An avoidable tragedy: the ‘one-off’ sales that sealed the elephants’ fate

    The tragedy is made all the worse by the fact that it could have so nearly been avoided a few decades ago.

    In 1989, a worldwide ban on the international trade in ivory was approved by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) and the levels of poaching fell dramatically. The black market prices of ivory slumped. Elephants began to recover their numbers.

    But just 10 years later, more so-called one-off sales were allowed to certain countries – for example, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe were allowed an experimental one-off sale of more than 49,000 kg of ivory to Japan.

    In 2002, another sale was approved, which resulted in 105,000 kg of ivory being shipped to China and Japan. The consequence of so much ‘legitimate’ ivory on the market was a foregone conclusion – the demand for it soared. So did the killing.

    The situation got even worse in 2008 when CITES allowed another sale of stockpiles of ivory to China. The idea was that a stock of legal ivory would reduce poaching.  In practice, this CITES decision was a deadly blow to elephants and jump-started the ivory trade.

    As many wildlife conservation groups had warned, the consequences of creating a legal market for ivory in China were catastrophic, allowing the illegal market to flourish as never before. Poaching escalated to unprecedented levels to satisfy the growing demand. The emerging class of wealthy Chinese wanted more and more ivory as status objects.

    The elephants have been paying the price of these misguided decisions with their lives – tens of thousands of lives each year – and the total collapse of their social structure. The slaughter of elephants across Africa is worse than at any time since 1989 when the international ivory ban was imposed.

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