Will new rules to ban ivory trade in the EU save African elephants?

Will new rules to ban ivory trade in the EU save African elephants?
Credit: Unsplash/Stephan Bechert

The European Commission adopted on Thursday new measures to ban most forms of EU trade in ivory.

The new measures are described as a reconfirmation of EU’s commitment to take further action against elephant poaching and ivory trafficking globally. They follow a Commission proposal earlier this week for a new EU Directive to crack down on environmental crime.

Despite a far-reaching international ivory trade ban, elephant poaching and ivory trafficking have reached record levels. It is estimated that between 20 000 and 30 000 African elephants are poached every year.

Elephant populations continue to be threatened due to illegal killing, driven by continuing demand for ivory in some regions of the world, especially Asia. This has led to the depletion of many elephant populations in Africa, also due to an increased involvement of transnational criminal networks in illegal trade.

An international Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has been in place since 1975 and aims to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of the species. It is an international agreement between governments but has to be adopted and implemented by them at the national level.

“The world is losing wildlife at an incredible speed,” said Virginijus Sinkevičius , the Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries (16 December). “Thousands of elephants are killed every year, and their ivory is often sold internationally. To reverse this global trend and to protect biodiversity, we must also do our work at home.”

“We want to eliminate any remaining risk that activities in the EU indirectly supply illegal ivory markets abroad,” he added.

The EU already has very strict rules on ivory trade in place. In 2017, the Commission published a guidance, suspending re-export of raw ivory and advising EU countries to apply particular scrutiny in assessing applications from potential traders. This has contributed to curbing illicit activities involving ivory across the EU.

The Commission’s revised Guidance on the EU regime governing ivory trade,  suspends trade in raw ivory on the EU market except for the exclusive purpose of repairing objects containing ancient ivory. The Guidance also suspends intra-EU trade in worked ivory items, unless strict conditions are fulfilled.

Under the new rules, intra-EU trade in worked ivory items is only permitted if the items in question pre-date 1947, and commercial transactions are only permitted with a certificate from Member States’ authorities. Such certificates can still also be issued for intra-EU trade in musical instruments containing ivory from before 1975. Additional restrictions apply to ivory imports into and re-exports from the EU.

According to the latest CITES Annual Illegal Trade reports, elephant ivory is one of the top 10 commodities seized in the EU. It ranked as the 6th most seized commodity in 2019. In that year, there were 134 reported seizures by 11 member states. The two main ivory products seized are ivory carvings and ivory jewellery; followed by ivory pieces and tusks.

Seizures were reported in the context of import, internal trade and export, totalling an estimated value of €338,000. The demand for ivory is much higher in Asia, notably China.

At its meeting on Thursday, the European Council discussed the preparations for the EU – African Union Summit on 17-18 February 2022. Does the Commission plan any measures to limit international trade in ivory and to support African countries in fighting poaching of elephants?

“The EU needs to keep engaging internationally and is determined to support amongst others efforts to reduce elephant poaching,” a source in the Commission told The Brussels Times. “The EU is actively engaged at CITES, and will keep supporting Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) and engaging in biodiversity related international negotiations and fora.”

“We will keep supporting partner countries in their efforts to manage their natural resources in a sustainable way. The Commission intends to double its external funding for Biodiversity, particularly for vulnerable countries, putting this priority even more at the core of development cooperation policies.”

The EU is currently supporting programs that contribute to elephant protection, whether by targeting the species per se, e.g. by Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (CITES Mike programme), or by promoting an integrated vision of effective conservation as a contributor to sustainable development and integrated approaches.

Another programme is the “Larger than Elephant”, an integrated strategy for conservation in Africa which is currently being updated. “There can be no effective protection without addressing the needs of local populations and seeking synergies with socio-economic development, as well as reducing and managing human wildlife conflicts.”

Note: The article has been updated to include the Commission’s approach to supporting African countries in fighting poaching of elephants.

The Brussels Times

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