CITES Ivory Policy Is On Drugs

When I was in third grade, I ran for class mayor against Susan Peek, whose uncle was our town’s actual mayor. The class held a debate, aired on the local TV station. I lost the race on two grounds.

First, the cupcakes I gave out with “Vote 4 Bryan” on them were from a bakery, and not made from scratch like Sue’s.

Second, I fumbled a question from a classmate who wanted to know what I was going to do about the trash blowing out of the dump on Cedarville Road. It was my first environmental question.

I said I would build a fence and hire more people to pick up the trash. The questioner rejoined, “What if the trash blows over the fence?” I said I would build a taller fence. Sue added that she would not only build a taller fence, she would string a gigantic net over the whole dump so that no trash ever got out. If the holes in the net were too big, she would make it a roof, like the astrodome.

Lessons of a Third Grader

Sunday is opening day for the two-week-long 16th meeting, in Bangkok, Thailand, of the world’s leading body for regulating the world’s wildlife—the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). I’ll be there.

Everything I needed to know about international wildlife trade I learned in that grade school election. First, all conservation is local. Whether cupcakes or condors, real change happens when it comes from within the group. It can’t be store bought or packaged.

In the early 1990s the U.S. launched one of the world’s most intensive undercover investigations against Malaysia-based international wildlife trafficker Anson Wong. Operation Chameleon was a success, and Wong went to prison in the U.S. for almost six years.

But he didn’t stop trading wildlife, and when he got out, he was well on his way to becoming bigger than ever, until the Malaysian people read about his exploits in National Geographic.

Outraged, they wrote letters to their newspapers, which covered the story on their front pages. Parliament passed new wildlife laws, and the government announced administrative reform.  Anson Wong was stripped of his business licenses and went to prison in Malaysia.

The second lesson for both children and the wildlife trade is that when it comes to winning a vote, no proposed solution is too ridiculous.

Take elephants. In 1989, after a decade in which an African elephant died every ten minutes for ten years, CITES member countries agreed to an international ban on the ivory trade. Almost immediately, key elephant populations began to recover.

But a number of southern African countries opposed the ban, and in 1997 they won the right to sell 55 tons of ivory in a one-time “experimental” sale to Japan, on condition that CITES would monitor ivory trafficking and elephant poaching to see if these crimes increased after the sale.

It doesn’t take a tobacco lobbyist to tell you that proving one bad thing caused another bad thing is next to impossible. From the start, this was a system built to favor the ivory trader. And the ivory trafficker.

Just Say No to Ivory

Here is where it’s useful to jump from my grade school memories to a metaphor my team used while investigating the story that became Blood Ivory: Ivory Worship. Cocaine.

Every time one of us wanted to say the word elephant or ivory, we substituted the word cocaine. When we did this, we found that the emotion and melodrama that attaches so easily to animals and often intrudes on good clean criminal investigation disappeared. (Drugs are also on the mind of the CITES Secretary General who earlier this month said that wildlife crime fighters need to start approaching criminals as if they were narcotics traffickers.)

Applying our approach, let’s assume the United Kingdom has a cocaine problem. The CITES solution would be to authorize Colombia to make a one-time sale of 55 tons of cocaine to England and see what happens. Does crime go up, down, stay the same?

The answer from CITES was all three. As described in Blood Ivory, CITES hired an affiliate of the World Wildlife Fund, called TRAFFIC, to study the impact of the 1999 ivory sale on smuggling.

With a degree of bureaucratic self-importance that would be comical if so many elephants wouldn’t soon die, TRAFFIC examined whether individual votes in CITES over the years could be connected to changes in ivory seized around the world. They couldn’t be, of course. By framing the question in unprovable and irrelevant terms, TRAFFIC established a presumption in CITES thinking that continues to this day: that there is no correlation between individual CITES decisions and ivory trafficking.

The main question for illegal traders and their corrupt government confederates is whether countries are actually going to sell ivory, and when. In that regard, TRAFFIC concluded in its first Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) report, released in 2002, that ivory smuggling had gone up after the Japan sale and that the culprit was China.

But in 2007 TRAFFIC, employing further statistical analysis, changed its conclusion to say the illegal ivory trade had gone down for the next five years after the Japan sale. And so CITES parties authorized a second ivory sale in 2008 of more than a hundred tons of ivory to Japan and China.

Now, taking the U.S. to be the China of cocaine consuming nations, imagine you are an American drug trafficker. CITES has just sold 100 tons of cocaine to the U.K. and the U.S. Your cocaine is of course indistinguishable from that sold by government-approved shops now opening in major American cities. The government’s selling price is higher than yours. Do you stop cocaine trafficking? Or do you tell all your friends and your children to join you, anticipating an ever expanding future?

