CITES-sanctioned ivory auctions underway in Southern Africa
A controversial auction of some 108 tonnes of legal ivory to China and Japan is currently underway in southern Africa. The long-delayed sales of stockpiled ivory in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe are being conducted over two weeks under close supervision of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
CITES says that the four African countries have been approved to export their stockpiles because they have been able to establish that elephant populations are now under control and being monitored in an acceptable manner.
Proceeds from the auctions are required to be used to fund future conservation initiatives targeting threatened elephant habitat, and community development projects in areas where elephant populations have been interfering with local farming.
The auctions are being organised by the governments of the respective African countries and only authorised Chinese and Japanese merchants are permitted to bid. Under the agreement, the ivory is not permitted to be re-exported, even after processing. CITES says it will be working with governments, Interpol and several NGOs to ensure this is the case.
CITES calls the exceptional sale “an African solution to an African problem,” in reference to the problems associated with conservation initiatives that do not take the unique circumstances in different parts of the world into account. “While richer countries can often afford to promote conservation through strict protection, many poorer nations must do so in ways that benefit local communities and bring in much-needed cash for conservation,” CITES Secretary-General Willem Wijnstekers has said in the past.
Scheme could boost poaching, critics say
Critics fear that the exclusive auction to Japan and China, two of the world’s largest ivory markets, has the potential to trigger a bidding war between the two countries. This frenzy, they argue, could inadvertently drive up black market prices and thus create more incentive for poaching.
“We are deeply concerned that these sales will open the floodgates to additional illegal trade” says Will Travers, of the UK-based wildlife advocacy organisation Born Free. “For many of the most vulnerable elephant populations across Africa, any increased poaching pressure will almost certainly result in localised extinction in the near future.”
Other critics point out that the legal sales could boost poaching and illegal trade by making it difficult to distinguish between legal and illegal ivory in the marketplace and drawing attention to the fact that there is still demand for the controversial good. “What’s important for poachers is to know that there is a market,” Michael Wamithi, elephant programme director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), said in a recent interview with Reuters.
But CITES representatives disagree with the activists. They say that their close monitoring of elephant numbers in the four sanctioned countries, combined with the potential for increased wildlife protection provided by the proceeds of the auctions will, in fact, decrease poaching. “Some NGOs are saying that this will increase poaching because demand will be stimulated,” says Juan-Carlos Vasquez of CITES. “But we don’t have any evidence to indicate that this is the case.”
Moreover, the unexpectedly low prices fetched at the 28 October auction in Botswana suggest that a bidding war between the two Asian markets is unlikely. Prior to the Botswana auction, the first sanctioned auction of its kind since 1999, experts were predicting prices as high as US$300 per kilo, not the US$164 average that was ultimately realised.
While CITES banned all ivory sales in 1989, members agreed in 1997 to allow Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to hold a one-time sale of 50 tonnes of stockpiled ivory to Japan in 1999. Like the current auction, all of the proceeds – some US$5 million – were required to be used for elephant conservation activities.
Three years later – at 12th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention in Santiago, Chile – CITES members approved the current sale, in principle, provided participating countries submitted satisfactory data for long-term monitoring. At this November 2002 Conference, several African countries further proposed that this future sale be followed by annual quotas, but the requests were withdrawn before it could be put to a vote.
CITES had initially pegged 2004 as the earliest possible date for establishing baseline data for their long-term monitoring systems. But when the CITES Standing Committee met in April of that year, they ruled that the auctions could not go ahead because the countries in question – South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana – had not provided acceptable statistics. Furthermore, Botswana and Namibia had not yet reported on how the proceeds of the 1999 auction had been spent (see Bridges Trade Biores, 2 April 2004, http://ictsd.net/i/news/biores/9223/).
The Standing Committee again pushed back the date of the auction at a conference in October 2006, citing insufficient monitoring data. However, at a June 2007 meeting in The Hague, The Netherlands, auctions in Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa were finally approved, with Japan as the sole purchaser (see Bridges Trade BioRes, 8 June 2007, http://ictsd.net/i/news/biores/9449/).
Zimbabwe – which was initially denied approval due to ‘political’ reasons rather than monitoring reasons, according to CITES – was later added to the list of sanctioned countries in 2007. The agreement permitted the countries to auction off stockpiles that had been properly registered by 31 January 2007. This amounts to 43,682.91 kg for Botswana, 9,209.68 kg for Namibia, 51,121.8 kg for South Africa and 3,755.55 kg for Zimbabwe.
The move to approve traders from China, a well-known destination for black market wildlife goods, is a departure from the auction held in 1999, when Japanese merchants were the sole purchasers. The move was met with criticism by some environmental groups, who argue that Chinese wildlife trade controls are not rigorous enough. Nevertheless, CITES approved China in July 2008 in light of the significant progress made in the past six years.
“Having reviewed China’s ivory controls and markets on a number of occasions, CITES verifications determined that China’s enforcement score was 63 percent in 2008 compared to 6 percent in 2002,” CITES said in a press release. “In spite of remaining a potential destination for illegal ivory, like other countries, China has now reached the required verification standards established by CITES.”
Online auction site to ban ivory sales
The timing of the auctions is noteworthy, given a recent announcement by online auction house eBay that it will implement a total ban on the sale of ivory products as of 1 January 2009. The decision came shortly before the release of the results of an investigation by an animal welfare advocacy group, which uncovered an array of elephant ivory for sale on the site. eBay says that because the complex rules governing trade in ivory products make it too difficult to accurately differentiate between legal and illegal goods it will no longer allow raw or processed ivory to be listed.
Unlike elephant populations in other parts of the world, elephants in southern Africa are listed under Appendix II of the CITES Convention, which permits trade under a tightly regulated permit system. Other elephant populations are listed under Appendix I, which prohibits commercial trade of any kind.
According to the 2007 CITES agreement setting out the terms for the current auctions in southern Africa, further sales from these four countries will not be considered during a period of nine years. This ‘resting period’ will begin at the completion of the transactions. Dates for next week’s auctions in South Africa and Zimbabwe have not yet been released.
ICTSD Reporting; “eBay Bans Ivory Trading to Protect Endangered Elephants,” ENVIRONMENTAL NEWS SERVICE, 22 October 2008; “Rare Sale Of Ivory To Be Held Under UN Auspices,” REUTERS, 28 October 2008; “Low Ivory Prices At First Legal Auction In 9 Years,” REUTERS, 29 October 2008; “Ivory auction opens amid concerns,” BBC NEWS, 28 October 2008.
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