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Closing the UK’s ivory trade is a statement of intent on environmental issues

Closing the UK’s ivory trade is a statement of intent on environmental issues
4 min read

The impact of internal markets is driving up demand for ivory. It’s vital we live up to our reputation as a global authority on conservation and ban the trade here at home, writes Owen Paterson

We lose an elephant every 25 minutes. Their population has fallen by almost a third since 2007. The Great Elephant Census, published in August 2016, found only 352,271 Savannah elephants across the 18 countries surveyed, representing a 70% crash in numbers since 1979 when the total population stood at 1.3 million. This alarming decline is the direct result of rising demand for ivory.

It is, perhaps, tempting to argue that the answer to tackling demand for a product is to supply more, suggesting we should actively farm elephants for their ivory. But this response is quite unworkable because of the grotesque imbalance between the number of individuals, mainly in Asia, wishing to buy and the comparatively tiny number of animals that could actually be raised to meet demand.

Access to ivory increases demand, so bans are the only reasonable solution. Previous bans have resulted in elephant populations stabilising and the demand for ivory decreasing. The CITES ivory ban in 1989, for instance, saw a reversal of the decline in elephant numbers which had been witnessed over the preceding decade.

But the longstanding international ivory trade ban has proven inadequate on its own. Domestic markets have been shown to provide cover for the illegal international trade, in turn fuelling poaching, funding criminal activity and undermining the ability of African communities to develop free from corruption.

The impact of internal markets is truly international, driving up the demand for ivory. It is estimated that the annual trade in illegal wildlife is worth £15 billion, making it the third most valuable illicit commerce behind drugs and arms. Some of it is funding terrorist groups such as al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda-linked extremists based in East Africa and blamed for killing 72 people in Nairobi’s Westgate mall.

Objections to such an internal ivory ban typically rest on its potential effect on the domestic antiques trade, but it is important to keep a sense of perspective. The recent 2 Million Tusks report, Ivory: The Grey Areas, concluded that 301 UK auction houses listed ivory lots in their sales catalogues, accounting for only 0.76% of total sales.

Even for auction houses dealing in high-end products, they found that ivory formed only 1.49% of annual sales. They were unable to find a business selling only ivory.

An ivory ban would not, therefore, pose a significant threat to the profitability of the antiques market, particularly as sensible, de minimis exemptions could be devised. Sales to and between museums of pre-1900 objects should be accredited under the Arts Council Accreditation Scheme, requiring publications to allow the sales or transfer process to be monitored fully.

Similarly, pre-1989 musical instruments containing up to 20% ivory or 300 grams could be exempted, as Defra has confirmed that they “contribute neither directly nor indirectly to ivory poaching”. Certainly, there is no suggestion that such works of art should be destroyed.

The UK has been a global leader in the effort to save elephants. William Hague and I convened the London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade in 2014; this provided a stunning example of the UK’s extraordinary international influence and reach to bring nations together from around the world. Over 40 countries attended and agreed a consensus on key actions.

The London Declaration also saw the creation of the Elephant Protection Initiative by five African leaders, calling for domestic ivory markets to close and support for elephant conservation under a common platform.

But now, with the USA and even China imposing domestic ivory bans, we are falling behind.

The 2015 Conservative manifesto made a very clear commitment to closing the UK domestic market, and the time has now come for us to make good on that promise.

As we forge our own independent policies after Brexit, it is vital that we regain our world lead on environmental and conservation issues if we are to remain a global authority. What better way to state our intent than to close our internal ivory market once and for all?


Owen Paterson is Conservative MP for North Shropshire and a former Environment Secretary

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