Robbie Marsland: Don't underestimate the huge scale of this bloody trade

Western nations have the power to stamp out the trade and save this iconic species

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It is devastatingly sad to say, but elephants remain in crisis: they are still in danger of being wiped out by poachers. This may shock many who believed that the ivory trade ban 20 years ago had saved them, and it's true that the herds initially started to recover, but now the ban has been chipped away and we face the prospect of elephants being poached to extinction in some African countries such as Sierra Leone.

The enormous scale of the trade should not be underestimated – the value of ivory and other illegal wildlife sales comes second only to the illegal drugs and weapon trade, making ivory a 21st century "blood diamond". Organised criminal gangs of poachers, lured by easy money, are slaughtering elephants on a huge scale.

Western nations have it within their power to stamp out this bloody trade and save this iconic species. But their track record to date is lamentable. In 2007, the UK Government was among those which allowed several nations to sell over 100 tonnes of stockpiled ivory to China and Japan, where tusks are made into trinkets and signature seals. IFAW believes any legal ivory sales lead directly to a boom in poaching as they provide a smokescreen for more killing. After the 2007 sales there was a corresponding rise in illegal poaching in several countries.

The UK Government and other EU members have a new chance to make a difference to the fate of elephants in the coming weeks. Zambia and Tanzania have petitioned the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) conference in March to allow them to sell 112 tonnes of ivory. Despite increased poaching, the UK Government is still on the fence about whether or not to oppose these sales. To anybody who cares about animal welfare and conservation, the solution is clear: the ivory ban must be tightened and there should not be any further stockpile sales. We have a moral obligation to protect these magnificent animals for future generations and a solution is within our grasp. The UK Government and other EU member countries, which vote as a bloc in March, must oppose stockpile sales.

It is also vital that we assist countries asking for help to stop poaching – this brutal trade not only claims the lives of elephants but more than 100 rangers are killed each year protecting their precious but threatened wildlife heritage. The EU bloc is the only entity with the effective voting power to save or doom this entire species. That is a weighty responsibility and one that we sincerely hope member countries use wisely. If they fail, many areas of Africa face the prospect of losing elephants forever.

Robbie Marsland is UK director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

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