EIA: Why a legal trade in rhino horn won’t work

In a bid to reduce rhino poaching, the South African government is considering tabling a proposal to legalise trade in rhino horn at the 17th Conference of Parties of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 2016. It’s a hugely controversial issue, with passionate advocates and opponents. In an exclusive interview with Project African Rhino, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency Mary Rice voices her concerns.

EIA suggests legalising the rhino horn trade won’t work and is against it. What’s the main argument for this?

AMHE13 Elephant bull

Record poaching followed a one-off ivory sale

The one off sale of ivory from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe to Japan and China in 2008 was really a tipping point. It had taken China five years to secure approval as a trading partner and despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary, they assured the international community that they had developed a registration and control system for ivory that would ensure no illegal ivory could enter the legal market. By this time, poaching was clearly on the increase and the international community also believed that by flooding the market with cheap ivory there would be no incentive for illegal traders to continue operating. This could not have been further from the truth. The ivory was sold at auction for around $160 per kilo to China and Japan. In China, this ivory was then sold on to the registered traders and dealers for around $700 – and as much as $1500 – per kilo. Once it reached the retail outlets, some of this ivory was being sold at around $7000 per kilo. In 2010, I personally saw a small polished tusk in the Chinese Government friendship store in Guangzhou on sale for $35,000.

In 2009 record numbers of elephants were poached and large seizures of ivory worldwide hit an all time high. A large seizure represents more than 500 kg, but many of these shipments were several tonnes, representing the deaths of tens of thousands of elephants. In the last six or seven years, Tanzania has lost almost 70 per cent of its elephant population – a staggering figure of at least 60,000 animals

Can you give our readers an idea of just how bad the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products has become? Rhinos and elephants rightly get a lot of attention but, briefly, what other areas should we be concerned about?

Illegal wildlife trade is not just about the iconic species, although if we can’t get a grip on the high profile trades – ivory, rhino horn, tigers and other Asian big cats, lions – what chance do the other less charismatic species have? Rampant trade in pangolins is annihilating them everywhere, to the point that the CITES Secretariat alerted the Parties to CITES about their plight at the recent Standing Committee meeting in Geneva earlier this month and flagged the need to take urgent measures to address the scale of the trade. The fact that so many high level international meetings have taken place to highlight and address the issue of illegal wildlife trade – the most recent being the UK summit in February this year – should leave no one in any doubt about the scale of the problem

RM56 Tiger eye

Criminal networks trading in horn and skin view these simply as a commodity

Criminal networks trading in horn and skin view these simply as a commodity and will trade in whatever species is in demand, legal or otherwise. They undermine national and social fabrics and engender criminality and corruption at community level.

Do you think there’s a clear link between what happened when the ivory trade was partly legalised and the recent upsurge in elephant poaching?

Parallel legal markets present a massive enforcement challenge to those tasked with policing the trade. How to tell if this piece of ivory is legal and this piece is not; is this skin from a captive bred tiger (legal) or from a poached animal (illegal); how can you tell that the powdered rhino horn that you are being offered comes from a legal source? Current permitting and regulation systems clearly do not work.

Legal markets carry a cost. The cost includes administration, processing registration and control systems, producing paperwork and permits, and the cost of implementing and enforcing the system, to ensure that those engaged are compliant. And where they are not, the cost of prosecution and conviction.

Bans also come at a cost. But they are more straightforward and unequivocal. If a product is banned everyone knows that by definition it is illegal. If it’s on sale, it’s illegal.

There’s been a groundswell of opinion, in South Africa in particular, in favour of a legal rhino horn trade and many people in conservation have said to us it’s the only way forward now given the rate at which animals are being killed. If the EIA is saying ‘no’ and that it won’t work, what key thing needs to be done to help curb poaching or reduce consumer demand for horn?

The pro-trade lobby may argue that effective enforcement has been tried as a solution and this has not worked to reduce poaching and illegal trade. However this is a flawed argument as it assumes that wildlife laws are being effectively enforced. Clearly they are not.

AMHRW107 White rhino sleeping

Wildlife laws are not being effectively enforced

The prevalence of corruption in some range and destination countries strongly supports a complete ban to provide time to ‘first get your house in order’ before enabling parallel legal trade and establishing new markets.

Enforcement is also not simply about anti-poaching on the ground and seizure at the port of exit or entry. There is a gaping hole, a space occupied by middle men and king pins, or crime lords or whatever you want to call them. This is where enforcement effort is required but is not being applied. The same methodologies that are applied to other serious organised crimes are tried and tested and need to be applied to wildlife crime.

Until we can say that we have identified, disrupted and stopped a wildlife trafficking network, then we have to accept that we are unable to regulate the trade that provides them with the opportunity to perpetrate their crime.

Also, just because it is difficult to enforce does not mean the only solution is to legalise it. By allowing trade you are effectively legitimising criminals, because they will be the same people who engage in the legal trade and who encourage demand and increase demand.

Did the sale of ivory to China and Japan stop the poaching? No it did not.

Did the sale of ivory reduce prices and undercut the illegal trades? No it did not.

Instead of flooding the market and reducing the cost of ivory as a means of eliminating poaching to supply an illegal market, the opposite is now the case. Traders, legal and illegal, regularly abuse the system and there is now more illegal ivory on the market place in China than there is legal ivory. This is a fact. The only thing we do not know is exactly how much illegal ivory is haemorrhaging out of Africa and into China.

AMHE426 Elephants, Ol Donyo Wuas

‘Parallel legal markets cannot be effectively regulated’

Did the authorities implement their “stringent” registration and control system? No they did not. In fact at one meeting the Chinese authorities admitted that how could they? Their country is so vast.

Are the Chinese making large numbers of seizures of ivory? Yes they are.

Are they tackling enforcement at the market level? No they are not.

Nor can parallel legal markets ever be effectively regulated. The much heralded ivory control and regulation system in China has been a monumental failure. And it has finally been acknowledged as such. I have personally been witness to that failure along with other colleagues who have been gathering, compiling and presenting visual evidence of these failures for a number of years now.

I think it’s worth remembering that only 40 or so years ago there was a thriving legal trade in ivory. And it was out of control. It was so out of control that elephants were staring at extinction. Efforts at regulating the trade failed. And because they failed the international ban on ivory was implemented. Bans do work – if they are implemented – and if they are not undermined by constant pressure and discussion to overturn them. The 1989 ivory ban provided a respite for many elephant populations, allowing them to recover. But we are back to where we were in the eighties – except that we have fewer elephants and we are losing them fast.

The single biggest threat to elephants now is the largest regulated – and I use that term very loosely – market on the planet.

Finally, can you outline in a sentence what the EIA’s main role is in this, for readers who don’t know exactly what you do?

EIA is a small UK and US based NGO. Our focus is on international environmental crime and the illegal international trade in wildlife, which covers a broad range of issues including the illegal trade in timber, ozone and climate damaging chemicals and of course illegal trade in Asian Big Cats including tigers, elephants, whales and dolphins and rhinos, amongst others.

We conduct research, compile evidence, investigate (sometimes covertly), document and present this information to decision makers, governments, the enforcement community and the public to highlight illegal trade. Often this information is disseminated in the form of published reports and filmed evidence. EIA pioneered the use of undercover filming techniques to expose criminal activity and illegal trade as early as the mid eighties and we continue to focus efforts on the growing criminal networks engaged in illegal wildlife trade and illegal logging worldwide.

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