Wildlife Matters - Banning white gold to save elephants

GENERATION X will probably remember the Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder song Ebony and Ivory. I appreciate the song had metaphoric references to racial harmony represented by the black and white keys on a piano. But the reference to ivory and pianos wasn't at all symbolic as ivory was used extensively to develop piano keys. And that just never sat well with me.

Elephants can be safely said to be the headline species of 2016, with many stupendous moments being highlighted in the media and momentum created within the political realm. In April, a large bonfire was lit over 100 tonnes of ivory in Kenya. This wasn't the first time Kenya committed its ivory stockpile to ashes, having first done so in 1989, but this year's scorching is the largest ever in history. Opinion was split on the destruction of the massive stockpile from an economic standpoint; but I see great value in Kenya's symbolic stance. President Uhuru Kenyatta's said it best when he summed up, "For us, ivory is worthless unless it is on our elephants." But the challenge is for the rest of the world to see it that way.

The message from Kenya and the tireless efforts of NGOs and scientists to highlight the plight of elephants probably resonated with member countries that attended the 17th Conference of Parties (COP) to the Cites (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) held last month. Many tense negotiations and talks around elephant conservation and ivory trade were held, and in the end, the COP adopted a key milestone resolution that brings us a step closer towards protecting elephants from our ivory obsession. More on that later, let's first examine this bloody and insatiable thirst for ivory and the impact it's had on Africa's elephant populations.

Just over 500 years ago, almost 26 million elephants roamed the African continent. Three hundred years later the demand for ivory would soar, resulting in a massive spiral downwards of elephant populations in Africa. By the early 1900s, elephant populations plunged to around 10 million and nose-dived to fewer than one million by 1989. The year 1989 is significant in so far as the ivory trade is concerned. Cites, which regulates the trade of endangered species and their parts imposed a ban on international ivory trade. It achieved this by placing African elephants on the Cites Appendix I list, where species threatened with extinction are restricted from international commercial trade (species parts such as tusks are included). This did dampen the demand for ivory somewhat and elephant populations appeared to recover in certain range states in Africa. When populations began to recover, four range countries had their elephants down-listed to Appendix II which meant that sustainable trade of a species and their parts was permissible (in the case of these elephants with certain conditions).

Here is where the attempts to curb legal ivory trade at the international level stumbled somewhat.

Cites faltered twice in 1999 and 2008 by allowing four countries (Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa) whose elephants were on Appendix II to sell their ivory in a "one-off" sale to Japan and China. 105 tonnes of ivory flooded the Chinese and Japanese market. China remains the biggest consumer of ivory products. This sale, though "legal" and "sanctioned" as it were, jolted demand for ivory and fuelled the poaching of elephants from the wild, as well as induce and sustain an illegal market for ivory. It is therefore not surprising that since 2007, 30% of elephant populations have been decimated. After what many called the 2008 "blunder" by Cites, a nine-year moratorium on the sale of ivory was imposed by Cites on these countries and will come to an end next year.

Exact estimates of elephants aren't always known but it's safe to say we possibly don't have more than 450,000 elephants left in Africa. A continent-wide survey called the Great Elephant Census informs us that elephant populations are declining and that 27,000-30,000 elephants die at the hands of poachers every year. African elephants face multiple threats including habitat loss, land degradation and human wildlife conflict; but poaching for ivory remains its greatest threat.

I don't profess to have all the answers to what may bring the ivory trade to a grinding halt. But it is crucial that to curtail illicit trade, international legal trade of ivory must be disallowed completely so as not to spur a black market for it. The question is did the COP manage to do this? The COP failed to get all range state elephants on Appendix I which means no total ivory trade ban was achieved (for now). But the change of heart by Botswana which rallied to support the upgrading of southern African elephants to Appendix I is very encouraging. The COP did however reject proposals from Namibia and Zimbabwe to permit one-off sales of their ivory again.

But perhaps what was the most significant outcome of the COP was the resolution passed by parties in relation to crushing domestic markets for ivory. The COP "recommends that all Parties and non-Parties in whose jurisdiction there is a legal domestic market for ivory that is contributing to poaching or illegal trade, take all necessary legislative, regulatory and enforcement measures to close their domestic markets for commercial trade in raw and worked ivory as a matter of urgency". Though the resolution is non-binding it sends a strong signal that the world is no longer tolerant of ivory trade. Many countries are already on this path, but it needs a concerted effort from all and there is hope for that.

Going back to the ivory piano keys, Billy Joel in response to musicians who defend the use of ivory on their instruments said "Music must never be used as an excuse to destroy an endangered species. Music should be a celebration of life – not an instrument of death". Well said Mr Piano Man.

Preetha is an advocate and solicitor. She has spent many years in the environmental conservation arena. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com