Monday, 12 Nov 2001

SANTIAGO, Chile

8:30 a.m. — Sometimes at large multi-national meetings like CITES, it’s the translators who have the most power. To date, the translators union has enforced a strict time schedule, ending all meetings by 6 p.m. and, as is the custom in Chile, taking a long lunch break as well. With so many issues on the table here, work is rapidly backing up. We had originally expected our issue — a proposal to list Chilean sea bass (aka Patagonian toothfish) as a CITES Appendix II endangered species — to come to the floor yesterday, but instead the conference spent virtually the entire day focusing on elephants, possibly the most emotional and heated issues facing the conference this year. When the conference broke at 6 p.m., the elephants issue had still to be resolved.

Five African nations — Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe — have put forward proposals to sell their ivory stockpiles, all of which are supposed to come from elephants that passed away naturally. Kenya and India rejected this proposal and offered their own counter proposal to list every elephant population as CITES Appendix I endangered species, thus prohibiting all international trade in elephants or elephant parts.

South Africa’s ivory collection alone is estimated to be valued at $3 million, so it’s obvious why the country is eager to unload its cache. Conservationists, however, are concerned that the “legal” sale of ivory from government stockpiles in one part of Africa would lead to increased illegal poaching in other parts of the continent. This is hardly a small concern. International demand for ivory, particularly in Asia, is still extremely strong. During 2002, China, Singapore, and Hong Kong recorded their largest ivory seizures in more than a decade. According to the report “Back in Business,” recently released by the Environmental Investigation Agency, in just the last four months, six tons of ivory was seized in Singapore, three tons were seized in Shanghai, and a half-ton was seized in Hong Kong. At least 18 other illegal shipments made it through and are now available on the black market in Japan and China. (Click here to download a copy of the report.)

African elephants are not in such a bad state as they were in 1989, when the CITES listing was originally passed. At that time, the entire population of African elephants was estimated by some to be as low as 300,000, and ivory poachers were depleting those numbers rapidly. Currently, there are more than 600,000 elephants in Africa.

In 1997, CITES allowed the first exception to the ivory sales ban, letting Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe sell 50 tons of raw ivory to Japan. This deal netted these three nations about $5 million, all of which was to be used for elephant conservation programs. South Africa and Zambia are now eager to join these three nations and unload their stockpiles.

The American government initially staked out a neutral position on the ivory sale issue, but appears to be shifting its position to back the sale of at least some of the ivory on the international market. Its spin machine, however, is in full gear and the U.S. delegation is issuing a number of press releases insisting that it would continue to prohibit imports of ivory into the U.S. even if limited ivory trade was approved by CITES. What it fails to mention is that importing ivory into the U.S. is against the law, and the delegation here has no control over that. Only an act of Congress could change the status quo and permit the importation of ivory.

1:00 p.m. — This just in: It appears that the translators union has agreed to work some overtime tonight. An extra evening session, lasting from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., has been added to the schedule and the word around the conference center is that the delegates are going to deal with a lot of issues — including toothfish — during this time.

Also, the delegates have been making their way through the five ivory proposals still on the table. So far, two have passed and the expectation is that the other three will pass sometime this afternoon. The European Union abstained from the vote altogether and the U.S. has refused to identify how it voted on the secret ballot. Word around the convention is that the Kenyan/Indian proposal to place all elephants on Appendix 1 will also be voted on this afternoon — and by all accounts it is expected to fail. All in all, this is not turning in to a very animal-friendly CITES.