By Nicolas Rochon
The lust for ivory has long afflicted the African elephant, but recently, the demand for the commodity has dramatically increased, a rise that has concerned attentive conservationists worldwide.
Taking place from March 3-14, the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife and Flora (CITES) will be held in Bangkok, Thailand to discuss potential strategies for protecting the world’s largest mammal.
A brief history of the ivory trade
Historically, elephant ivory was exported from Africa and Asia to society’s elites in Europe, where it often became billiard balls, piano keys and other symbols of wealth. During the colonization of Africa, ivory hunters did much to provide for the demand of this white gold. Under the rule of the notorious King Leopold II, the Congo Free State was made with the purpose of providing business for Europe tariff-free; the tyrant absorbed more than half of the territory (as well as its 30 million inhabitants), while the rest was divided between France and Portugal. For twenty-three years, Leopold II lived to profit from the land’s resources, including ivory, while working millions of Congolese to death.
By the beginning of the 20th century, most of Africa’s subregions had lost the African elephant to extirpation, or localized extinction.
Faced with national and international pressures, African countries began to debate between lethal and non-lethal uses of wildlife as economic commodities during the 1970s. Underlining the argument was the idea of sustainability: if the international trade of ivory continued to persist without regulation, there would quickly be an end to the supply.
Defined as a multilateral treaty of 178 governments, CITES aims to “ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival,” as stated in their mission statement.
It was in 1986 that CITES, then made up of less than 100 countries, first initiated a control system to better monitor the movement of registered ivory. Initially, CITES permitted hundreds of tons of ivory imports into Asia, but undercover investigations led by the Environmental Investigation Agency found that this system was actually funding known criminal syndicates, who used legitimate CITES permits to smuggle millions of dollars worth of elephant ivory into their illegal markets in countries like China, the Philippines and Thailand. More....