CITES Delivers Mostly Wins for Elephants


(c) Thomas Berg

A lot of people seem confused about what happened at CITES regarding elephants. On social media and in news articles, whether it’s Facebook or the BBC, people are asking: are elephants better off than they were before CITES?

Yes, here’s why:

Win: Encouraging Countries to Close Domestic Ivory Markets​

CITES passed a resolution encouraging countries to close their domestic ivory markets, as I wrote about here. This was big. While there is precedent for doing so, CITES is sometimes reluctant to tell countries what to do with their domestic wildlife markets, which is bogus since domestic and international trade are inextricably linked. This resolution will hopefully compel many more countries to join the U.S., China, and France in committing to close their ivory markets and provide them with the money and guidance necessary to do so.

Win: Ending the Creation of a Framework for Selling Ivory

CITES Parties also ended the ivory trade “decision-making mechanism” or “DMM” (Decision 16.55), which sought to create a framework for selling ivory. The decision was originally reached at the 14th Convention of the Parties in 2007 as part of a compromise that put in place a nine-year moratorium on the international ivory trade. Put simply, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana agreed to the moratorium back then so long as the DMM was established. Fortunately, nine years later, the DMM hasn’t been established because there’s absolutely no way to allow an ivory market without contributing to the elephant poaching crisis regardless of how “limited” or “regulated” it is.

Win: Defeating Proposals to Open the Ivory Trade

The CITES Parties also defeated two proposals—submitted by Zimbabwe and Namibia—to reopen the ivory trade. Zimbabwe and Namibia’s elephant populations are currently listed under CITES Appendix II with an annotation that prohibits them from engaging in the ivory trade during the nine years between 2007-2016, as referenced above. These countries believed that since the 9-year moratorium is over, the annotation must be removed so that they can sell ivory again. But we’ve seen what’s happened to elephants since 2008, when poaching began to skyrocket. No country should be allowed to sell ivory given current elephant populations and rates of decline.

It Depends: Proposal to Uplist African Elephants to Appendix I Fails

This proposal—submitted by a large number of African countries—would have transferred the remaining Appendix II populations of elephants (those in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe) to Appendix I—the highest level of protection available under CITES. This would ban any legal international commercial trade in elephant ivory. Sounds like a good thing, right? It IS…at least in theory. But in reality, countries that want to resume ivory trade like Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe said they would “take a reservation” if this happened, which means they would unilaterally decide not to be bound by the decision and resume the ivory trade. It’s for this reason that the U.S.—a big-time proponent of increased elephant protections—voted “NO” on the proposal. Parties can only take a reservation when they (1) become a Party or (2) within 90 days after the adoption of an amendment to the Appendices. So while they couldn’t take a reservation if the Appendix II listing was retained, they could if elephants were moved to Appendix I. To boil it all down, if elephants were uplisted to Appendix I certain countries would have resumed the ivory trade. The current controls we have under Appendix II are better than no controls at all.  

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