Thirty-two African states recently called on the European Union (EU) to fully ban its ivory trade. The United States and China – major importers of ivory, together with the EU – took such action in 2016 and 2017 respectively, leaving the EU in an isolated position. The EU has emphasised that it will adopt ‘full ban’ only when African states will request it. Now that they have, all eyes are set on the EU’s July 2018 vote aimed at deciding whether it will proceed, or not, to fully ban its ivory trade.
Despite having led the fight against illegal trafficking in the past decades , the EU is now believed to be undermining previously made efforts by allowing legal trade to occur. Its current partial ban (which allows the trade in ‘antique’ ivory, but not in ‘modern’ ivory), though legal, makes Europe a hub for illegal trade, in turn proved to be linked to a number of nefarious activities on the African continent and beyond, such as poaching, trafficking and conflict.
The first specific efforts by the international community to protect African elephants from extinction started in 1989 when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) almost completely banned the trade in African elephant ivory, placing the African elephant on its 'most at risk' register (CITES Appendix I). This decision came after the acknowledgement that the number of African elephants fell from approximately 1.2 million to 600,000 between 1979 and 1989. While this effort led to a temporary stabilization of African elephant populations, it was not sufficient to curb the trade phenomenon all together. Illegal elephant poaching and ivory trafficking is worth $24 billion a year, $8 billion in Africa alone, and has caused the number of African elephants to further decrease by more than 100,000 - from approximately 600,000 to less than 500,000 - over the last two decades, raising significant concerns over the potential extinction of the species.
Heated debates keep raging over whether the international community should further aim at prohibiting the legal trade of ivory (i.e. remove 'exceptions' that allow certain countries to trade certain ivory products), even if such prohibition is believed, by some, to further encourage poaching and smuggling. Ban's critics would rather regulate the trade, operating under the assumption that this would serve to reduce incentives to poach. Within this context, a variety of actors are involved, from states to NGOs, from local communities to businesses, from law enforcers to international organizations, from online trading portals to armed groups. What are their interests, connections and modi operandi? Who hold the best cards for leading the hard-pushed race for wildlife conservation?
This Dossier explores the geopolitics of ivory trade focusing first on how the issue has been framed by African states and global actors, in particular by China, and the EU. On the African side, there have been at least two strands of thought: pro-ban and anti-ban countries. The first group of countries (29 in total, home to 40% of wild African elephants), are led by Botswana and include Kenya and Benin, argue for total protection. The second group includes Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, currently under CITES Appendix II (which allows limited trade and offers a lower level of protection due to the elephant population in the country being considered less at risk than in Appendix I), who argue that their elephant populations are stable and growing and that the revenues from controlled ivory sales and trophy hunting are crucial for implementing sustainable livelihoods. In terms of global players, China – once the largest market for both illegal and legal ivory – is distancing the US and the EU by increasingly presenting itself as normative leader and agenda setter. It is doing so in formal settings such as CITES, as well as through national and international awareness campaigns, and through seizures across the country. At the other end of the spectrum, the EU, despite having been at the forefront of the fight against illegal trafficking in the past decades (see Note 1), it is now merely reacting to events, often with large delays, and is perceived as disunited due to the conflicting interests of its member states.
Secondly the Dossier looks at lower-level players such as African communities as well as Chinese ones. Indeed the voice that is usually missing from debates around wildlife management is that of local people who live alongside wildlife and whose relationship with the latter has often been one of survival (i.e. lions attacks on livestocks cause incredible losses to farmers, elephants’ attacks destroy houses and kill people and so forth) and profit (i.e. sale of trophies). Yet their inclusion in the debate is crucial to avoid that wildlife conservation efforts are disrupted by angered communities directly affected by wildlife, and criminalized for their livelihood and resource-use. Another type of community that has been playing a role in shaping high-level political dynamics is that of the Chinese citizens in Africa. Often negatively perceived as poachers, they are not a unitary bunch. While there are Chinese involved in illegal wildlife trade, there are also Chinese in Africa increasingly aware of the importance of wildlife conservation, and active in supporting it.
Thirdly, the Dossier looks at the links between terrorism, conflict and ivory trafficking unpacking myths and realities to then move on to investigate how international assistance moved from focusing on militarized conservation to strengthening law enforcement initiatives. Finally it explores how the ivory trade has significantly moved from physical venues to online platforms, and lays out the initiatives and challenges revolving around combating wildlife cybercrime.
 The current EU’s partial ban still allows the circulation of ‘antique’ ivory items. 'Antique' ivory was distinguished from 'modern' ivory in 1997 when a EU regulation established that the trade in ivory items acquired by traders, or worked by artisans, before 1947 would be legally allowed, and that the trade of items acquired or worked after 1947 would be banned, hence making it illegal. The date globally recognized to mark the transition from ‘antique’ ivory to 'modern' ivory, i.e. 1947, was decided in relation to the European Union’s Control of Trade in Endangered Species (Enforcement) Regulations, passed in 1997. The year 1947 was chosen as the time span between 1947 and 1997 would be of exactly 50 years.