There are two main answers to this question. First, Europeans are global citizens and elephants are an outstanding part of our global treasury of charismatic and irreplaceable wildlife. Secondly, Europe plays a surprisingly significant role in the continuing trade in elephant ivory which threatens their very existence as a species. This needs to be changed fast, and we have an opportunity to do it in the next few weeks.
A century ago, there were perhaps as many as five million elephants inhabiting Africa’s forests and savannahs.
Today, fewer than 500,000 remain.
The reasons for this devastating decline are complex. Expanding human populations are placing ever increasing demands on land, and elephant habitat is shrinking fast. Ancient migratory routes are being cut off as agriculture and infrastructure expand. As elephants come into ever closer contact with people, conflict inevitably results.
But the single most significant driver of decline is the industrial-scale poaching of elephants for their tusks.
Upwards of 20,000 elephants are being slaughtered across Africa each year by poachers, so that their ivory can be trafficked into illegal international markets. Populations are thought to be falling by about 8% each year. Forest elephants, the smaller of the two African species, have declined by almost two-thirds in the space of a decade. Asian elephants are also targeted for their tusks.
For a slow-growing, slow-reproducing large mammal, these losses are completely unsustainable.
Of course, it’s not just a question of numbers. Elephants are highly social and emotionally sensitive animals, and the loss of every individual has impacts that ripple through their family groups and wider populations. Elephants are also a keystone species; their decline has profound impacts throughout the ecosystems of which they are a part.
Elephant poaching and trafficking also disrupt social and economic stability in some of the poorest parts of Africa, and the involvement of organised criminal networks undermines the rule of law. Wildlife rangers across the continent are losing their lives while protecting elephants and other wild animals from poachers; it is estimated that one ranger dies every 3 days in the course of their duty.
The killing of elephants for their ivory is not a new phenomenon. Humans have coveted ivory for centuries. During the colonial era, ivory from more than a million dead elephants was imported into the United Kingdom alone, and many products manufactured from that ivory are still in commercial trade.
However, elephants are currently under more pressure than ever before. Unless poaching for ivory is curbed, elephants could disappear from a significant number of countries and continue to suffer catastrophic declines in others in the coming decades.
Many European citizens believe that trade in ivory is already prohibited. Indeed, in 1989 a moratorium on commercial international trade in new ivory was introduced by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
But that doesn’t mean there is no legal trade. Many countries continue to allow domestic trade in ivory, and there is substantial international trade in so-called ‘pre-convention ivory’ (ivory obtained before the CITES ban came into force). CITES has also permitted ‘one-off sales’ of large government ivory stockpiles from Southern Africa to China and Japan since the moratorium.
An analysis of government-declared exports of elephant ivory and ivory products for 2006–2015, revealed the EU to be the largest global exporter of ivory items by number of reported transactions. The majority of these exports were reported to be of a commercial nature, with most destined for China and Hong Kong where parallel legal and illegal ivory trade is known to exist. In 2014 and 2015 EU Member States reported exports of 1,258 tusks, and more than 20,000 other ivory items. The data also reveal that EU ivory exports have increased sharply in recent years.
The problem is that any legal trade in ivory, even if the ivory wasn’t recently obtained from illegally killed elephants, sends mixed messages to consumers, stimulating demand and undermining law enforcement efforts to address ivory trafficking. It also provides a mechanism by which illegal ivory from recently killed elephants can be laundered into trade. Studies have repeatedly exposed outlets in many countries offering legal and illegal ivory products side-by-side.
In spite of the recommendation from the European Council in June 2016 to “consider further measures to put a halt to commercial trade in ivory from elephants”, and the European Parliament’s resolution from October 2016 calling for “a full and immediate ban at EU level on trade, export or re-export of ivory and rhinoceros horns”, a move supported by many wildlife conservation and trade experts, the European Commission has thus far fallen short of recommending a comprehensive ban on ivory trade. Instead, the Commission issued a guidance document in May 2017 explaining how Member States might interpret the current rules. While the recommendation that raw ivory exports from the EU should end was welcome, legal commercial trade in older worked ivory items currently continues virtually unabated, leaving a gaping hole in European rules compromising enforcement efforts and allowing traffickers to continue to operate with impunity.
Ivory exports from the EU constitute one of several legal and illegal sources of ivory feeding a global market, particularly in key destinations for ivory in Asia. Regional, national and local markets are inextricable components of this indivisible global market.
There is increasing recognition within the international community for the need to end commercial trade in ivory, in order to send a strong and clear message to consumers that the trade in ivory from any source is unacceptable. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the majority of African countries with elephants have called for the closure of domestic ivory markets. In September 2017, the United Nations General Assembly urged Parties to implement the decision adopted by the Conference of Parties to CITES in 2016, recommending that all Governments close legal domestic ivory markets, as a matter of urgency, if these markets contribute to poaching or illegal trade. The United States, until recently a major ivory market, introduced a ‘near total ban’, in 2016. China, currently the principal destination for both legal and illegal ivory, has committed to close its ivory markets and carving factories by the end of 2017. The United Kingdom is currently considering a total ban on ivory sales, with minimal exceptions.
The time has long passed for contemplation and compromise. The European Commission has launched a public consultation on ivory trade in the EU. It is vital that the Commission follows the international trend by adopting a precautionary approach, as it is obliged to do under EU law, and recommend a ban on commercial trade in all ivory and ivory products into, within and from EU Member States without delay. All EU citizens have the opportunity to engage with this consultation before the 8th December deadline, and a number of conservation groups have come together to provide guidance to members of the public which can be found at http://www.bornfree.org.uk/fileadmin/user_upload/files/EU_consultation_on_ivory_trade_01.pdf.
The EU is widely considered to be a forward thinking region in terms of wildlife conservation and environmental protection. Elephants are an iconic and keystone species, and part of humankind’s global heritage, and Europe must play its full part in ensuring that they can not only survive but thrive for future generations to enjoy and cherish.