The CITES solution to the ivory trafficking problem was a dumb one. The idea that anyone could accurately measure the impact of the Japan experiment on so little data was equally flawed.

TRAFFIC’s latest ETIS report, released for the upcoming CITES meeting, acknowledges that it may have been wrong yet again about ivory smuggling after the Japan sale: Instead of going down for the period 1997 to 2007, “the salient pattern is really one showing relative stability,” TRAFFIC asserts now. Oops.

Further, in this year’s report TRAFFIC confesses what it should have made clear on day one—that it is impossible to prove statistically that a one-off sale causes ivory crime: “To do so competently would required a detailed understanding of all factors which drive illegal trade in ivory along the entire trade chain.” This type of modeling exercise “is a major undertaking and much of the data that would be required is currently not available.”

In other words, ETIS isn’t able to do what CITES parties hired it to do.

China’s ivory appetite is only just beginning to grow.

ETIS is an extremely valuable tool. It is not a silver bullet. The glaring error in ivory trade policymaking is not with ivory seizure statistics, or the confusion between correlation and causation, or even the silliness of expecting there to be a crystal ball for crime in the first place. It is in the absurdity of thinking that any sale to Japan in 1999 could anticipate the impact of a sale to China in 2008. It is in the refusal to acknowledge the real impact of China.

China shares borders with 14 countries, has ten times Japan’s population, is investing in Africa, and has an economy on a rise so steep it may eclipse the U.S. by 2030.

To supplement a documentary film aired this week about the ivory trade, Battle for the Elephants, producers hired a Hong Kong-based market research firm to take a look at ivory consumption patterns in China. The survey of several hundred middle class people in nine cities revealed that 80 percent of respondents own ivory (averaging 2.7 pieces), and 84 percent intend to acquire more.

Poaching and ivory trafficking have skyrocketed in the post-China ivory sale years. The Chinese government recently built the world’s largest ivory carving factory and is funding the training of a new generation of ivory carvers.

But here is where the CITES absurdity exceeds that of my misguided fellow third-graders. In testimony before Senator John Kerry last spring, CITES Secretary General John Scanlon told Kerry that it was an open question whether ivory sales increase crime. There are some, he said, who don’t see a correlation. Stuck in the fable of the Japan experiment, he’s ignoring the fact that including China in the ivory trade has been a game changer.

More sales are now on the horizon. The CITES Secretariat has hired Rowan Martin of Zimbabwe to design a centralized organization for the systematic selling of ivory. Martin was the Robert Mugabe lackey (what else can one in the Mugabe government be called?) who opposed the ivory ban for Zimbabwe in 1989, threatening to take all of southern Africa with him.

Martin is now in the employ of the CITES Secretariat, the group of policymakers who rely on the WWF/TRAFFIC ivory reports and say that the question is open whether ivory trading with China leads to ivory crime.

So just as was the case for me in third grade, reality comes down to a vote.

Bryan Christy is an investigative journalist and author who has spent years focused on environmental crimes. A Fulbright Scholar, he attended Pennsylvania State University, Cornell University Graduate School, University of Michigan Law School, and the University of Tokyo Law School. Before becoming a journalist, he worked as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., including in the Executive Office of the President. Mr. Christy is the author of The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World’s Greatest Reptile Smugglers. In researching that book, he was bitten between the eyes by a blood python, chased by a mother alligator, sprayed by a bird-eating tarantula, and ejaculated on by a Bengal tiger. His article, "The Kingpin", exposing wildlife trader Anson Wong, appeared in the January 2010 issue of National Geographic. Visit his website for updates about his work. Photo by John Heminway
  • Corien Aan Het Rot

    How unbelieuvable STUPID can people be.

  • Dick Berry

    When will Cites decisions on ivory be made public.
    I find the entire ivory trade and what it means to a species disgusting. It is so political, so filled with greed, that there is little concern for the actual species that supplies the materialistic needs of all involved. There is just way too much blood on the hands of many, many, people. What happens when the elephants and the stock piles of ivory are gone? That day will come….it will not be today or tomorrow but what will the world do?

  • Anne Dillon

    Many thanks for the blogs, Bryan, please keep us updated as to what is happening at CITES, even if it’s not necessarily what we want to hear.

  • Martin Powell

    I used to work for a number of environmental groups, and once helped draft a report opposing the ivory trade, and did some under cover filming of the trade in South Korea. I remain opposed to sales of ivory. That said, the analogy with cocaine trade is not a good one, and is dangerous to use because it is precisely the misunderstanding of how prohibition affects markets that contributes to CITES continuing to advocate legal sales.

