Security and Foreign Policy

To End Ivory Trafficking, Follow the Cash and Conflict

Thirty-two African States with elephant ranges formally called on the European Union to fully ban its ivory trade. Marika Annunziata analyzes the different aspects of ivory trafficking and the difficulties in combatting it.


The European Commission adopted a Communication on an EU Action Plan against wildlife trafficking in February 2016. This EU Action Plan was approved by the EU Member States through the Conclusions adopted by Council of the European Union in June 2016 and through a following Resolution adopted in November 2016 by the European Parliament. A large number of actions and initiatives have been taken by the EU Member States and the European Commission itself since the inception of the Action Plan. The European Union, however, reported that it would implement full ban measures only when African States requested it. Only recently, more than thirty African States called on the European Union to fully outlaw ivory trade. The United States and China, historically major importers of ivory together with the EU, took similar action in 2016 and 2017 respectively.

Now that African States have formally petitioned for the full ban, all eyes are set on the Commission progress report on the EU Wildlife Trafficking Action Plan aimed at deciding whether it will proceed to fully ban its ivory trade, or not.

International efforts to combat wildlife crimes and trafficking have been focused on anti-poaching in protected areas or designated spaces of wildlife conservation. Deployment of green militarization or the use of military and paramilitary (military-like) actors, techniques, technologies, and partnerships in the pursuit of conservation have also experienced an increase in Africa. Examples of green militarization include the use of more forceful and violent practices, the application of military-style thinking, technologies and approaches such as counter-insurgency strategies, the hiring of current and former military personnel, and the paramilitary training of conservation rangers. The objective is to secure protected areas, and the wildlife within them, from suspected poachers. Such practices, have been criticized as they further restrict access to lands and resources of people living in and around conservation spaces. Moreover, human rights have been often infringed upon by forceful and militarized approaches, using force against suspected poachers and the communities from which they come. Together, these exacerbate tensions between conservation and local populations in and around conservation areas.

International assistance to prevent wildlife crime and trafficking is also leading to poaching and hunting being treated as a transnational organized crime. This way of understanding and approaching illegal wildlife trade has led to enforcement interventions, which aim to eradicate the supply-chain from protected areas. While there is often overlap between militarized and law enforcement approaches as in many sectors, the involvement of law enforcement agencies in providing assistance to address the wildlife trafficking has registered an increase of programmes that fall into the second category.

However, the challenges posed by the illegal trafficking of raw ivory and manufactures goods go beyond the borders of physical borders. The global online trade in wildlife is steadily growing, allowing small businesses to prosper and reach global audiences, while masking increasing numbers of illegal transactions. Combating online trade in wildlife is challenging and this challenge stems from the difficulty in finding and identifying illegally traded items. Some sections of the conservation community have been put increasing pressure on online platforms to do more to actively tackle the illegal wildlife trade taking place on their sites as part of corporate social responsibility. Even if these sites were willing to address the issue by identifying the illegal wildlife being sold and traded on their platforms, taking down posts of illegal wildlife runs the risk of losing valuable intelligence and pushing the trade onto the hard-to-reach darknet sites. Yet opportunities exist through the application of technology to help address the illegal on-line trafficking, particularly in the use of artificial intelligence to identify items being traded and those involved in the trade. Nonetheless for the time being technical challenges in developing such tools persist.

In active conflicts, elephants are a source of protein as well as extra income for combatants and civilians alike. Large elephant groupings, in particular, become inviting targets for individual militia and entrepreneurial combatant commanders, providing a quick and lucrative source of cash and material for poachers. The ongoing conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, for instance, have devastated elephant populations in those countries, with central Africa as a whole losing 62% of its elephant population in the first decade of the 21st century. In Angola and Mozambique, conservationists are still struggling to bring elephants back to the numbers they enjoyed prior to the civil wars, almost three decades after they ended.

