We have come a long way in working towards a better future for elephants – let’s not turn back the clock now by letting the ivory trade regain a foothold.


Poached elephant, Kenya


Elephants have been in the news a lot lately and I recently heard someone say that the media is “tired” of elephants and there is “issue exhaustion” on the topic of ivory trade.

However, developments coming to the fore last week demonstrate that we must not let up the pressure – elephants are yet to be given a full reprieve from the ivory trade which continues to pose a serious threat to their survival.


Recent developments to undo the existing international ivory ban

Elephants at a watering hole

(c) EIAimage

Last week, 57 proposals were posted to the CITES website calling for either increases or decreases in protection for several species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). These proposals have been put forward by CITES Parties and will be debated at the forthcoming 18th CITES Conference of the Parties, scheduled for May 2019 in Sri Lanka.

Two of the submissions raise dire concerns about the future of elephants, both in Africa and Asia, because they seek to re-open international commercial legal trade in ivory – a practice we had hoped would never be repeated after we saw the repercussions on elephants the last time such trade took place in 2008.

Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe have submitted a proposalPDF which would allow them to sell their stockpiles of ivory while Zambia has submitted another proposalPDF to decrease the protection of its elephant population under CITES,  also with a view to selling its ivory stockpile.

Some argue that these countries have a sovereign right to sell their ivory stocks, that the elephant populations within their borders are their “resources” to be dealt with as they deem fit. However, the reality on the ground, backed by international law and scientific facts, provide a compelling case against this position.


Reality on the ground: Legal ivory trade means criminal gangs profiting from dead elephants

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has reported that between 2006-15, Africa’s elephant population experienced its worst decline in 25 years. Over more than three decades, EIA has documented the horrifying impact of ivory trade on elephants and, in particular, has exposed the links between poaching and organised crime and the so-called ‘legal’ ivory trade.


International law: Do no harm

2005_04_Malawi_Lilongwe_Ivory_StoreThe aim of CITES is “to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.”

As a lawyer with expertise in international environmental law, I am well aware that international law restricts world governments from exercising their sovereign rights in a manner that causes transboundary harm.

There is no doubt that past legal sales of ivory stockpiles under the CITES framework have caused such harm, resulting in a surge of demand for ivory in Asia, expansion of operations of organised criminal networks trafficking ivory globally and an escalation of elephant poaching throughout much of the African continent.

Further, the precautionary principle firmly entrenched in international environmental law also requires prevention of serious or irreversible damage irrespective of scientific uncertainty regarding the same and the burden of proof here is on the proponents to show that their actions will not harm elephant populations, not only in Africa but also in Asia.


The science of saving elephants: You cannot do it alone

Elephants are not the sole property or resource of any one single country; indeed, a scientific paper published in 2017 concluded that elephants are a highly migratory species spread across several landscapes in Africa and approaches to elephant conservation need to transcend geopolitical frontiers. Thus, acting without any consideration for elephant populations globally is a dangerous approach.


What can you do to help?

Africa_Lusaka_Work_Shop_Lower_Zambezi_040At a time when the world is coming together to put an end to ivory trade, it is deeply unfortunate that we are yet again faced with fending off efforts to put a price tag on ivory.

It’s worth remembering that, thanks to our collective efforts, we have come a long way in securing a better future for elephants – mainland China, Hong Kong, the USA and the UK are only a few of many other countries which have closed their domestic ivory markets while the majority of African elephant range states are working together to increase protections for elephants under CITES.



Request that your government submits comments to the CITES Secretariat supporting the closure of ivory markets and voicing opposition to the above pro-trade proposals

Write to the governments of Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe requesting that they withdraw their pro-trade proposals

Raise awareness among family, friends and colleagues about the impact of ivory trade on elephants and urge them to act to support the closure of ivory markets.


ShrutiShruti Suresh
Senior Wildlife Campaigner