Why Illegal Ivory Trade Continues Despite the Trade Ban

A massive exploitation of elephants began in the 1970s. During those times, well-organized crime syndicates involved in illegal ivory trade utilized automatic weapons, benefited from government corruption and exported tons of elephant tusks from African countries to several countries in United States, Europe, and Asia.

Because the African elephant was threatened with extinction, it was theoretically protected by laws through listing on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1989. However, the continuous rising of illicit ivory trade only shows the lack of success of the world ivory trade ban because all players in this business have different incentives to comply with the ban.

Fundamental factors that is debatable in the issue of ivory trade ban include the level of compliance adhered to by parties in CITES, the level of enforcement of this ban, and the response of non-CITES members. Many environmental advocates have also raise a policy question of how trade interventions protect species preservation.

Illegal ivory trade

Ivory trade continued to grow since 1940. However, sharp increase of ivory trading happened in 1970s when automatic weapons became and available government corruption was extensive. The African elephant population has experienced a greater decimation than the Asian. This has continued to rise until today.

Rising demand in East Asia and new manufacturing techniques enabling mass production of ivory carvings led to increased elephant killings. Hence, further encourage poaching and illicit ivory trading. Elephant poaching is the illegal harvesting of the said specie.

Both illegal and legal ivory exports amounted to 770 metric tons or 75,000 elephants in 1989. This is just before the ivory trade ban. The rising of elephant poaching despite ivory trade ban led to the establishment of an ivory monitoring unit. Ivory trade quotas were enforced in exporting countries.

However, not all African parties complied with the ban showing that CITES controls were relatively easy to evade. Around 19 of the 35 African Parties did not comply with the system. Illegal ivory traders altered their trade routes and used regulation loopholes. That is why no change was achieved even when most African countries joined CITES.

It was reported that more than 300,000 elephants were killed in Africa, leaving only 625,000 live elephants on the continent, down from 1.2 million in 1979.

Conflicting Ideas

During the 1992 CITES meeting in Japan, several Southern African showed support to the formation of a cartel. They wanted to downgrade the listing of African elephants to Appendix II and indicated a monopoly of export and sale of ivory, with only one buyer which is Japan. These countries proposed the utility of new scientific methods that traces the origins of ivory to determine if the origin was permitted to export or not. Meanwhile, other African countries, particularly from the East, believed that conservation funds can be acquired from tourism rather than trade.

Differences of opinion also occur over the nature of the ivory trade. The question of whether CITES fundamental purpose is to close down international trade in wildlife or to create effective management of globally threatened species.

Also worth noting in the question of ivory trade bans effectiveness is the exclusion of South Korea, Macao and Taiwan from the 115 signatories to CITES. Their absence contributes to ineffectiveness because they are major wildlife importers, thus creating much demand for ivory and encouraging more poachers.

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