The toll exacted on elephants by human conflict extends far beyond the battlefield. Over the past decades, tens of thousands of elephants have been killed across Central and West Africa by combatant groups operating outside their original conflict theater. Poaching by Janjaweed militia from Sudan, Seleka militias from the Central African Republic, and the Lord’s Resistance Army originally from Uganda, are all byproducts of dead, dormant, or diminished conflicts. At a more individual level, former combatants have also often emerged later as successful poachers, putting their skills with weapons and operational knowledge of the bush to use in the illegal ivory trade. Any successful effort to combat ivory trafficking will need to greater involvement and engagement of environmental groups and their counterparts working to address conflicts and their impacts.

The European Union is directly and primarily affected by wildlife trafficking as major market for illegal wildlife products. A survey conducted by the International Found for Animals Welfare noted that “legal ivory trade in the EU fuels this decline by serving as a cover for trade in illicit ivory and legal exports from the EU are helping to drive demand in consumer countries in South East Asia”. Nonetheless, more than 90% of EU citizens are not interested in buying ivory products and around the 65% are in favor of more strictly regulate the trade within the European Union. Notwithstanding the aforementioned, Europe continues to serve as the access point through which the major share of ivory transits, making it the world’s first ivory exporter towards Asia and in turn the main purchaser.

Despite the fact that the EU adopted a series of measures to limit the trade in ivory, it has not yet imposed a total ban on ivory trade. In 2016, the European Union published the EU Action Plan against Wildlife Trafficking. The Plan introduced a wide agenda in order to address the ivory trafficking both within the EU’s borders and towards external countries. The primary objective was to tackle the illegal trade in animals and manufactured goods. The illegal trade in endangered species is estimated to be around 24 billion dollars per year, resulting in wild species such as elephants, among the most symbolic for biodiversity, on the verge of extinction, while extinguishing others such as the northern white rhino.

The Action Plan is built around three main pillars, prevention, stronger enforcement and global partnership. The EU’s priorities are to reduce demand for and supply of wildlife goods and to ban the trade of raw ivory (not worked) in member states as well as banning its export to non-EU countries. Despite that, NGOs advise caution and call for the implementation of a total ban.

There are in fact great differences in the level of implementation and enforcement of these measures amongst the different member states. While states like France and the UK are definitely in favor of a stricter regulation of the subject, others like Portugal and Spain believe that the issue concerning elephants’ poaching and ivory trafficking in their countries has nothing to do with the European market. On the contrary, they suggest that any ban, in order to be justified, should clearly demonstrate the impact that the European ivory market has on poaching in Africa, on the conservation status of elephant populations, and the extent to which it could backstop the trend.

A shocking new report, by contrast, has proven that illegal ivory from recently killed elephants is being sold across Europe. 109 pieces of ivory from ten different countries in Europe were tested by Oxford University’s Radiocarbon Unit to determine their age proving beyond doubt that illegal modern ivory is being traded openly both online and in shops across the continent, fueling illegal hunting in Africa that causes the death of roughly 55 elephants every day.

Three quarters of all European ivory tested turned out to be fake antique ivory being sold illegally. 19% of the ivory items tested were from elephants alive in the 1990s and 2000s and slaughtered after international trade in modern ivory was outlawed. The most recent ivory tested in the study was dated 2010. Radiocarbon dating revealed when the ivory grew on the animal and not when the elephant actually died. The dates are only a conservative estimation of when that elephant died.

The illegal trade of ivory, which is estimated to be worth in the region of 8 billions of dollars per year, will not be eradicated overnight. Even though governments are taking enough action to outright ban the trade, the longstanding game hunting and poaching have become entrenched in communities and cultures. To save elephants, and all wildlife for that matter, states and governments must take action against those found poaching, hunting and trading animals. Without sufficient enforcement and penalties, these laws may not be sufficient to save the world’s most endangered species.

Marika Annunziata holds a Master’s Degree in law from LUISS Guido Carli University in Rome with a main concentration in European and international law. Marika is currently a trainee attorney and is studying in order to further pursue diplomatic career in Italy.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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