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What is CITES?

CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, it entered into force in July 1975. It meets every 2-3 years to discuss how international trade affects plants and animals populations. There are 151 member countries of CITES. The next meeting is in Nairobi, Kenya on 10th-20th April 2000.

CITES affords different levels of protection to species depending on their numbers and how trade between countries affects them. CITES was set up to conserve species and if there is uncertainty about the effects of trade, then a precautionary approach should be taken. Species are assigned to three categories. Commercial trade in Appendix I species is prohibited, trade is subject to conditions for Appendix II species and population numbers for species on Appendix III are monitored.

Why do some countries want to sell their ivory?

The countries that want to sell their ivory stockpiles say that their elephant populations are increasing and that there is therefore a continual accumulation of ivory from natural mortality. They say that revenue generated from the trade will be put back into elephant conservation and community development programs and that controlled trade will make elephants valuable to local communities.

The decisions made at the last CITES Conference
At the 10th Conference of the Parties, held in Harare, Zimbabwe in June 1997, three southern African countries put in proposals to down-list their elephant populations to Appendix II, to allow an experimental sale of stockpiled ivory to Japan.

The reasons they put forward in support of the down-listing included that their elephant populations were growing, there was a lack of significant poaching in their countries and they have the means to look after their elephants.

Just one week before the CITES conference opened there was a meeting of the Organisation of African Unity, chaired by President Mugabe of Zimbabwe. The occasion was an ideal opportunity for Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to lobby the rest of Africa. During the conference there was intense lobbying by those who want to re-open trade, even the local media coverage during the conference was dominated by pro-trade messages.

Initially many countries were against the down-listings and the proposals narrowly missed the two-thirds majority that they required to go through. However it was negotiated that the issue be put to a second vote. A working part was set up to establish conditions under which the down-listing would be more acceptable to those countries worried about how the decision would affect other elephant populations. The conditions they devised related to an improvement in the control of illegal ivory trading, re-investment of the revenue generated into elephant conservation and the establishment of an international reporting and monitoring system for illegal trade and poaching. The countries would have to prove that these conditions had been met at a Standing Committee meeting to be held 21 months later.

Further conditions related to revenue generated from the sales being put back in to elephant conservation. With these provisos in place the proposals were accepted. The elephant populations of Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe were transferred to Appendix II in September 1997.

Range States Meeting

Representatives of elephant range states met at the end of September 1998 in Arusha, Tanzania. They discussed the implementation of Decision 10.1 (the conditions pertaining to the resumption in trade in African ivory from Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe) and Decision 10.2 (the conditions for the disposal of other existing ivory stocks).

Several countries expressed concern that the poaching monitoring system, MIKE (Monitoring of the Illegal Killing of Elephants) is predicted to cost over US$2 million per year, that it may draw funds away from law enforcement and that it is only sensitive enough to detect major poaching increases. Similar concerns were said to have been expressed at an Asian range states meeting in Bangalore, India in October 1998.

CITES Standing Committee Meeting

The 41st CITES Standing Committee meeting took place in Geneva, Switzerland in February 1999. It was the job of the Standing Committee to verify whether or not certain administrative, technical and legal conditions relating to the ivory sale had been met. The UK acted as Chair of this meeting.

The monitoring system was not in place and none of the three southern African countries had joined the Lusaka Agreement, which was one of the conditions. Burkina Faso, on behalf of 8 range states, submitted a document asking that the decision to allow the sales to go ahead be postponed until a peer review of all of the monitoring options had been carried out.

The Standing Committee, although noting the concerns raised by the range states, decided that Namibia, Zimbabwe and Japan had complied with the relevant conditions stipulated at the full CITES meeting. Botswana did not initially meet the conditions, but their compliance was later said to be verified.

.… And so the sale was allowed to go ahead

The auction of the ivory took place in April 1999. Namibia sold 12,367 kg, Zimbabwe sold 30 tonnes, and four days later Botswana sold 17,170 kg. Over 59 tonnes of ivory was legally imported into Japan in July 1999 and was unloaded at Tokyo harbour under UN supervision.

What else has been traded?

Zimbabwe has been allowed to export elephant hides, ears, trunks and feet, in June 1998 they sold 82.8 tonnes of elephant hides. Each year a total of 649 elephant trophies are allowed to be exported from the three Appendix II countries. From 90 days after the close of the 10th Conference of the Parties, tourists have been allowed to export up to US$500 of worked ivory from Zimbabwe.

30 live baby elephants were exported from Botswana in August 1998 by an animal trader who intended to sell them into captive facilities around the world. Due to the torment they suffered at his holding facility in South Africa, criminal animal cruelty charges have been brought against him.

Consequences of the sale

Many CITES signatories saw the sale as risky and premature. It is widely thought that the African elephant population is not ready for renewed ivory trading even in a limited form. Even though some range states claim that they have too many elephants others, such as Kenya, are only beginning to see their elephant populations stabilise. There are worries that even limited ivory sales send out the wrong message and that poaching increases in anticipation of further sales. The KWS said, 'Many African countries fear that poachers do not understand the complex decision taken by the parties in 1997, which involved a one off experimental sale to Japan only'.

In 1996, the Tanzania High Commissioner, H.E. Dr. A. Sharee stated 'At both these CITES meetings (1992 and 1994), officials in east Africa stated that they had detected a slight, but very noticeable, increase in elephant poaching in the months immediately prior to CITES, which was attributed to proposals to resume the trade.'

Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe reportedly earned US$5 million from the ivory sales, the cost to other countries that now have to invest increased funds in anti-poaching patrols is far higher. When stockpiled ivory has run out far more than US$5 million will be needed to protect the elephants of Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

Is it just the African elephant that is affected?

The Asian elephant, Elephas maximus, has been listed on Appendix I of CITES since 1976 as they are only thought to be 34,000-51,000 left in the wild. However, it is difficult to distinguish between Asian and African ivory and Asian ivory is said to be particularly attractive to Japanese ivory dealers. Therefore many Asian countries are opposed to any resumption in commercial ivory trade.

Furthermore, only male Asian elephants have tusks and so any illegal poaching for ivory has a detrimental effect on the ratio of males to females.

Is CITES protecting elephants?

There is widespread criticism about the decisions made at the Standing Committee meeting in 1999. One of the conditions on which the ivory sale was allowed to go ahead was that a poaching monitoring system was in place to detect any increase in poaching resulting from the ivory sale. It is widely recognised that MIKE is not adequately up and running and will not in fact produce meaningful results until it has been in operation for 6 years. This did not prevent the sale going ahead.

It was decided at the Standing Committee Meeting that the CITES Secretariat's Interim Reporting System would be used as a basis for the decision on whether to allow the sale to go ahead. However it was originally intended only as a temporary measure and will not be able to establish poaching trends in a scientific way, or be able to establish the cause of any increase in elephant deaths witnessed. This interim system falls short of the requirements set out at the full CITES meeting.

The MIKE system itself is viewed by many to be unworkable. Whilst many countries are reporting that they have witnessed an increased elephant poaching they do not have the means to report it to CITES in the way in which they require it – however this does not mean that it is not taking place. Further criticism is the vast expense required to finance MIKE – over US$12 million, this money could be better spent financing enforcement efforts.