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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,...

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.

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Meet the Author

Bryan Christy
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