Chinese officials handle seized ivory carvings

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.

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