documents as such plans. While the Secretariat reported that some Parties had submitted ‘draft’ plans to the Secretariat during the course of the meeting ,these drafts have not yet been made publicly available.

To conclude, what did CITES do in Bangkok to address the role of China and Thailand in ivory trafficking? It simply asked them to decide what they would like to do and then submit reports on it.

This is the way CITES deals with a “crisis”.


Shruti SureshShruti Suresh
Wildlife Campaigner

  • Excellent report Shruti – comprehensive and right to the point. Well done.

  • Kühne Manuela

    I am so terribly sad to hear the truth,I feel like paralised.I can not understand that people do such gruesome thinks for money.I am deep in my heart crying for each elephant who is getting killed. I am praying to the Lord, please come and help our world. Humans are the most destructive creation on this planet. I feel ashamed. Bless all the good people out there who try to make it a better place-who stand up for the innocent ones. The weak ones.

    • rebecca davies


  • dwayne cooper

    China does this to whales and dolphins and claim it’s for research which is just BS!! You can take the kindest soul and heart and add money and greed and the heart will turn black and unforgiving.. People should never take advantage of natural resources for greed and for profit. Everything in this world effects the next what about global impacts and environmental down fall, Disease and changing a whole ecosystem?? I can’t believe China or Africa it’s utter disregard for nature and is disgusting in it’s own actions or lack there of.. Indians had the right idea (Live with nature) and look what we did to them and there lands. History is a harsh reality and it continues today for money and is Wrong!!! (fact) and we all know it is!!!!

    • eia

      Just for the record, it’s Japan that carries out so-called ‘scientific’ whaling, not China.

      • Amanda

        It’s China that kills a whole shark to get a little fin.

  • Susan Babka

    This is very disheartening. It is so wrong to politically dance around these issues. There of coarse would be a terrible outcome as the host country of the meeting is the BIGGEST offender.

    The world today is about not offending humans while animals are being decimated to the enth degree.

    I was so hopeful that there would be an end to these egregious atrocities established at this meeting. I think it was too much to expect of mankind. Well when it is over they will have to live with themselves.

  • Anne Maher

    Agreed Excellent report and succinct. Thankyou.

  • Thank you Shruti, this sure parted the fog and let in the light on what really went on and came out of it. Now back to digging trenches for the long haul…

    • rebecca davies


  • Audiodoc

    Useless, corrupt organization, their pockets lined with China’s blood money. I am disgusted. Once again money and greed supersede ethics and morality. CITES is a fraud, smoke and mirrors. They have just signed the death sentence for elephants and rhinos. Asia needs to be held accountable, but the world is filled with cowards. I hope all these people are proud of themselves when their grandchildren or great grandchildren will only know these species through photos!

  • This is more than disappointing, considering the hard work, through the months leading up to the convention, of all the influential as well as ordinary people like me to spread the word about the importance of taking serious action before it’s too late.
    Now I fear that it’s up to grass-roots initiatives, as usual, to create true change.

  • Susanna Ermini


  • Thank you all for your comments. I do share your frustration and disappointment with CITES. However, notwithstanding how we feel about the workings of this international treaty, we have to bear in mind that governments make important decisions under CITES that can have serious impacts on wildlife and it is therefore important for us to take on CITES as best as we can, even if it is to simply prevent bad decision-making or to expose what happens within CITES, as I have tried to do in this blog. Needless to say, there is a lot of work to be done!

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  • Linda McFarland Goodwin

    Thank you Ms. Suresh, for your brilliant post and your comment above. I share as many ivory poaching elephant crisis articles and websites as I can, but I only have 150 or so friends on FB and because they are friends, most of them already know what I know and feel what I feel.

    What ways have you found to deal with your own frustrations at spreading facts, news, insights in you blogging? Do you blog for other organizations as well as EIA? I am looking for additional audiences myself, and wondered if you have any helpful ideas.

    My instinct is to go to Africa, ally myself with a non-profit pro-wildlife organization, or go it alone and stand watch myself over elephants. I don’t know what else to do right now.

    • Hi Linda, Thank you for your interest and work on this issue! We need people like you to raise the profile of poaching and wildlife trade issues. In addition to spreading the word on social media, I would also suggest writing to your concerned government officials to express your concerns and/or dissatisfaction in the manner they voted or carried forward discussions at CITES meetings. Good luck!

