There is a saying that elephants never forget but they may be forgotten forever, as they risk being wiped out due to an ever-expanding ivory tusk market. The African Elephant Coalition (AEC) speaking on behalf of 29 African countries, argues that elephants may be extinct in 25 years if a total ban on ivory trade is not introduced worldwide. The position of the EU in the upcoming global wildlife summit is crucial to save them.

Alarmingly, the African elephant population declined by 61% during the last three decades.

Only within the past three years, 100,000 elephants were slaughtered according to Uganda’s Wildlife Authority. Approximately 30,000 elephants are annually lost due to poaching. Experts warn that an elephant is being killed every 15 minutes in order to produce ornaments, trinkets and valuable statuettes, which are then sold in the Asian market, especially in China and Hong Kong.

Research shows that elephants have recently changed their habits, only appearing during night time and clinging to massive herds in order to escape from poachers, who often don’t hesitate to murder or to bribe rangers responsible for elephant protection, given their criminal networks, superior numbers, financing and gun power.

The 17th Conference of Parties (COP) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Johannesburg, South Africa on 24 September-5 October 2016 could irreversibly change the fate of the African elephants.

As the biggest exporter of ivory and a primary funder of CITES, representing the largest voting bloc, the EU has an important say in the summit but it seems that it will not live up to expectations by refusing to alter the status quo. In particular, former EU Member States that once had colonies in Africa, including Belgium, together with southern African countries are heavily lobbying for maintaining the exceptions in the current system instead of introducing a total ban on ivory trade.

Back in 1989, all African elephants were listed as ‘species threatened with extinction’ in Appendix I of CITES. The current ban introduced in 2007 on ivory sales, which is due to expire in 2017, is not all-encompassing, as it allows for ivory exports from four African countries (Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe). The African elephant is put in Appendix II listing in those four countries, due to the argument that the growing elephant populations there induces less risk of extinction. The Convention also makes it legal to sell licensed ivory in antique shops and auctions if it is acquired prior to 1975, when CITES came in force.

Some argue that due to the split-listing since 2007, failing to treat the African elephant as a single species and ignoring its migrating nature, ivory trade more than doubled and the number of elephants dropped from 600,000 to 400,000. 

In addition, it is widely believed that the existence of a legal ivory market triggers the illegal trade and boosts the issuance of fake certificates considering that it is extremely difficult to differentiate pre-Convention ivory from raw and worked ivory.

More importantly, it is acknowledged by the UN Security Council that ivory trade fuels terrorist groups in some parts of Africa. Some examples are Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Somalia’s Al-Shabaab, Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army and other groups in Sudan, which earn an estimated $ 600,000 per week due to illegal poaching according to to Vera Weber, President and CEO of the Swiss-based Foundation Franz Weber. Widespread corruption and rising ivory demand in Asia are other reasons that stimulate wildlife trafficking, which became one of most lucrative crimes in the world, generating value between €8 and €20 billion annually according to EU estimates.

To stop this, the AEC proposed to eliminate the existing loopholes during the upcoming summit by assembling all elephant populations under Appendix I, which would mean a global shutdown of ivory markets. It also advocates for the destruction of ivory stocks, as was the case in Kenya, which burned a stockpile of ivory worth $100 million earlier this year.

While China and the US announced that they would almost totally close their domestic ivory markets, the European Commission disappointingly declared on 1 July that it is in favour of maintaining the exceptions, preaching that the ivory market is strictly regulated in the EU and elephant populations are managed in a sustainable manner in the four African countries. Moreover, the EU is insisting that a compromise be struck among African countries ‘…to maintain African unity’. In fact, it is the split-listing pushed by the four southern African countries that is the very reason for a lack of unity on the continent on the issue. This rather detached and irresponsible stance is widely criticised by wildlife activists. Avaaz recently launched a campaign against ‘the EU’s elephant death sentence’ and collected around 1,500,000 signatures so far.

Yet, there still might be some hope for the EU to modify its common position prior to the UN summit in September due to diverging agendas of its Member States. Some EU countries took an exemplary step by stopping issuing certificates, which allow ivory exports. These include the Czech Republic, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Sweden, and the U.K. France also announced a complete ban of ivory trade in its domestic market. There is need for more pressure to turn these initiatives into an EU-wide policy, in the absence of which they would be largely ineffective.

The EU should finally come to its senses and act responsibly by introducing a total ban on ivory trade. The existing loopholes are endangering thousands of elephant lives, while destabilising the region by providing a significant source for terrorist funding. No one would like to pay the highest price of seeing elephants forgotten forever or being remembered as unwitting collaborators of warlords, ruling from atop their ivory-funded thrones.