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.

Knowledge of the issue first began spreading in ivory-exporting countries. In 1988, however, UK-based Independent Television News aired a special that claimed, “conservationists are warning that the African elephant will be extinct within ten years unless the world acts to curb demand for ivory.” Media across the world, then, began publicizing this prediction, leaving readers with a strong distaste for the trade.

Countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe insisted that the legal ivory trade was crucial to their economies, but eventually CITES placed the African elephant under its protection, and since January 1990, the international trade of ivory has been illegal.

In the years following the 1990 ban, the demand for ivory declined, effectively shutting the door on most black markets, with the exception of various one-off sales of remaining ivory stockpiles. Unfortunately, the trade has once again emerged, and it appears to be stronger than ever.

Illegal trade design

Deemed Annus Horribilis, the year 2011 saw a record number of large-scale seizures, weighing more than 800 kg, of ivory tusks; “in 23 years of compiling ivory seizure data for ETIS [Elephant Trade Information System]… 2011 has truly been a horrible year for elephants,” said elephant expert Tom Milliken.

“The escalating large ivory quantities involved in 2011 reflect both a rising demand in Asia and the increasing sophistication of the criminal gangs behind the trafficking. Most illegal shipments of African elephant ivory end up in either China or Thailand,” says Milliken.

This level of sophistication is sending government officials into a frenzy as they try to trace large-scale shipments all over Asia, which begin with the ivory departing from Africa and arriving in countries like Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines; next, these shipments receive new documentation, practically erasing any sign of their origins; finally, shipments change their routes, eluding detection by enforcement officials, and are sent to their destination – most commonly China and Thailand.

“That’s an indication of the level of sophistication enforcement officers are up against in trying to outwit the criminal masterminds behind this insidious trade… As most large-scale ivory seizures fail to result in any arrests, I fear the criminals are winning,” Milliken argues.

A 2012 CITES analysis reads: “governance continues to emerge as the single most important national-level correlate of elephant poaching [in Africa]. The consequences of poor governance are likely to manifest themselves throughout the ivory supply chain, facilitating the movement of illegal ivory from the site all the way to the point of export, be it through weak law enforcement or active aiding and abetting by unscrupulous officials.”

Thus, the protection of African elephants rests on the shoulders of good governance. Unfortunately, in many African countries, corruption, poverty and civil war make good governance of the ivory trade extremely difficult.

Demand for ivory on the rise in Asia

As previously mentioned, China and Thailand are the two main consumers of illegal ivory. Historically, Chinese workers would carve ivory figurines to be sent to Europe, but now with a growing middle class, many are purchasing the ivory for themselves. Even if only a small percentage of the 1.3 billion Chinese population seeks ivory, the market will continue to thrive.

On Sunday, March 3rd, Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra promised to end her country’s ivory trade market. Addressing CITES members on the first day of the two week convention, Shinawatra affirmed: “We will work towards amending the national legislation with the goal of putting an end to ivory trade and to be in line with international norms… This will help protect all forms of elephants, including Thailand’s wild and domestic elephants and those from Africa.”

In its October 2012 issue, the National Geographic magazine highlighted the influence that religion had on the current ivory trade market. As head of the church and the Archdiocesan Commission on Worship of Cebu, Monsignor Cristobal Garcia is a famous ivory collector in the Philippines. Author Bryan Christy set out to meet Monsignor Garcia in order to uncover the ivory trade inside the country and to show just how easy it is to buy illegal ivory from popular carvers.

Stemming from an interview with Monsignor Garcia, Christy writes, “Garcia gave me the names of his favorite ivory carvers, all in Manila, along with advice on whom to go to for high volume, whose wife overcharges, who doesn’t meet deadlines. He gave me phone numbers and locations… A few families control most of the ivory carving in Manila, moving like termites through massive quantities of tusks… Priests, balikbayans (Filipinos living overseas), and gay Filipino men are major customers… gathering up new ivory crucifixes, Madonnas, and baby Jesuses in bulk and smuggling them home in their luggage,” Monsignor Garcia told Christy.

Even on St. Peter’s Square inside Vatican City, street vendors offer ivory to be blessed by the Pope as a way to sell the commodity to tourists.

Christy affirms that “although the world has found substitutes for every one of ivory’s practical uses — billiard balls, piano keys, brush handles — its religious use is frozen in amber, and its role as a political symbol persists.”

Although cultural and religious differences exist between different people, authors Kumar and Menon present an ethical argument against the killing of elephants for their ivory.

“Whether through poaching or culling, ivory sourced from non-natural mortalities originates from the killing of sentient individuals… [considering] that elephants are ‘near-persons’ based on biographical consciousness, Machiavellian intelligence and encephalization quotients, among other traits… [these] moral standards would most certainly abhor the conversion of a living elephant into its parts,” argue Kumar and Menon.

No matter the reason, countries that are parties to CITES hold the responsibility of protecting endangered species from international trade that acts to threaten their survival.

In addition to celebrating its 40th Anniversary, parties to CITES will review the 67 proposals at this year’s conference; among the proposals are marine species (primarily shark species), timber species (including over 100 species native to Madagascar), the African elephant, polar bears and medicinal plants, to name some of the more popular issues on the table.

While CITES discusses potential mechanisms to curtail the extinction of threatened species this week and next, official decisions will not be made until the next conference of the parties in 2016.