A ranger inspects a recently-poached elephant carcass in Zakouma National Park, Chad. Photo: Darren Potgieter/CITES/UNEP
The CITES conference in Bangkok has been a bit up and down for elephants: Thailand's pledge to ban the domestic ivory trade was good news, but it was tempered by new research that shows two thirds of Africa's forest elephants were killed in 10 years. Here comes some news I'm rating lukewarm-positive: a senior CITES official has said that if the so-called "gang of eight" countries at the heart of the ivory trade don't present plans to quell poaching within 12 months, it's "not unlikely" that they'd be hit with sanctions barring their own legal wildlife and plant trades.
The gang of eight includes Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, where elephants are sourced; Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines, where ivory is smuggled and laundered; and Thailand and China, the two largest buyers. They're all at the center of a new UN report which found that elephant poaching has doubled in the last decade, and that the illegal ivory trade has tripled. This news is no surprise.
And that's precisely the problem: It's been well known that those eight countries have been at the center of a booming elephant slaughter for some time now, and yet aside from the park rangers risking their lives fighting militants and huge busts by customs officials, those countries have not taken comprehensive action to quell the ivory trade.
"There has been no discernible impact from previous Cites measures," Tom Milliken, who runs the Elephant Trade Information System, said at the CITES summit, according to the Guardian. "Unless Cites scales up and takes this seriously, we are not going to win this thing."
Milliken is right. The trade has spiraled out of control, run by militant groups in Africa and organized crime in Asia, with little fear of serious crackdowns. Corruption is rampant. But can CITES, the governing body behind the treaty concerning worldwide wildlife and plant regulation, actually do anything?
It appears that it could. Tom de Meulenaer, the senior official who spoke of possible sanctions, also reportedly said that the CITES ruling body is fed up with the lack of progress. The idea floated around right now for sanctions would be for CITES to ban or limit legal trade from offending countries. Southeast Asian countries have huge trades in orchids, tropical fish, and alligator skins, to name a few, but that only scratches the surface of legal wildlife export products. If CITES were to sanction those countries, it would have a certain economic impact.
But do CITES officials have the stones? Saying that sanctions might be handed down in a year if plans for quelling the trade, and not certifiable progress, isn't exactly a heavy-handed statement. And plans could be really anything; Thailand says it plans to ban the domestic ivory trade, but even if it does, actual implementation and enforcement are likely to be slow-coming in the best case.
Still, it's early on in the sanction discussion, and that it's being discussed is a good sign. it's also good to see CITES noting that the best way to get offending countries to wake up is to hit them in the wallet. It all comes down to the time frame though. Add up a year for sanctions, a year to implement laws, and a couple years to actually enforce them, and you've got a whole lot longer until the regulatory groundwork is even laid to crack down on the trade. That's hard news for elephants, but right now, that's about the best we can hope for.