The first act of the EU as a full member of The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), may well jeopardise the future of African elephants.
At the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17)which opens in Johannesburg on Saturday 24 September, the European Union will not vote as individual member states but as a bloc which, according to a decision taken the European Commission on 1st July, means they will oppose a total ban on international trade in ivory. This decision strangely contradicts a resolution by the European Parliament itself on the 15th September to put all elephants on CITES Appendix I.
This decision has been widely denounced by conservation groups, the general public – a petition supporting a global ban on ivory by Avaaz has received nearly 1.3 million signatures – and 70% of Africa's elephant range states comprising of 29 countries that have come together as the African Elephant Coalition (AEC), who advocate a total ban on ivory.
"It is unacceptable given the current rates of poaching that the EU will not support a ban on ivory trade at the conference in South Africa," says Dr Rosalind Reeve, senior advisor to Fondation Franz Weber and the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation. "A total ban is essential for the future existence of Africa's elephants," she says.
Under CITES, species are assigned to one of three appendices: Appendix I lists species most threatened with extinction in which commercial trade is prohibited. For Appendix II and III species, trade is allowed but regulated according to the level of threat.
Africa's elephants have been split between Appendix I and Appendix II (four southern African countries). With permission from CITES, Appendix II countries can sell stockpiled ivory, as Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe did, to Japan, in 1999. Another sale by the three countries, joined by South Africa, took place in 2008, this time to China as well as Japan.
According to a 2016 study, these "one-off" legal sales are blamed for stimulating the unprecedented ivory demand in Asia, leading to rampant elephant poaching and illegal trading that, according to a recent survey by the Paul G. Allen funded Great Elephant Census, has seen a third of Africa's elephants wiped out in the last seven years.
In response to the crisis, the AEC will submit a proposal at CoP17 calling for all Africa's elephants to be listed under Appendix I. But the EU will oppose this as it favours a continuation of the split-listing which allows for the possibility of a continuation of a trade in ivory.
Many European nations have thriving ivory markets - selling supposedly antique ivory.
"European countries want to protect their own ivory markets and are therefore opposed to an Appendix I listing because it would effectively put an end to further exports from Europe," says Leonardo Anselmi, director of the Fondation Franz Weber for Southern Europe and Latin America, an organisation that worked closely on the African Elephant Coalition's Appendix I proposal to CITES. "These often undisclosed international economic trade agreements among European nations always seem to trump genuine conservation measures," Anselmi says.
However, there are some dissenters among the EU ranks. France and Luxembourg strongly favour an Appendix I listing, and have also closed down their domestic ivory markets.
What's more, according to Daniela Freyer, Co-founder of Pro Wildlife, a German-based advocacy group committed to protecting wildlife and works to ensure the survival of species in their habitat, European Members of Parliament (MEPs) in contrast to the European Commission, "have listened to the European citizens, conservationists and the large majority of African elephant range States by calling for an end to all ivory trade."
A European Parliament resolution by elected members on European Union strategic objectives for CITES CoP17 taken on the 15th September categorically endorses the AEC proposal to put all elephants on CITES Appendix I.
However, while the elected members of the European Parliament have legislative power they don't have legislative initiative. In other words, they cannot implement decisions, only recommend them. That power rests with the EU Commission. It is this unelected executive body that ultimately will determine the fate of elephants, and it seems it's about to fail them. (Supplied by Conservation Action Trust)