"Thereafter, under experimental quotas for raw ivory not exceeding 25.3 tonnes (Botswana), 13.8 tonnes (Namibia) and 20 tonnes (Zimbabwe), raw ivory may be exported to Japan…"
— Annotation accompanying the 1997 downlisting of three African elephant populations
An "experiment" is generally defined as "any action or process undertaken to discover something not yet known." When the CITES Parties voted to open an "experimental" ivory trade from Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe in 1997, the outcome was easily deduced. Before all African elephants were placed on CITES Appendix I and international commercial ivory trade was prohibited, the continent's elephants were decimated, from approximately 1.3 million to about 600,000. With the 1989 ban, populations stabilized, poaching dropped dramatically, and ivory smuggling routes and the global market all but dried up. After this remarkable success, CITES Parties turned back the clock on elephant conservation and took a giant risk with the protection of these majestic creatures.
However, there is an opportunity at COP 11 for Parties to make amends for their grievous error by voting for Kenya's and India's proposal to put all elephants back on Appendix I. As Dr. Klaus Töpfer, Executive Director of the United Nations
Environment Programme, told the Associated Press (AP), "If there was a total ban, it (poaching) would be easier to control."
In 1997, AWI and other organizations warned that reopening the ivory trade, even on limited basis, would cause barbaric elephant poaching to escalate. At a press conference in Washington, D.C., Nehemiah Rotich, Director of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), warned that the elephant poaching "holocaust is coming back again" and that he hasn't seen poaching of this magnitude in the last 10 years. A January 2000 KWS press release grimly notes: "In 1999, KWS seized over 2,000 kg of ivory from illegal dealers, this was four times the average for the previous 6 years." In a letter to European Union nations urging support for the uplisting proposal, Director Rotich added: "Elephant poaching for ivory has also increased five fold in our elephant stronghold, the Tsavo National Park where thirty percent of our elephants occur." New images of massacred elephants, brutally cut down by poachers' bullets and their faces sawed off for the coveted ivory, bring back horrific images from decades past.
But Kenya is not alone in bearing the painful burdens of the renewed ivory trade. In October 1999, a consultative meeting among African elephant range states (including the Asian elephant range state of India) was held in Amboseli, Kenya. The meeting's Proceedings note that most Parties reported "insignificant" elephant poaching in their countries when elephants were on Appendix I and that "there has been a notable increase in illegal hunting" since the 1997 downlisting. Congo, for instance, reported an "incredible upsurge in illegal killing of elephants," and Cameroon reported "seizures of large quantities [of ivory] confiscated from diplomats." In India, 222 poached elephant carcasses were discovered between 1997 and the 1999 consultative meeting. A majority of African elephant range states attending the consultative meeting supports the effort to put all elephants back on Appendix I.
Zimbabwe, which (with Namibia and Botswana) now proposes to expand its ivory exports further, has witnessed increased elephant poaching since the ban was relaxed. Panafrican News Agency reported on December 8, 1999 that "Zimbabwean wildlife officials" suspected that poachers from Zambia "had killed more than 80 elephants in the country's game parks in 1999 alone."
So what happens to the ivory from these poached elephants? It's a worldwide free for all. In February 2000, Portuguese officials uncovered "around 375 pounds of ivory, including 24 elephant tusks and seven statues" allegedly smuggled from Angola (AP). On September 18, 1999 two tons of ivory was seized in Dubai Airport, "one of the largest ivory seizures since the ban on trade in ivory was implemented," according to KWS. The accompanying table, "REPORTED IVORY SEIZURES SINCE JUNE 1997" shows how this illegal activity has grown again. KWS Director Rotich contends that the traditional ivory smuggling routes have been reopened.
Without a market, all this ivory is worthless. Japan, a major lobbying force behind the evisceration of the ivory ban, is an enormous ivory market. Despite the overwhelming evidence of elephant poaching and ivory smuggling, Japan's CITES position on elephants leading to COP 11 is that the "experimental trade of ivory in 1999 did not create any problem."
There is a tremendous opportunity for illegal ivory smuggling into Japan and sale on the Japanese market, even with the new amendments to Japan's laws regarding domestic management of ivory. Once it gets into Japan and is carved into signature stamps called hankos it is almost impossible to ascertain whether the ivory is from the legal shipment authorized by CITES or from an illegally smuggled consignment. As Kenya's and India's proposal notes, "although certification seals are available for attachment to carvings 'recognised as having been produced from legally obtained tusks,' and there is a penalty for affixing a seal to a carving other than the one for which it was issued, it is neither mandatory for such seals to be affixed nor illegal to sell a carving without a seal. Thus, though the certification system can be used to identify a legal carving by a dealer wishing to do so, it would appear to be of little or no use in preventing the sale of illegally-acquired ivory on the Japanese retail market."
Since 1997, elephant poaching has increased substantially across Africa and illegal ivory seizures have occurred with greater frequency across the globe. The ivory experiment has failed - again. We must restore the rational reverence for elephants embodied in the Appendix I listing of all African and Asian elephants and the complete ban on the global trade in elephant ivory.
KWS Director Rotich tells of an ecotourism group whose vehicle was held up for some time while a small herd of elephants crossed before them. When one wildlife watcher asked the guide why they were waiting so long the guide responded, because the elephants have the Right of Way. And so it should be.
Chart on Reported Ivory Seizures Since June 1997