The serving Conservative government's 2010 manifesto pressed "for a total ban on ivory sales and the destruction of existing stockpiles." These commendable sentiments were repeated in their 2015 manifesto. This still has not happened and between the resounding apathy of the two commitments, 21,024 elephants were slaughtered.
According to the Zoological Society of London, 79-88% of Europeans want the domestic ivory trade banned. It is no surprise therefore that continued governmental inertia motivated >107,000 UK citizens to sign an e-petition forcing a parliamentary debate on 6th Februrary 2017. This lasted 3 hours and during this time it became evident that there was cross-party support with Rachael Maskell claiming that "Labour would also bring in a total ivory ban."
Houses of Parliament in London and Big Ben. Photograph: Pixabay (Creative Commons Zero)
To shake off our rather distasteful colonial heritage of suppression and exploitation that fuelled the ivory trade, it would therefore seem appropriate to support Botswana in their laudable intentions. Although the UK is now talking the talk, we still walk our age old resource grabbing colonial walk.
UK's Hypocritical Actions on the International Stage
The UK's decision to vote against proposal 16 at the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 2016 angered Conservative voters swayed by their anti-ivory trade rhetoric. This proposal would have upgraded African elephants in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe to Appendix I, thus ensuring maximum protection for all African elephants.
The CITES Secretariat did however recommend that Parties reject this proposal in a secret ballot as it did "not meet the biological criteria." Although healthier populations in these countries provide some logic for this, one might question whether such a recommendation fully considered the global and dynamic nature of the illegal ivory trade.
As elephant numbers diminish in poaching hotspots such as Angola, larger and more readily accessible populations in nearby Botswana will become targeted. Unified Appendix I status not only future proofs these populations but strengthens cross-border enforcement by simplifying regulations.
Dr. Coffey, the UK Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, further defended the UK's rejection of Proposal 16 by stating that "there was reliable intelligence that if what was proposed went through, "reservations" would be applied by certain countries, thus destroying the ban by CITES."
Sadly, CITES is not exempt from the dark art of political manipulation. It successfully engages a broad spectrum of countries through voluntary participation and unilateral get out clauses, or "reservations." These can be applied when participating Parties don't agree with a vote's outcome.
However, these "reservations" have protection mechanisms. CITES states "Parties that have entered reservations with regard to the inclusion of a species in Appendix I should treat the species as if it were in Appendix II." This means that, if the UK had found its moral compass and fulfilled its manifesto pledges by voting in favour of Proposal 16, the worst that could have happened is that African elephants would maintain their Appendix II status.
Colonial Discourses and Exploitative Habits Prolong UK Ivory Trade
The sound of opposition on the international stage echoes the sluggish approach to abolishing the UK domestic ivory trade. Victoria Borwick is a Conservative MP, but her role as President of the British Antique Dealers Association makes her one of the few procrastinators in the halls of power.
In an attempt to protect UK antique dealers' profits from international markets, she argues that "far eastern buyers purchasing contemporary carved Buddas" has no comparison to "the purchaser of carved ivory medieval Christian diptych." A heritage of colonial superiority blinds her to appreciating the cultural and religious similarities that drive both foreign and domestic consumers.
Ivory Triptych Icon with the Virgin and Child with Saints at Walters Art Museum Typical example of carved ivory
(Creative Commons AttributionsShare-Alike 3.0 Unported) buddha found in Asian markets.
Such thought processes legitimise a hypocritical pathway that denies responsibility and where there is no sense of responsibility, there is no need or urgency for regulation. Be under no misapprehension however that both modern and antique ivory consumers perpetuate the extinction of elephants.
How UK Antique Ivory Trade Impacts Modern Day Elephant Poaching
At present, according to TRAFFIC's 'Rapid Survey of UK Ivory Markets,' the UK allows the re-export of 1947 worked ivory (with proof of date), pre-1975 worked Asian Elephant ivory (with Article 10 certificate) and pre-1990 worked African Elephant ivory (with Article 10 certificate).
According to James Lewis, the founder of Bamfords Auctioneers, this re-exporting of antique ivory to Hong Kong and China is fuelling demand, and "profits from old ivory are being invested in modern ivory." It is concerning therefore that TRAFFIC's report revealed a worrying 20% rate of increase in re-export of worked ivory between 2005-2009 and 2010-2014.
CITES Trade database further reveals Hong Kong consistently over reports the quantitiy of ivory imported from the UK. It is unclear where this ivory comes from and whether this discrepancy is motivated by top-down corruption. It is clear, however, that banning UK exports would remove this opportunity for a legitimate cover.
With UK ivory antiques sitting on the same shelves as freshly poached and carved merchandise there is also room for middle-man corruption. With no defining visual tests to corroborate ivory's age and criminals employing ivory aging techniques, our re-exports provide the perfect cover, artistic inspiration and a sense of colonial legitimacy for the Asian trade.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's investigative documentary, 'Saving Africa's Elephants; Huw and the Ivory War (2016)', was pivotal in revealing these less obvious links. Undercover filming exposed how Hong Kong ivory shops professed the same merchandise was either legal European or illegal African ivory, depending on the customer's requirements. It is inevitable that poached ivory will more frequently be passed off as older legal and finite supplies fail to feed these growing Asian markets.
Yet MPs continue to feign ignorance about how the UK ivory trade provides cover and fuells demand. Conservatives have falsely gained votes through their anti-trade rhetoric and perpetuate a brutal trade through filibustering tactics. It is time to hold these politicians to account for the part they play in exterminating these much loved animals.
Political procrastination over UK ivory trade politely masks the distasteful smell of government hypocrisy.
The statistics for elephant poaching are grim. The World Wide Fund for Nature reveal African elephant populations dropped 90% last century with 20,000 now lost annually. On average one African elephant is poached every 25 minutes. So, by the time you have made a cup of tea and read this article, one more elephant will have been slaughtered for its ivory.
At the African Elephant Summit in Botswana, Dune Ives, senior Director at Vulcan, the organisation that initiated The Great Elephant Census, said they "could be extinct in our lifetime, within one or two decades." Ths means, if you are reading your children Elmer the Elephant books, chances are, when they grow up they will never see one in the wild. Commensurate political responses are therefore essential.
Game Rangers inspecting dead elephant in Northern Tuli Game Reserve in Botswana. Photograph: Roger and Pat de la Harpe/500px
It is important to appreciate that saving the elephant are not residual colonial sentiments forced upon submissive African elephant range states. Luke Hall MP, who introduced e-petition 165905 to Parliament, revealed that "80% of African elephant range countries support the closure of domestic ivory markets."
Botswana, according to the 2016 African Elephant Census, has more than one third of savannah elephants and their Minister of Environment, Tshkedi Khama, is fighting for "a total, unambiguous and permanent ban on the ivory trade."