Mary Rice: 'One-off' legal sale has done nothing to halt smuggling

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The ivory trade is a polarised issue. It is also complicated by the raft of conflicting messages reverberating worldwide every time the members of Cites (Convention on Trade in Endangered Species) meet to discuss, and often agree, changes to the rules governing international trade in elephant ivory. There are too many elephants. Elephants are endangered. International ivory trade is forbidden.

However, if you are in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Japan and China you can legally buy ivory, but you can't take it out of the country – although in Namibia and Zimbabwe, if it is for "non-commercial" purposes (an oxymoron if ever I heard one), then as long as it is accompanied by a Cites certificate you can pop it in your bag and bring it home. Confused? You should be.

And you are in the company of thousands of enforcement officers worldwide as well as thousands of poachers and traders who think it is open season and open market.

Before 1989 and the international ban on ivory trade, elephant poaching was rampant and the trade in ivory out of control. In recognition of the disaster on their doorsteps, African countries and conservationists called for an immediate ban. A handful of countries did not agree and since 1989 we have seen a slow chipping away at the conditions on trade: these African elephant range states want a full resumption of ivory trade. The majority do not.

And whilst we argue about the pros and cons of the ivory trade we are witnessing a new onslaught on African elephant populations – as well as the more beleaguered Asian elephants. As evidenced by the increasing numbers of large seizures of ivory, the involvement of trans-national syndicates means that we are dealing with highly organised international criminals cashing in on the widely publicised demand for ivory which was given credence by the second "one-off" legal sale of more than 110 tonnes of stockpiled ivory from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe to China and Japan.

We were assured that flooding the market with this "legalised" ivory would satisfy the demand and bring down the price making it unprofitable to deal in illegal ivory. An interesting notion.

Since January of this year, we have seen two large seizures – one tonne seized in Thailand from Uganda and more than six tonnes from Tanzania seized in Vietnam. That equates to at least 700 elephants. The Vietnam case is an investigator's dream because of the sheer quantity of evidence. It is an international crime spanning at least three countries, two continents and involving countless individuals in what is clearly a sophisticated criminal network and it needs to be tackled as such.

Mary Rice is executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency

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