According to a survey carried out by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) 90% of Europeans are not interested in buying ivory products and 65% is in favour of banning the trade within the European Union (EU). Notwithstanding this, Europe is the hub through which the largest share of ivory transits, making it the world’s major ivory exporter towards Asia – in turn main purchaser.
China and the Unites States pulled together in 2015 to halt the ivory trade, which seemingly caused, over just a few years, a significant decrease in elephant populations in Africa. The fight against ivory trafficking first came as an acknowledgement of the importance of protecting elephants, and secondly as the adoption of specific legislation to ban ivory imports, exports and carving. China, in particular, is ahead in this battle. In 2017 it shut down laboratories – until then legally recognized – and halted activities revolving around the carving of legally, as well as illegally-imported ivory from Africa.
The European Union, on the other hand, always condemned the illegal trade of wild species – including online trade, which takes up a very large and unrestrained share of the illegal market. Despite the fact that the EU adopted a series of measures to limit the trade in ivory (import, export, and domestic trade), it has not yet come to the decision of imposing a total ban on ivory trade (a few exceptions granted, such as the trade in musical instruments).
In 2016, the European Union published the EU Action Plan against Wildlife Trafficking. The Plan outlines a number of priorities aimed at combating the ivory trade both within the EU’s borders (being the EU an important hub where ivory products’ trade originates, ends or transits) and towards external countries. The aim was to control the illegal trade in animals and derived products. The illegal trade in endangered species is estimated to be around 24 billion dollars per year and has led to the verge of extinction, species among the most symbolic for biodiversity while extinguishing others such as the northern white rhino.
One of the EU's priorities in the Plan of Action is that to ban the trade of raw ivory (not worked) in member states, and ban its export to non-EU countries. This priority is conveyed through guidelines that ought to be adopted by EU member states. The EU, indeed, acknowledged that raw ivory represents a direct threat to elephants’ survival – while arguing that worked ivory is mainly antique, hence not directly responsible for elephants’ deaths. It goes without saying that there is no empirical evidence to the EU’s theory, so much so that research is still ongoing. However, NGOs claim that the precaution principle should prevail and that a total ban would be more adequate.
The EU’s 1997 legislation (EC/338/97) regulates the import, export and domestic trade of two types of ivory products: those classified as antique (produced before 1947 – a year conventionally established by the international community to distinguish antique ivory from modern ivory) and those produced pre-CITIES (Conference on International Trade in Endangered Species).
Such distinction, based on the date of production, makes it easier to trade antique ivory within the EU, though ivory still requires a certificate of origin formally issued by CITIES authorities in the country of origin/export.
These differences, seemingly clear on paper, are, in fact, difficult to spot in reality. It is not unusual for ivory smugglers to intentionally age modern ivory with creative techniques, such as washing it in tea.
The EU kept the pledge made in the 2016 Plan of Action, and adopted, in July 2017, guidelines aimed at ending raw ivory traffic. While this is a remarkable initiative, it is worth reminding that raw ivory makes up for a small share of the EU’s total ivory trade. Indeed, seizures of ivory at major European airports in the last 10 years showed that worked ivory products (jewelry, cutlery, statues, etc…) are illegally smuggled into Europe. European traffic, in turn, feeds Asian markets where demand is still alive. It happens too, though, that the ivory transiting through Europe, remains in Europe.
Irrespective of the many efforts made by the EU – especially since the Plan of Action was launched and the world’s attention increasingly focused on elephants protection – its current position on the matter does not seem to be sufficiently effective in reducing the number of poached African elephants. More than 1.2 million Europeans asked the European commissioner for Environment, Karmenu Vella, to impose a total ban, and more than 90.000 European citizens replied to a public consultation launched by Bruxelles in July 2017, calling the EU to take a clear stand on the matter.
Next July, the European Commission will decide how to proceed. While states like France and the UK are definitely in favour of a stricter ban (banning the trade of antique ivory, on top of modern ivory), others like Portugal and Spain believe that the issue concerning elephants' poaching and ivory trafficking in their countries has nothing to do with the European market. On the contrary, they suggest that any ban, in order to be justified, should clearly demonstrate the impact that the European ivory market has on poaching in Africa, and on the conservation status of elephant populations, and the extent to which it could backstop the trend.
Our eyes are all on Bruxelles, waiting to hopefully see a positive signal that will save for good elephants from poaching.