Science & Environment

‘Gang of eight’ on ivory probation

The latest reports indicate that the illicit trade in ivory has doubled since 2007
Image caption The latest reports indicate that the illicit trade in ivory has doubled since 2007

The worst offending countries in the ivory trade have been given a strict deadline to reduce their involvement or face sanctions.

The decision taken at the final meeting of the Cites conference in Bangkok is meant to compel countries like China and Thailand to tougher action.

But some campaigners say Cites is failing to protect elephants and want more urgent action.

Data indicates that 17,000 elephants were killed by poachers in 2011.

This is the most up-to-date information available for areas monitored by Cites.

In its final session here in Bangkok, delegates approved a decision to demand a clear set of targets for reducing the trade in ivory from the countries deemed the worst offenders.

The “gang of eight” countries include the supply states, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, plus the consumer states of China and Thailand. The group also includes three countries - Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines - which are important in the transit of ivory.

Resource issue

The meeting heard that six of the eight countries had now come up with action plans.

The standing committee of Cites also agreed that if the actions described in those plans were not completed then sanctions against the offending country, or countries, could be taken from July 2014.

Image caption In future, seized ivory will be DNA tested to try to identify the source country more accurately

Secretary General of Cites, John Scanlon, explained that the deadline was real.

“The eight states are prepared to do more and be measured against that," he said. "There is also a recognition that a failure to take action, [may see] the standing committee consider compliance measures. And the ultimate sanction under our convention is a trade suspension."

But the lumping together of the eight countries as worst offenders has upset several of the countries.

Speaking in the final session, Patrick Omondi, the spokesman for Kenya’s delegation, drew a major distinction between the actions being taken by source and consumer countries.

“The demand reductions strategies (in Thailand and China) are totally different from what we are supposed to be doing. Ours depend on resources.”

If you give me screens to screen tonnes of containers we’ll screen all containers passing through Mombasa airport. If you give me 50 more sniffer dogs, we’ll be sniffing every animal part that passes through,” he added.

Thailand’s legal domestic market has been highlighted at this meeting as being a particular source of concern. It is believed that criminal gangs take advantage of this loophole to launder ivory from African elephants into Asia.

At the start of the meeting, the Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra accepted that her country needed to change its laws.

'Trinket choice'

The conference also discussed other measures in the fight against elephant poaching.

The delegates decided to require countries that make seizures of ivory to send samples for DNA analysis to established facilities.

They also asked countries with stockpiles of ivory to give up-to-date information on the scale of these holdings. Many experts fear that ivory from these stockpiles is being diverted into the markets.

Jason Bell from the International Fund for Animal Welfare agreed that these steps would help.

“These developments will not stop the current poaching crisis that is killing up to 25,000 elephants per year, but they will help and they should save some elephants,” he said.

But many campaigners were unimpressed by the Cites stance. A group of 10 conservation and welfare organisations issued a statement saying they were outraged by what they term as “the failure of Cites to stop the poaching”. They want a much tougher approach taken, especially with respect to China.

“China could end the killing by immediately closing its domestic ivory markets and severely punishing citizens engaged in illegal ivory trade," said Steve Itela, director of Youth for Conservation.

“But it chooses ivory trinkets for a luxury market over live elephants,” he added.