As the largest exporter of legal ivory, the EU is fuelling a parallel illegal trade - and the mass killing of elephants in Africa.
Ivory trafficking by criminal syndicates causes the poaching deaths of 30,000 African elephants a year.
Global demand for ivory is high, and Europe is fuelling it. Many Europeans, especially in Belgium, have been selling off ivory pieces they inherited from their former African colonies. Most of the ivory is sold domestically where there is a thriving market within EU member States, but there is a growing international export trade too.
During the past decade EU countries legally exported more than 20,000 carvings and 564 tusks to Asia. But this is generating a parallel illegal trade.
The wildlife trade database of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), reveals that in China and Hong Kong, ivory imports far exceed that accounted for by the number of EU export certificates. Such certificates are used as a loophole to launder pre- CITES domestic ivory into the illegal international market.
According to a recent European Commission staff working document on wildlife trafficking, “Between 2011 and 2014, EU Member States reported seizures of around 4500 ivory items reported as specimens and an additional 780 kg as reported by weight. Most was destined for Asia, particularly China, Hong Kong and Vietnam.”
The Commission paper further states that “it is often difficult to distinguish pre-convention or worked specimens, which can be legally re-exported from the EU, from other ivory items, for which such export is banned.” It points out there are many cases of buyers purchasing illegal ivory using forged pre-convention domestic certificates with the intention of exporting them illegally to Asia.
In an effort to close these loopholes, some EU nations – the Czech Republic, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Slovakia and Sweden – have stopped issuing ivory export certificates and have called on Brussels to make this an EU-wide policy.
But EU policymakers operate as a bloc and have all but vetoed the progressive moves of some of their member states in favour of a status quo.
Even though EU policymakers such as Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner for the Environment, publicly support a total ban on ivory, in practice the Union does the exact opposite. Ivory, thanks to objections from countries like Belgium, will continue to be legally traded, both domestically and abroad. The demand in Asia will therefore be maintained, if not increased.
The EU needs to actively demonstrate its commitment to the world by shutting down its own market. If they are serious about saving elephants, the ivory trade within and flowing from the EU must be stopped with immediate effect.
The EU has a golden opportunity to do just that. In September-October this year the 182 member States of CITES will meet in Johannesburg, South Africa, to vote on proposals put forward by the bulk of African elephant range states calling for a closure of all domestic markets as well as an Appendix I listing of all African elephants that guarantees a ban on all international trade in ivory.
If the EU supports the motion, the proposals may pass through. If they don’t, African elephants will continue to be slaughtered until there are none left.