Ban­ning white gold to save ele­phants


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GEN­ER­A­TION X will prob­a­bly re­mem­ber the Paul McCart­ney and Stevie Won­der song Ebony and Ivory. I ap­pre­ci­ate the song had meta­phoric ref­er­ences to racial har­mony rep­re­sented by the black and white keys on a piano. But the ref­er­ence to ivory and pi­anos wasn’t at all sym­bolic as ivory was used ex­ten­sively to de­velop piano keys. And that just never sat well with me.

Ele­phants can be safely said to be the head­line species of 2016, with many stu­pen­dous mo­ments be­ing high­lighted in the me­dia and mo­men­tum cre­ated within the po­lit­i­cal realm. In April, a large bon­fire was lit over 100 tonnes of ivory in Kenya. This wasn’t the first time Kenya com­mit­ted its ivory stock­pile to ashes, hav­ing first done so in 1989, but this year’s scorch­ing is the largest ever in his­tory. Opin­ion was split on the de­struc­tion of the mas­sive stock­pile from an eco­nomic stand­point; but I see great value in Kenya’s sym­bolic stance. Pres­i­dent Uhuru Keny­atta’s said it best when he summed up, “For us, ivory is worth­less un­less it is on our ele­phants.” But the chal­lenge is for the rest of the world to see it that way.

The mes­sage from Kenya and the tire­less ef­forts of NGOs and sci­en­tists to high­light the plight of ele­phants prob­a­bly res­onated with mem­ber coun­tries that at­tended the 17th Con­fer­ence of Par­ties (COP) to the Cites (Con­ven­tion on In­ter­na­tional Trade in En­dan­gered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) held last month. Many tense ne­go­ti­a­tions and talks around ele­phant con­ser­va­tion and ivory trade were held, and in the end, the COP adopted a key mile­stone res­o­lu­tion that brings us a step closer to­wards pro­tect­ing ele­phants from our ivory ob­ses­sion. More on that later, let’s first ex­am­ine this bloody and in­sa­tiable thirst for ivory and the im­pact it’s had on Africa’s ele­phant pop­u­la­tions.

Just over 500 years ago, al­most 26 mil­lion ele­phants roamed the African con­ti­nent. Three hun­dred years later the de­mand for ivory would soar, re­sult­ing in a mas­sive spi­ral down­wards of ele­phant pop­u­la­tions in Africa. By the early 1900s, ele­phant pop­u­la­tions plunged to around 10 mil­lion and nose-dived to fewer than one mil­lion by 1989. The year 1989 is sig­nif­i­cant in so far as the ivory trade is con­cerned. Cites, which reg­u­lates the trade of en­dan­gered species and their parts im­posed a ban on in­ter­na­tional ivory trade. It achieved this by plac­ing African ele­phants on the Cites Ap­pendix I list, where species threat­ened with ex­tinc­tion are re­stricted from in­ter­na­tional com­mer­cial trade (species parts such as tusks are in­cluded). This did dampen the de­mand for ivory some­what and ele­phant pop­u­la­tions ap­peared to re­cover in cer­tain range states in Africa. When pop­u­la­tions be­gan to re­cover, four range coun­tries had their ele­phants down-listed to Ap­pendix II which meant that sus­tain­able trade of a species and their parts was per­mis­si­ble (in the case of th­ese ele­phants with cer­tain con­di­tions).

Here is where the at­tempts to curb le­gal ivory trade at the in­ter­na­tional level stum­bled some­what.

Cites fal­tered twice in 1999 and 2008 by al­low­ing four coun­tries (Botswana, Namibia, Zim­babwe and South Africa) whose ele­phants were on Ap­pendix II to sell their ivory in a “one-off” sale to Ja­pan and China. 105 tonnes of ivory flooded the Chi­nese and Ja­panese mar­ket. China re­mains the big­gest con­sumer of ivory prod­ucts. This sale, though “le­gal” and “sanc­tioned” as it were, jolted de­mand for ivory and fu­elled the poach­ing of ele­phants from the wild, as well as in­duce and sus­tain an il­le­gal mar­ket for ivory. It is there­fore not sur­pris­ing that since 2007, 30% of ele­phant pop­u­la­tions have been dec­i­mated. Af­ter what many called the 2008 “blun­der” by Cites, a nine-year mora­to­rium on the sale of ivory was im­posed by Cites on th­ese coun­tries and will come to an end next year.

Ex­act es­ti­mates of ele­phants aren’t al­ways known but it’s safe to say we pos­si­bly don’t have more than 450,000 ele­phants left in Africa. A con­ti­nent-wide sur­vey called the Great Ele­phant Cen­sus in­forms us that ele­phant pop­u­la­tions are de­clin­ing and that 27,000-30,000 ele­phants die at the hands of poach­ers ev­ery year. African ele­phants face mul­ti­ple threats in­clud­ing habi­tat loss, land degra­da­tion and hu­man wildlife con­flict; but poach­ing for ivory re­mains its great­est threat.

I don’t pro­fess to have all the an­swers to what may bring the ivory trade to a grind­ing halt. But it is cru­cial that to cur­tail il­licit trade, in­ter­na­tional le­gal trade of ivory must be dis­al­lowed com­pletely so as not to spur a black mar­ket for it. The ques­tion is did the COP man­age to do this? The COP failed to get all range state ele­phants on Ap­pendix I which means no to­tal ivory trade ban was achieved (for now). But the change of heart by Botswana which ral­lied to sup­port the up­grad­ing of south­ern African ele­phants to Ap­pendix I is very en­cour­ag­ing. The COP did how­ever re­ject pro­pos­als from Namibia and Zim­babwe to per­mit one-off sales of their ivory again.

But per­haps what was the most sig­nif­i­cant out­come of the COP was the res­o­lu­tion passed by par­ties in re­la­tion to crush­ing do­mes­tic mar­kets for ivory. The COP “rec­om­mends that all Par­ties and non-Par­ties in whose ju­ris­dic­tion there is a le­gal do­mes­tic mar­ket for ivory that is con­tribut­ing to poach­ing or il­le­gal trade, take all nec­es­sary leg­isla­tive, reg­u­la­tory and en­force­ment mea­sures to close their do­mes­tic mar­kets for com­mer­cial trade in raw and worked ivory as a mat­ter of ur­gency”. Though the res­o­lu­tion is non-bind­ing it sends a strong sig­nal that the world is no longer tol­er­ant of ivory trade. Many coun­tries are al­ready on this path, but it needs a con­certed ef­fort from all and there is hope for that.

Go­ing back to the ivory piano keys, Billy Joel in re­sponse to mu­si­cians who defend the use of ivory on their in­stru­ments said “Mu­sic must never be used as an ex­cuse to de­stroy an en­dan­gered species. Mu­sic should be a celebration of life – not an in­stru­ment of death”. Well said Mr Piano Man.

Kenya burnt 100 tonnes of ivory in April.

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