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CITES and confiscated elephant ivory and rhino horn – to destroy or not destroy?

Over the past 24 months we have seen a number of countries, including Belgium, Chad, China, Hong Kong SAR, China, Czech Republic, Gabon, France, Philippines, and the USA, destroy stockpiles of illegally traded elephant ivory and rhino horn that have been seized and confiscated. I have been invited by national CITES authorities to witness several...

Over the past 24 months we have seen a number of countries, including Belgium, Chad, China, Hong Kong SAR, China, Czech Republic, Gabon, France, Philippines, and the USA, destroy stockpiles of illegally traded elephant ivory and rhino horn that have been seized and confiscated.

I have been invited by national CITES authorities to witness several of these events and was able to accept the invitation on three occasions, namely for events held in China, in Dongguan and Hong Kong SAR, and most recently one at the Dvůr Králové Zoo, Czech Republic.  My statements made at these events are all publicly available.

Destruction of confiscated ivory in Dongguan, China on 6 January 2014

These events, and on occasion my personal participation in them, attract a significant amount of commentary both in favour of, and against, destroying confiscated elephant ivory and rhino horn.  Two examples of comments posted on our Facebook page after the recent Czech Republic event to destroy rhino horn illustrate the point:

– This is the most stupid event John Scanlon has been involved in…. obviously he is being led by others outside of CITES…

– Great action, thank all for doing this very much! The world need more action like this!

Burning of confiscated rhino horn at the Dvůr Králové Zoo, Czech Republic on 21 September 2014

So where do I, as Secretary-General, stand on the issue of whether to destroy or not to destroy confiscated elephant ivory and rhino horn?  The starting point for the Secretariat in considering any CITES  issue is the Convention text and the Decisions and  Resolutions  adopted by the Parties to CITES. They bind the CITES Secretariat,  including myself, and we adhere strictly to them.  We are also  mandated (under Article XII of the Convention) to present  suggestions to the Parties where we deem it necessary.

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16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES held in Bangkok, Thailand 3-14 March 2013

So, what then is the position of CITES Parties – the 180 States that have joined the Convention, on the issue of whether to destroy or not destroy confiscated elephant ivory and rhino horn?  The answer lies in a Resolution (Resolution Conf. 9.10 (Rev. CoP15), adopted by CITES Parties in 1994, and updated in 2010, which recommends that:

Parties dispose of confiscated and accumulated dead specimens of Appendix-I species, including parts and derivatives, only for bona fide scientific, educational, enforcement or identification purposes, and save in storage or destroy specimens whose disposal for these purposes is not practicable;

This Resolution, like all others, provides interpretive guidance on the legally-binding text of the Convention. However, the language used in this Resolution may not be all that clear to people who are not familiar with CITES terminology.  So what does it mean in plain English?  ‘Specimens’ is the language used in the Convention to refer to the plant or animal, or part thereof, or any derivative (such as a manufactured product) that is in trade and it is defined in the Convention text.  Hence, in the context of this issue, the reference in the Resolution to ‘dead specimens of Appendix-I species, including parts and derivatives’ is referring to the elephant ivory and rhino horn. (Another Resolution (Resolution Conf. 10.7 (Rev. CoP15) deals extensively with the confiscation of live animals and plants.)

The Resolution treats Appendix-I specimens very differently from those of species in Appendices II and III. The reason for doing so is because specimens of Appendix-I species generally cannot enter commercial trade, whereas Appendix-II and -III specimens can be commercially traded if certain preconditions are met. The Resolution does allow for the commercial sale of confiscated Appendix‑II and -III specimens under certain conditions, if the country chooses to do so.

This Resolution is consistent with the Convention text, including on Appendix-I specimens not (re)entering commercial trade.  The guidance provided by the Resolution is that the illegally traded and confiscated elephant ivory and rhino horn should be restricted to four uses only, namely, ‘bona fide scientific, educational, enforcement or identification purposes’.  Where this is not practicable, two options are provided by the Resolution, namely to save the specimens in storage or to destroy them.

Confiscated elephant ivory on display at the Endangered Species Resource Centre in Hong Kong SAR, China

As Secretary-General, I do not encourage or discourage countries (as States Parties to CITES) to choose one option or the other.  This is a matter for each country to determine for itself.

However, when a country takes a decision to publicly destroy its confiscated stockpiles of elephant ivory or rhino horn, I do believe it presents a unique opportunity to draw public attention to the scale, nature and impacts of the serious crimes that lie behind these confiscations and to act as a deterrent to illegal trade – and that is why I participate in such events where I can.

In this context, it is worth noting that the Resolution goes on to recommend that:

Parties publicize information on seizures and confiscations when appropriate as a deterrent to illegal trade, and inform the public about their procedures for dealing with seized and confiscated specimens…;

The events in Dongguan, Hong Kong SAR, and at the Dvůr Králové Zoo all attracted massive media attention.  Each event saw the country concerned publicly express its determination to bring the illegal trade to an end and provided the opportunity to send out a clear message that people who invest in this contraband face an ever increasing risk of detection and serious punishment.

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Media attending first destruction of confiscated elephant ivory in Hong Kong SAR, China on 15 May 2014

While the destruction of confiscated elephant ivory or rhino horn will not in itself stop the illegal trade in elephant ivory or rhino horn, when coupled with rigorous and consistent enforcement measures, it can serve as a deterrent to people from engaging in these illicit activities.

John E. Scanlon is the Secretary-General of CITES

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Note: While not all African elephants and rhino populations are included in Appendix I, the annotations associated with those populations included in Appendix II effectively place the tusks and the horns under Appendix I (other than any trade in hunting trophies for non-commercial purposes). A full explanation can be found in the CITES Appendices. In the source countries of the African elephant referred to above, stockpiles of ivory accumulated from natural deaths may also have been destroyed. 

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Meet the Author

John E. Scanlon
John Scanlon has had a unique range of experience with environment and sustainable development policy, law, institutions and governance at the international, national, sub-national and local level. His work experience has been gained in the private sector, in government, with the United Nations and with international organizations, as a leader, manager, professional adviser and legal practitioner, as well as through senior voluntary positions with the non government sector. John joined the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) as Secretary-General in May, 2010. For more visit CITES website at: http://cites.org/eng/disc/sec/jes.php