The world's nations have rejected controversial bids to legalize the sale of ivory and rhino horn, but the votes have exposed deep divisions on how to protect elephants and rhinos from a deadly wave of poaching.
Proposals to allow the ivory and rhino-horn trade were defeated on Monday by strong majorities among nations at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the global treaty on wildlife trade.
The rhino-horn trade proposal, submitted by Swaziland with support from several other nations in Southern Africa, was rejected by a 100-26 vote at a CITES committee in Johannesburg, while a Namibian proposal to sell its ivory stocks was defeated by a 73-27 margin at the committee. The votes are expected to be confirmed by a final full session of CITES nations on Wednesday.
The spotlight will now shift to new efforts to reduce poaching with stronger law enforcement, the closure of domestic markets, and attempts to reduce demand for ivory and rhino horn, especially in Asian countries such as China and Vietnam.
Elephants and rhinos have been devastated by poachers in recent years. Over the past decade, Africa has suffered a net loss of more than 110,000 elephants, with some countries losing up to 60 per cent of their elephants, according to a new survey released last week. And a record total of 1,338 rhinos were illegally killed in Africa last year.
Faced with disastrous losses from poaching, some African countries have decided that the existing trade ban is failing to protect these threatened megafauna. Their passionate pleas for a legal trade were defeated on Monday, but the proposals won't disappear, with their proponents convinced that trade is the only way to expand the elephant and rhino habitat, neutralize the traffickers and generate revenue for conservation.
The split was further exposed when a coalition of more than 30 African countries tried to strengthen the protection of elephants by putting them under the highest category of CITES protection, known as Appendix I. This would reinforce and formalize the existing ban on ivory trade. But it sparked an emotional outburst when a Namibian delegate threatened that his country would drop out of the ivory trade ban – a loophole that is permitted whenever a species is placed under a higher level of protection.
If Namibia opted out of the CITES trade restrictions, it would be allowed to trade with any other country that has opted out of the rules. Japan, a critic of the trade ban, was rumoured to be ready to opt out, providing a legal market for Namibian ivory.
But in the end, the African coalition lost its bid to place elephants under the highest form of protection. Its proposal to the CITES committee was defeated by a 62-44 vote, meaning that Namibia is unable to opt out.
Namibia's threat of opting out was "deeply regrettable," said Ginette Hemley, head of the WWF delegation at the conference.
She said the votes on Monday were "critical actions" that will safeguard the future of elephants by closing "all potential avenues to a resumption in international ivory trade."
Any vote to open up a legal trade "would have complicated efforts to conserve them," she said.
In an earlier vote on Sunday, CITES delegates called on countries to take urgent action to shut down any domestic ivory markets that could be contributing to the illegal trade. They called for legislative, regulatory and enforcement measures to close those markets, since they could be fuelling demand and helping organized-crime syndicates to gain cover for their illegal trade.
Crucially, that decision was supported by China, probably the world's biggest ivory consumer. But in the Monday votes, China confused observers by seeming to take a different stance, supporting some form of legalized sales. Its role in the future will be closely watched.
In another key decision, the CITES nations agreed to send special assessment missions to Vietnam and Mozambique – two of the countries most complicit in the illegal rhino-horn trade. If the missions find that Vietnam and Mozambique have done little to enforce laws and halt the illegal trade, CITES could hit them with trade sanctions. Vietnam is one of the two biggest consumers of rhino horn, and Mozambique is a major source of poachers and a key route for the illegal trade.
"CITES sent a strong signal to Vietnam and Mozambique that it can no longer tolerate their role in the illegal rhino-horn trade," said a statement by Leigh Henry, a WWF wildlife policy expert.
"Ineffective laws and a lack of arrests, prosecutions and convictions in both countries is simply unacceptable. If significant progress hasn't been made in one year's time, CITES must impose trade sanctions."
In other decisions, CITES nations have also voted to provide greater legal protection for some of the world's most frequently poached animals, including African Grey parrots – popular as intelligent pets -- and eight species of African and Asian pangolins, whose scales are seen as a form of traditional medicine in Asia. All of them were placed on the highest level of CITES protection.