The EU is also accused of backtracking on its commitment to tackle the trade after recently tabling “watered down” legislative proposals.
Belgian Renew Europe deputy Hilde Vautmans declared, “Only bold action can save this iconic species from becoming extinct.”
Vautmans was taking part in an online debate about the issue along with the European Commission and environmental, conservation and animal welfare NGOs.
The virtual discussion was told the Commission has been urged to “close” the EU domestic ivory market and implement a ban on all ivory imports.
On 28 October, DG Environment presented a new proposal on ivory, but NGOs said the proposed new rules are “weaker” than an earlier version which the Commission presented to them in 2019.
Vautmans, who chairs the MEPs4Wildlife group, said, “Allowing the sale of ivory reinforces its social acceptability and makes it a desirable product to own or even invest in, further fuelling demand, including in Asia, the illegal market, trafficking, and poaching, and stimulating transnational wildlife crime.”
She said Parliament, scientists, faith leaders and animal protection and environmental NGOs have, for several years, been urging the Commission to close the EU domestic ivory market and implement a ban on all ivory imports and (re)exports “without further delays.”
“As long as there is a trade, elephants will continue to be at threat. Criminals will continue to find ways around. The Commission proposal wants to be ambitious, but it also needs to be simple to enforce”
Catherine Bearder, former UK MEP
In its recently adopted EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, the Commission committed to proposing a ‘further tightening of the rules on ivory trade.”
But Vautmans said the new Commission proposal “is not aligned with the ambitions taken in the biodiversity strategy.”
Her comments were partly echoed by former UK MEP Catherine Bearder, the founding chair of MEPs4Wildlife, who said, “As long as there is a trade, elephants will continue to be at threat. Criminals will continue to find ways around. The Commission proposal wants to be ambitious, but it also needs to be simple to enforce.”
The former Liberal Democrat deputy urged the Commission to act, adding, “We have heard how terrible the elephants’ plight is. We need clear action from the Commission and the elephants need it.”
Replying to the criticism, Virginijus Sinkevičius, environment, oceans and fisheries commissioner, said that the fight against poaching, trafficking and illegal wildlife trade were “high” on his agenda.
The official said the EU was working on additional measures and wanted to ensure that EU rules do not contribute to elephant poaching and ivory trafficking.
“The issue is complex and controversial, but the hope is that we still can deliver this year. Whenever the Commission proposes new policy measures, we need to be proportionate and effective but we also need to be ambitious and to send a strong political message to the international community that we are determined to ensure that the EU does not contribute in any way to poaching or to illegal trade in ivory.”
“Only bold action can save this iconic species from becoming extinct”
Hilde Vautmans, Renew Europe
These sentiments were shared by another speaker, Jorge Rodriguez Romero, deputy head of unit for Multilateral Environmental Cooperation at DG Environment, who insisted that the current proposal tabled last month “effectively bans the trade in ivory.”
Romero added, “The proposal isn’t final and the Commission is currently assessing the feedback received.”
The objective is to reduce “as much as possible” the risk of the EU legal ivory market contributing to illegal trade and poaching. We have to be clear, however, that no matter which rules we enact, this will not change the reality that there is a lot of ivory in the EU and this ivory will not disappear,” the official warned.
“What we need is to ensure that the rules that we have cannot be easily used or abused to cover illegal activities that would contribute to poaching and illegal trade. Our own assessment of the available information on legal and illegal trade, as well as several authoritative reports, conclude that there is no evidence that the EU current legal trade contributes to poaching and illegal trade.”
Another participant, Dr Winnie Kiiru, senior technical adviser with the Elephant Protection Initiative, said that despite “enormous efforts” it was “totally impossible” to combat the trade without the collaboration of countries that continue to have ivory markets.
There had been a “positive movement” across the world with China, the US, Hong Kong, the UK and New Zealand closing their domestic ivory markets, “but as long as there is a trade going on, there is no country or group of countries that has ever been able to put enough rules or regulations to beat the ivory traders.”
She added, “I feel the EU proposals are going backwards, the current one is regressive from the 2019 one. We certainly fear that if the EU is going the way it’s going, it’s going to be business as usual, the new rules will just introduce new loopholes that will allow pre-CITES convention ivory pieces to continue to be traded within the EU.”
“What we need to see is a strong signal that ivory is off the table, it has no value, but elephants are valuable when they’re alive.”
Shruti Suresh, a senior wildlife campaigner, also noted that “thousands of ivory items have been traded each year in the UK and the law regulating the trade is difficult to enforce.”
“The biggest issue was it was used as a cover for illegal trade,” Suresh added.