A Big Day at CITES: No Ivory or Rhino Horn Trade

Today’s the day everyone at CITES CoP17 has been waiting for: elephants and rhinos. The debates were long, heated, and emotional. Here’s what happened:


There were three proposals on the table. Two from Namibia and Zimbabwe proposed re-opening the ivory trade, and a third, from a coalition of African countries did the opposite—it wanted to give all elephants the greatest level of CITES protection, which would prohibit the ivory trade permanently.

All three were defeated.

From National Geographic’s Wildlife Watch:

International trade in ivory was banned back in 1989, but the way elephant protections were set up gave Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa—countries with robust elephant populations—the opportunity to request and hold ivory sales because their elephants have been assigned a lower level of protection than the rest of Africa’s.

Some argued that a legal ivory trade would hurt elephants by erasing the stigma around ivory and encouraging more people to buy it. They say that the illegal trade would increase as a result and that legal sales would provide cover for illegal ivory.

Others argued that a legal trade would help elephants by giving them economic value, which would encourage conservation and habitat protection. Rural communities often see elephants as a nuisance and a threat because the animals trample crops and sometimes kill people. If villagers instead benefited from elephants by way of ivory sales, they’d have more incentive to protect the animals, the argument goes. (Read the full story here.)

The votes to re-open the trade were secret, but we do know that Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, Tanzania, South Africa, China, and Japan spoke in favor of the proposals, and Rwanda, India, Nigeria, Kenya, the United States, and the European Union spoke against them.

The vote to uplist all African elephants to Appendix I, which would permanently ban the ivory trade, were not secret. In a surprise move, the U.S. voted against the proposal, fearing it would backfire.

“Namibia and Zimbabwe had threatened to resume ivory trade outside the CITES legal regime if all elephants were given these additional protections,” I wrote for Wildlife Watch today. Several people I spoke to called this a form of blackmail and decried the fact that CITES allows for countries to effectively opt-out of listings they disagree with by registering reservations.

“We can understand why the U.S Fish and Wildlife voted the way they did, to be able to have some control, but I think it’s a sad day that we have got to this, where it’s all about trade and not the protection of the animals,” said Beverly Joubert, a conservationist and National Geographic explorer-in residence.

The EU, which voted as a bloc of 28 countries against the proposal, probably had the biggest effect on the outcome. (Read more: EU Fails to Lend Necessary Support to the African Elephant Coalition,)


The other big debate today was whether the rhino horn ban, in place since 1977, would be lifted. Swaziland put forward a proposal asking to be allowed to sell nearly 730 pounds of rhino horn from existing stockpiles to licensed retailers in “the Far East” for $9.9 million, along with another 44 pounds per year from rhino horn harvesting.

In a 26-100 vote, with 17 abstentions, the committee rejected the proposal. From National Geographic’s Wildlife Watch story:

During the meeting, most rhino range countries supported the plan, saying that proceeds from the sales of horns could help Swaziland protect their rhinos. “A sustainable and non-detrimental trade in rhino horn is possible under the right conditions,” said the representative from South Africa.

Meanwhile opponents argued that a legal trade would stimulate demand, complicate efforts for law enforcement, and allow legal horn to provide cover for illicit horn. Most major conservation groups share this view.

“Today, the Parties to CITES have overwhelmingly voted the right way on this issue,” said Peter Knights, the CEO of WildAid, in a statement. “Far from protecting rhinos, a legal trade in rhino horn would have simply provided a mechanism for laundering yet more horn from poached rhinos into the trade.”