MEPs and UN body criticise EU ivory trade rules proposal

Dec 3, 2020 | Commentary

By Rosie Awori

A call on EU Commissioner Sinkevičius to show global leadership by closing EU’s ivory market

In the 1970s, Africa had a population of some 1.3 million elephants. Presently, the number of elephants stands at about 400,000, meaning the population has declined by close to 70%. The main reason: poaching for their tusks. At least 20,000 elephants are killed every year for their ivory. The numbers don’t lie, but what they do is paint a frightening picture of the high risk of the extinction of elephants in the wild should legal domestic ivory markets remain open – the two largest of which are the European Union and Japan.

These are some of the statistics that have clearly shocked Hilde Vautmans MEP, chair of the European Parliament’s MEPs for Wildlife Group. On 17th November 2020, she delivered a blistering criticism of the EU’s ongoing ivory trade in her opening remarks at a webinar with a panel of experts to discuss the upcoming legislative proposal to tighten further the rules around the EU’s domestic ivory market.

Vautmans, echoing the position of dozens of her fellow parliamentary colleagues, said the EU’s draft proposal currently circulating is “out of step” with the rest of the international community for its continued support for a thriving domestic ivory market, and its role in contributing to elephant poaching in Africa.

“EU has a lot of ivory and it’s not going away” – time to follow the African example?

Panellists of the webinar included EU MEPs, an expert from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), an antiques auctioneer, an ivory evaluator, conservationists from Africa and Europe, and from the EU, the Environment and Oceans Commissioner and a member of the European Commission’s Environment Department. The conclusion of all speakers was a resounding call for the EU to close its ivory market.


EU Environment and Oceans Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius, and Jorge Rodriguez, from the EU Commission’s Environment Department – which has responsibility for preparing the draft legislation on ivory trade rules – continued to claim, however, that the EU’s market does not in any way contribute to elephant poaching and ivory trafficking in Africa. Rodriguez  added that “ … there is a lot of ivory in Europe and it is not going away.”

Rodriguez’s implication is that since there is still an abundance of antique ivory in circulation, it will continue to be traded and that only a tightening of the regulations, not an outright ban, is therefore necessary. Yet he and his department have failed to recognise that the EU could easily follow the African example, where several countries have burned their ivory stockpiles, along with many other countries around the world. 

Legal ivory markets encourage speculative demand … and poaching

Senior UNODC researcher Theodore Leggett noted that ivory prices have dropped in Asia and in Africa. This, he said, was in response to the closure of many major domestic markets, notably China and the United States of America. He  promoted the idea that the remaining legal (antique) ivory markets, like the EU’s, encourage a speculative demand, and, as a consequence, poaching.

Dr Winnie Kiiru, an elephant biologist and Senior Technical Advisor for the Elephant Protection Initiative (EPI) reinforced this view. “If the EU shuts down its market, they will actually close a significant portion of the destinations for ivory. Since elephants are usually poached for speculative reasons, as long as there is any thinking from the side of the trader that they may be able to get to market, they will poach. Whether it comes disguised as old ivory or not, it is still in the market. Therefore closing the EU market will have a significant positive effect in taking ivory off the table.”

The EU argument that antique ivory sales do not contribute to current levels of poaching was further dismantled by Patricia Jansma, a certified valuator of arts and antiques. Jansma said that the rising number and quality of forgeries (new ivory traded as antique) is making it almost impossible to identify genuine antique items, while fake certificates are equally difficult to detect. She maintained that the draft legislative proposal does not in any way address this problem.

The EU and Japan – Last remaining major ivory markets

Rodriguez’ statements demonstrated the EU’s tin ear on the issue. Current EU policies are deaf to the tune the international community is playing. Apart from the EU and Japan, almost all global markets for ivory have shut down or drastically restricted their ivory markets, because it is obvious to all that maintaining a demand for ivory logically leads to a continuation of elephants in Africa being killed for their tusks.

The present EU regulations state that trade is only permitted for antique ivory. As an African, this is profoundly troubling for me; the pieces stored in homes and sold in antique shops abroad are a reminder of the millions of Africans who died under the reckless and rapacious colonial era in Africa, where wholesale looting and plundering of natural resources and wildlife occurred under the brutal rule of European leaders that include Belgium’s King Leopold II.

According to Kiiru, “Every piece of jewellery or ivory trinket represents a dead elephant. We have very few elephants; we don’t need to intellectualise it,.” She advocates using the precautionary principle: “If in doubt, don’t!” 

Elephants in the wild … “rather than in the natural history museum of Brussels”

Vautmans said she really hoped her children would one day have the privilege of seeing elephants in the wild, rather than in the natural history museum of Brussels – next to the dinosaurs.

We can only hope that EU Commissioner Sinkevičius and German EU Presidency Minister Svenja Schulze will be really ambitious with the upcoming proposal on ivory trade rules and close the loopholes that allow the ivory trade to flourish.

Rosie Awori is a Kenyan journalist and senior writer and corporate communications strategist at the Pan African Wildlife Conservation Network

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