JOHANNESBURG, 3 OCTOBER – A proposal for a permanent ban on international trade in elephant ivory was defeated, but two opposing proposals which would have allowed ivory to be traded legally on a global scale in the future were also roundly rejected today at the 17th Conference of the Parties (CoP17) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Delegates from the 158 countries attending considered a proposal spearheaded by the African Elephant Coalition (AEC) to list all African elephants in Appendix I, the highest level of protection under international law, but it failed to gain the necessary two-thirds majority with a vote of 62 to accept and 44 to reject. The AEC comprises 29 African countries representing over 70 percent of African elephant range States.
During the lengthy debate, Botswana, one of the four countries whose elephant populations are currently in Appendix II, surprised the room by coming out in favor of the AEC up-listing proposal. “We unreservedly relinquish that status and support up-listing of all African elephants to Appendix I,” said Tshekedi Khama, Botswana Minister of the Environment, Wildlife and Tourism. “Although Botswana has previously supported limited trade, we recognize we can no longer support the sale of ivory; we cannot deal with this issue in a vacuum.”
The European Union represented by the European Commission and participating as a full Party with 28 EU Member States in one voting bloc, voted against the AEC proposal. Only France amongst major EU states is understood to have argued for the EU to protect elephants. Sources indicate the UK fully supported the EU position in contradiction with its public assurances on elephant protection and stopping the ivory trade.
Earlier in the morning, Proposals 14 from Namibia and 15 from Namibia and Zimbabwe which would have relaxed rules for a legal global ivory trade were soundly defeated, in a secret vote, 73 to 27 and 80 to 21, respectively.
It is now being rumored that the electronic voting system, which has already failed several times today, miscalculated the elephant vote.
“The European Union’s position is shocking, said Vera Weber, President of Fondation Franz Weber. “Their patronizing and colonialist attitude to the vast majority of African elephant range states calling for an Appendix I listing is shameful. Even Botswana has come out in favor of an up-listing to Appendix I and still, they do not listen.”
“Today the EU blocked an Appendix I listing for all African elephants,” said Dr Rosalind Reeve, senior advisor to Fondation Franz Weber and the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation. “The numbers are clear. If the EU had supported the proposal by the African Elephant Coalition, now also supported by Botswana, the Appendix I listing would have gone through. The blood of Africa’s elephants is on the EU’s hands.”
“All the countries in the European Union voted down the most important proposal at this Conference to protect elephants, and they will bear a heavy share of responsibility for the consequences,” said Robert Hepworth, former Chair of the CITES Standing Committee and Senior Advisor to David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation. “The EU was desperate not to offend the host country. They ignored a million strong petition, a resolution from the European Parliament, the views of a large majority of African Range states, and even the brave intervention of South Africa’s neighbor, Botswana. Surely Botswana has a lot more to risk than the EU in its relations with large neighbors. The EU’s behavior today made me ashamed to have voted to stay in the EU.”
Although supporters of the AEC proposal were necessarily disappointed by the outcome, earlier in the conference they praised other decisions which should help to reverse the poaching crisis and ensure additional protection for African elephants.
Last week, the mandate to continue an eight-year debate on creating a mechanism to legalize ivory trade in the future was finally terminated by an overwhelming majority. And just yesterday, delegates agreed by consensus that countries should urgently close their domestic markets for commercial trade in raw and worked ivory, the first ever recommendation from CITES to close rather than simply regulate national markets.
All populations of African elephants were originally listed on CITES Appendix I in 1989, banning international ivory trade. But the protection was weakened in 1997 and 2000 when populations in four countries (Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe) were down-listed to Appendix II (a less endangered status) to allow two sales of ivory stockpiles to Japan and China in 1999 and 2008.
A moratorium on proposals for ivory trade by Appendix II countries has been in effect since 2008, but is set to expire next year which may open the way for the submission of proposals to trade.
All decisions taken by the CITES Committees throughout the conference can be revived in the plenary this Tuesday and Wednesday.