    With ivory, the main long term factor creating the high price that encourages organised criminals to come into the market stems from the limited supply – elephants are rare – not from the prohibition of trade. There is also a potentially huge market for ivory that can be encouraged by legal sales, but never satisfied by them – there aren’t enough elephants for that. Additionally, ivory is ivory – so from a customer perspective they get the same product, so other things being equal have little incentive to worry about the source.

    With cocaine however, there is no major shortage, and indeed clear evidence that historically illegal suppliers have had little trouble meeting all the demand there is, most of the time in most places. There is also clear evidence from comparative studies around the globe that criminalisation does not deter use – that’s not what drives people to use drugs, as Portugal’s decriminalisation of all drugs in 2001 has shown. There is also huge scope in the forests of Latin America to increase supply if demand rises (unlike with ivory), particularly because preventing any legal market ensures unmet demand = an increase in prices, incentivising more criminal suppliers to enter the market. As the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has said there is no shortage of criminals waiting to replace any that are arrested.

    The result of all this is that where a strictly legally regulate trade has been introduced for drugs – as for example it has for heroin users in Switzerland – users stop buying dirty drugs of unknown strength from the illegal market, reducing the illegal trade. In fact, because many of these users also dealt heroin to pay for their habits, and no longer do, availability of illegal heroin to others has also fallen, and there are fewer not more new users. No one mixes illegal heroin with legal heroin either, because the clinics and pharmacies that supply them are well regulated, having to account for all the heroin throughout their supply chain, from production in places like Turkey, Australia and the UK through to use. So a (well) legally regulated trade reduces harms from production countries through supply routes to use, without jeopardising the survival of the plant species that produce the drug.

    The lesson for the ivory trade from this is that CITES have got it wrong – they are acting as if ivory were like an illegal drug with effectively unlimited production available, and powerful reasons why users would prefer a legal not illegal supply. In fact, the rarity – indeed potentially finite – supply of elephants, high unmet demand, and scope and rationale for mixing licit and illicit supply mean prohibition is probably the least worst option. Legal sales may substitute for a small proportion of the illegal trade in the short term, but only at the risk of encouraging future trade, and creating cover for the criminal trade.

  • Pamela

    Greed and corruption is the backbone of the ivory trade. If only the African government realized they are destroying their own country by participating in the slaughter of the species that most represents them. Heartbreaking!

  • Steve Gulick

    CITES is NOT – contrary to popular conception – a wildlife protection organization. That is NOT their charter. CITES is solely a TRADE protection organization – protecting the
    viability of trade in animals and their parts. The only extinction they are concerned with is the extinction of the trade that would follow with the extinction of the species (commodity) being traded. If you are a friend of animals, do not fall into the trap of believing that CITES is your friend.

  • Jetta

    CITES is sponsored by Chinese money and being afraid China will no longer donate money, CITES doesn’t want to block China’s access to ivory and other species on the endangered species list. So just like anyone else CITES does not have the wellbeing of animals as priority but money is!
    Animals on the list of to be extincted by selfish humans will be better off with a non corrupt organization, not CITES.

  • Deborah Spivy

    God help these poor elephants (and rhinos)! It is a willful and blind CITES that cannot see the correlation between the sale of the stockpiles of tusks and the accelerated slaughter of herds across Africa. Entire family units are killed, eliminating those genes from future breeding. It is an abdication of the core responsibilities of the CITES organization if they do not reinstate the ban on all sales of ivory–China’s new carving facility be damned. Perhaps if ordinary Chinese were exposed to how complicated, gentle, and intelligent these creatures were and how they respond when one of their number is killed then, perhaps, they could see how their lust for this (admittedly very beautiful) material is evil. I can only hope that it is “ignorance” of the cruelty of elephant hunting that allows the ivory trade in east Asia to continue with such gusto. Don’t poachers and Asian consumers understand that there is a finite number of elephants? Hunt them all down and there are no more! Whatever happened to the notion of stewardship of the Earth’s resources–and I don’t mean oil. It makes me ashamed to be of this species that we call “human”.

  • Nabil A Nasseri

    I think CITEs should stop using the International Whaling Commission as a model.