  • David A

    When will the people that have the power do something to stop this senseless butchery and trade in what essentially is just teeth, get off their fat arses and do something. The most important word here is CHINA why are they scared to say it and push this nation … to stop buying the product of all endangered animals. This goes for so many animals from the African continent.
    Where there is demand there is supply, I do not blame so much the people that are killing, they are very poor people doing what they can to eat, it’s the dealers, traders and customers that I blame for this. They are the ones making huge sums from this.
    If we do not stop this now, they will be gone, shame on us all. I am not proud to be a member of the human race right now. I will gladly sign any petition against this. I feel handcuffed, tied and useless in this situation.
    David A.

    • Hi David,
      If you are interested in signing a petition to ban all ivory trade, you can visit this website to learn about the “iworry” campaign initiated by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DWST): . EIA presented this petition to the CITES Secretary-General John Scanlon on behalf of DSWT at COP16 and the petition continues to gather support globally.

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  • Jeannie Ranalli

    I am so deeply disheartened about the news of unproductivity on behalf of rhinos and elephants. The purpose of this convention is to form action plans on preventing the decimation of a species. The elephant is the icon of Africa and brings many tourists to the parks to see them. I may never see an elephant in the wild but would be happy to know they are still there and living their lives as intended. It breaks my heart that elephant poaching and rhino poaching was not given the utmost attention. I feel it is in the hands of the average person, the consumer, to stop this bloodbath. We should all collectively put pressure on China and Thailand by not buying their products. Educate and continue pressure on these offending countries. A boycott would work best but know that will never happen because we are so dependent on China. However the average person given enough of us working together would send a strong message and have a huge impact.

    • Sandra McCaffrey

      So very sad and frustrated and angry that CITES turned into a bunch of weak, pathetic people. Are they all owned by the Chinese,including the good ole USA?

  • I also am disheartened. The politics associated with CITES is a mystery for me. My excuse is that I’m too busy to take the time to find out about this organization and the players. I appreciate this information from Ms. Suresh. It seems most countries are either afraid of China, or are afraid that any attempt to chide or curtail the activities of their people would be met with withdrawal from the conversation about ivory trade. My perception is that any attempt to sanction that nation would be met with anger and even retaliation against the initiating countries. Thailand appears to be more vulnerable to international outcry. Thus that nation’s appearance of change to control ivory trading. Unfortunately, corruption follows money and power and Thailand is in essence in the shadow of China. I could see this when I traveled there, Cambodia, and Laos. At any rate, I feel the need to be more aware of the politics of the this horrific activity. Maybe awareness will lead to more effective intervention. I can only hope, because the alternative is unthinkable for wildlife, the general environment and humanity.

  • Thank you Shruti for reporting on what actually happened at Cites, a place many of us hoped some immediate action would be taken.

    I am compiling a story citing experts about the elephant crisis to post on my blog One of the things that struck me in my readings is that many of the Chinese people when interviewed about elephant and rhino poaching say they “had no idea that the animals were killed”. They say they thought the tusks (and horns) “fall off naturally. ” I want to encourage everyone of us on FaceBook and all other forms of social media to send out the photos of elephants and rhinos with their faces chopped off. Lets continue to spread the reality of this crisis so that no one anywhere can say “I had no idea.”

  • Marilyn Coussoule

    I have posted your article at US Fish and Wildlife Service-International Affairs, lest anyone try to pretend all is well with the world after the CITES fiasco. Your agency is unsurpassed in exposing the truths behind the curtain of government agencies. Thank you!

  • CITES is not only ineffective but is extremely harmful by not totally banning trade in ivory. And the facts prove this: the situation for the elephants is getting worse despite (and probably because of) CITES.

    Trade in endangered species is a contradiction in terms. There should be no trade in any wildlife at all, this is of course a new norm for greedy humans but we should start now getting used to it. CITES is an anachronistic convention, and we need a new one.

    We need a new international convention that will –
    1. totally ban all killings of elephants everywhere, not only for the ivory trade
    but for trophy hunting as well;
    2. totally ban the ivory trade, both international and domestic. That means that China and Thailand will have to outlaw any trade within their own countries in ivory, which will make it easier to track the illegal domestic trade.
    3. Using the United Nations General Assembly to adopt decision demanding an end to the ivory trade. Ivory will be considered an illegal item, like narcotics, poison gas, slaves, etc..
    4. Impose trade sanctions on China and Thailand

    What else?

    • Diane Bushby

      CITES attitude does not surprise me in the slightest in fact I feel that they are colluding with the Chinese and Far East and have been all along! This all started when CITES decided to sell by auction in 2008 all the stockpiled Ivory because they thought that this would stop the poaching…hello…anyone in their right minds would have seen the outcome that will see the elephant extinct in Asia and Africa…I just wonder how much CITES are being paid by China to turn a blind eye! I am totally disgusted with CITES and their reaction or lack of reaction to this current crises….SHAME ON YOU CITES!!!!!!