Brussels has made a robust defence of its record after nearly 30 African states said they were “appalled” by its decision to oppose a comprehensive global ban in the trade in illegal ivory.
EU member states, the largest exporters of legal ivory, are being urged to back demands for a total ban on the trade.
This comes ahead of a CoP17 (17th Conference of the Parties) meeting in Johannesburg from 24 September to 5 October, which will decide if elephants can be provided with the maximum level of protection, therefore helping to end the illegal trade in ivory which is said to be among the largest source of revenue for terrorist groups in Africa.
The EU backs a system of exemptions which allows exports of some elephant products from four African states, Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa and Botswana.
A spokesperson for the Commission’s environment, maritime affairs and fisheries DG said, “In the EU, domestic trade in pre-convention ivory is strictly regulated. There is no evidence that this domestic market has been used as a cover for illegal ivory.”
Some countries, including the UK, France and Germany, have already stopped issuing ivory export certificates but others, including Belgium, have resisted such calls, saying there is no way to prevent poached ivory from entering legal chains.
In 2014, 20,000 African elephants were killed by poachers and between 2009 and 2015, Tanzania and Mozambique lost over half their elephant populations, with similar figures reported across east and central Africa.
The most recent figures show a 61 per cent decline in African elephants between 1980 and 2013.The death rate is such that every 15 minutes, an elephant in Africa somewhere is killed by poachers.
The EU is the world’s largest exporter of pre-convention ivory – ivory acquired before the creation, in 1976, of the convention on international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora (CITES), the body that regulates wildlife trade.
Between 2011 and 2014, member states reported seizures of around 4500 ivory items reported as specimens and an additional 780 kg as reported by weight. Between 2003 and 2014, 92 per cent of EU exports of pre-convention tusks went to China or Hong Kong.
The African Elephant Coalition (AEC) – a coalition of 29 African states – has presented its proposals, which include a global ban, to CITES and recently met senior EU officials in Brussels to build support for its campaign.
However, on 1 July, the EU announced that it opposes a comprehensive global ban on the ivory trade. It would be better to encourage countries with growing elephant numbers to “sustainably manage” their populations, it says.
An existing global embargo on ivory sales is due to end in 2017 and Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa and Botswana are pushing for it to be replaced with a decision-making mechanism for future tusk trading.
AEC is warning of a mass extinction on the continent within 25 years, unless elephants are given an Annex I CITES listing, which would ban any future domestic ivory trade.
It says the EU “lags behind” the international community in fighting the illegal ivory trade: the US has introduced an almost total ban; China and Hong Kong have announced they will close their markets. However, many EU member states trade in ivory and Europe is a global hub for ivory.
France supports a total ban and in addition to the UK, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany have stopped issuing ivory export certificates, calling on Brussels to make this an EU-wide policy.
Many Europeans in countries such as Belgium, which opposes any ban, have been selling off ivory pieces they inherited in the years since nations won their independence.
During the past decade, EU countries legally exported more than 20,000 carvings and 564 tusks, according to CITES.
In a statement, European environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella defended the EU’s position.
He said, “Ahead of the World Conference on wildlife trade in Johannesburg this September, I wanted to outline some important points regarding the EU position.
“First and foremost, the EU 100 per cent supports the ban on international ivory trade. Ivory trafficking and elephant poaching are a tragedy. The EU is extremely proud to be a world leader in the fight against this crime.”
The Maltese-born Commissioner added, “The EU action plan against wildlife trafficking, launched in February, is a clear commitment by us and our 28 member states to fight wildlife trafficking, at source, in transit and in market countries.
“Not only does this action plan tackle the movement of trafficked wildlife, it also tackles one of the biggest problems – corruption. Corruption represents a crack in the system and is the biggest threat to elephants.”
The official went on, “The CITES CoP will be an important opportunity for the international community to strengthen its approach against ivory trafficking. It is a chance to seal those cracks.”
Vera Weber, President and CEO of Fondation Franz Weber in Switzerland, said that the EU needs to support the AEC initiative and “demonstrate its commitment to the world” by shutting down its own ivory trade market.
Weber said, “As long as there is a trade in ivory, whether it is legal or not, elephants will continue to die and African countries and its people will continue to suffer from the ravages of poaching and the terrorist and criminal elements linked to it.
“If the world genuinely wants to help Africa, its wildlife and its people, I appeal to the EU to support the proposals of the 29 African countries in the AEC to need to put a stop to the ivory trade once and for all.”
John Duhig, senior counsellor at the European Foundation for Democracy, a Brussels-based policy institute, said, “Ivory poaching contributes to funding terrorist groups in Africa, many of whom are separated from Europe only by the Mediterranean sea.”
Stella Reynolds, an international lawyer based in France, said, “The EU was created to ensure future peace and an absence of conflict. So it’s incredible it is hiding from its responsibility in this modern-day global ivory conflict.”
Daniela Freyer of Pro Wildlife, a German-based advocacy group specialising in regional and international wildlife regulations, agreed; “The EU must walk the talk and abolish ivory trade once and for all.”
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