  • Ann Delisser

    There are countless wonderful organisations, all trying to help the Elephants BUT surely it is the DEMAND for ivory which must be tackled full on. The entire planet now has a new tool with which to change ideas and fashions almost overnight: The Internet, in particular the Social Media, is at our fingertips. Is there no-one who can devise a campaign which might change the THINKING in Asia, the DESIRE for ivory? Facebook, Twitter and the Asian equivalents, all have immense influence. Let us try this method while other means to stamp out ivory poaching are failing in the face of organised crime and greed.
    The Elephant’s time on our planet is limited. We must act NOW.

  • Tatjana Gallist

    For all interested, here is an article published during the CITES Standing Committee Meeting July 2012 on this subject with a link to the full report on CISO – Centralized Ivory Selling Organisation. Rowan Martin is one of the Authors of this report.

  • Carol Hamilton

    Is there anything that the average citizen of the world can do to positively impact this problem? I feel horribly disheartened and completely powerless. A world without wild elephants is unfathomable, yet I fear it will become a reality in my lifetime. Perhaps social media?

  • Mary Sansone

    I taped and just finished watching “Battle for the Elephants.” If I could change my profession, I would work HARD on saving these magnificent animals. I noticed Bryan’s comment about Localizing the devastation; we (assuming that readers here are “the choir” need to write and call and write some more to newspapers, governments, CITES representatives – and heck- the Chinese!
    I am of the opinion that there should be no CITES as there Endangered Species should never be traded. Admittedly, I need to learn more about their charter, but this is obvious to me.

    I would love WWF or a World Organization to be able to interrogate Chinese diplomats and imprison the guilty.

    I would love for CHINA to donate $100 million to Tanzania – once- to have the stockpiles burned, and to show the world their seriousness (fake it til you make it) about the potential extinction of elephants.

    I have a good job and I’m a homebody now. Yet, I feel compelled to do partake Ina world plan to save these animals. As of now, I foster many orphans at David Sheldrick Wildlife Fund, but I fea those babies will get rehabilitated only to be poached later. this has already happened!!

    Thanks you Martin for your articulate and thought provoking arguments against the drug metaphor. With such intelligent and passionate environmentalist fighting for the innocent, I have at least a little hope for the elephants.

    The elephant consumes me. I love this animal.

  • Colleen Hogg

    Thanks Bryan for bringing to our attention that the CITES officials are as easily bribed as East Africa’s politicians in this slaughter. CITES actually stands for:

  • Elke Riesterer

    It is disgusting how the human race is acting out when it talks about another living creature. CITES is only focused on trading in animal parts, that is what is the mindset of the participating parties. 177 nation will give their vote in Bangkok this year and we can hold them accountable. Don’t let up in your activism. Elephants are depending on every single voice, every action, every educational talk we give. I will never forgot that fateful day when I attended Cites in 1997 in Zimbabwe when a one-time sale of ivory stocks to Japan was given a green light. Things went downhill for the elephants from then on.

  • Tracy Waechter DVM

    Bryan, thank you for the continued coverage and updates. I really respect your journalistic skills. How you remain so levelheaded and show respect to the Chinese amazes me. I know it is needed to understand how to make an impact. Good luck to you at the Cites meetings. Keep us updated.

  • Erica

    CITES opening today here in Bangkok. You can follow the activity here: http://www.cites.org/

  • amy

    what don’t these people in asian countries understand???? there is nothing “nice” about ivory- once you know the facts how can anyone with a beating heart turn around and pretend it’s ok??? it’s not and never will be. I hope those people get a wake up call. what about the majority of the rest of the world? we don’t want elephants slaughtered for trinkets! our voices matter as well. ban all ivory now!!!!!!! as well as those horrendous “trophy hunters”.. thats a joke, killing a huge gentle creature is murder. period. all of this *selective compassion* makes me sick and the people still not “getting it” will have to learn the hard way in the future. we are going down a road with no way out. compassion for all living creatures is the only way forward. no excuses.

  • Rob Fleming

    What is it going to take for the insanity of human beimgs (who call themselves civilised) to realise that 1/ (a) Tusks removed from an elephant do not grow back, and to have to remove the tusks, you have to kill the animal, therefore the tusk will never grow back in any case! 2/ No Rhino horn or animal bone or any part of an animals anatomy will make any other form of human anatomy grow any bigger than it alwready is or can be with or without any form of “medicine”, nor will it prolong any form of satisfaction you think that you may gain, or heal anything, from eating/swollowing or consuming it. YOU MAY GAIN BETTER RESULTS FROM CONSUMING YOUR OWN BODY PARTS OR BODY EXCREATIONS!

  • Clara Bocchino

    Thank you, Martin Powell, for bringing some sanity to a highly inflammable audience who simply bases its opinion and believes on the people who speak louder… National Geographic should not publish this types of articles.

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