The Government will be coming under pressure today to take a stand against a renewed international ivory trade by opposing the attempt by China to become a licensed ivory buyer.
Britain has a vote on the Chinese application, to be heard by a UN committee in Geneva tomorrow but has so far not made its voting intentions clear. Environmentalists and an increasing number of politicians suspect that Britain is fearful of getting into an international row with China and does not intend to oppose it. But they warn that if China's application does go through, it will pose a new and dire threat to the survival of African and Asian elephants.
They say that massive new Chinese demand for ivory will give a huge boost to the illegal trade, which is supplied by poachers, and are demanding that Britain must cast its vote against the application.
The legal ivory trade was banned in 1989 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) after African elephant populations plummeted by more than half at the hands of poachers, from 1.3 million to 625,000, in a single decade.
However, in a move aggressively led by Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, a hole was made in the ban in 1997 when four southern African countries – Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana and Namibia – were given permission to auction ivory from elephants that had died of natural causes.
At the first auction in 1999, only Japan was deemed to have enough safeguards against illegal trading to be allowed to bid, and China was excluded. A second auction is now in prospect – and China wants to be included in this, claiming that it has tightened up its trading enforcement procedures.
Many critics, however, say it has not done nearly enough. In a letter to The Independent today, the UK head of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Robbie Simmons, calls on the Government to act now "to oppose China as an ivory buyer to protect elephants from a future where poaching to supply the illegal ivory trade may again ravage their populations to the point of extinction".
China, Mr Simmons writes, "has the world's largest black market in illegal ivory and is the world's single major destination for illicit, poached ivory, mainly from African elephants".
The Biodiversity minister, Joan Ruddock, who is responsible for deciding Britain's position, will be put under further pressure today by a letter from the shadow Environment Secretary, Peter Ainsworth, calling on her to clarify Britain's voting intentions in Geneva – and to oppose the Chinese application.
"Enabling China to import legally-sourced ivory would not only send the wrong signals to the international community, but also lead to a substantial growth in the illegal trade, which would be disastrous for the African elephant population," Mr Ainsworth writes. "As I am sure you are aware, the best way to protect endangered wildlife is to choke off demand for those products, like ivory, which lead to exploitation and killing."
But the concern being expressed is cross-party, and nearly 150 MPs from all parties have now signed a parliamentary early day motion against China's application put down by Ian Cawsey, the Labour MP for Brigg and Goole. Pointing out that 20,000 elephants a year are still being slaughtered to supply the illegal ivory trade, the motion "notes with concern that China remains the major destination for illicit ivory."
It calls on the Government to oppose any attempt by China to buy ivory stockpiles, and to do so as EU representative on the Cites standing committee, which is where tomorrow's vote will take place. Up to last night the motion had been signed by 148 MPs – nearly a quarter of the Commons.
The Cites secretariat is to recommend that China's application be approved, and environmental campaigners suspect that the British Government is prepared to go along with this.
Allan Thornton, of the Environmental Investigation Agency, which uncovered much of the evidence which led to the first trade ban, said: "Having spoken at length with a senior British official I am convinced that Britain will not oppose the Chinese application. If it goes through, we will go back to the large-scale elephant killing that the original ban was intended to stop, and elephants in the wild will be wiped out in 20 to 30 years, or perhaps even sooner."
The number of elephants slaughtered every year to supply the ivory tradeReuse content