Delegates from 178 countries are meeting in Thailand this week to discuss the international treaty on trade in endangered wildlife, and the news out of Bangkok isn’t good.
The illegal ivory trade has doubled worldwide over the last decade. In central Africa, there are only 100,000 remaining forest elephants – a smaller species than their more-populous savannah cousins, but one whose longer, straighter tusks make them more desirable to poachers.
With these facts at hand, officials at CITES – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species – have come out harshly against China and seven other nations long identified as linchpins in the illicit global trade.
The members of the so-called “gang of eight” play key roles in the underground market, either as sources of ivory (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda), as smuggling routes (Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines) or as the main ivory markets (China, Thailand). And for all the promises to crack down on poachers in the decades since the convention’s inception, the trade is more vicious than ever before.
"There has been no discernible impact from previous Cites measures," said Tom Milliken, the top CITES official on ivory. Without serious action in the next year, officials said, those eight countries could be banned from trade in all wildlife, including legal and highly remunerative species like orchids.
Elephants aren’t the only species that could be hunted out of existence. Despite a global ban on trade in rhino horn – long believed, erroneously, to have medicinal properties – the world’s rhino population remains under siege by poachers.
A new paper in Science proposes a controversial solution: a legal trade in which live rhinos could be anesthetised and their horns shaved, in order to feed the market without having to kill the animals.
Lead author Duan Biggs of the University of Queensland argues that the ban on rhino horn is driving up prices and inflating demand. A kilogramme of horn cost $4,700 in 1993. Last year, a kilo went for $65,000.
"Essentially what is being created is a pseudo war with people some from the local communities who are involved in poaching," Biggs told the Guardian.
Pseudo war or not, legalising the trade is not on the CITES agenda.
"We don't think it would stop the poaching crisis, we think the legal trade could make it worse," said Dr Colman O'Criodain, a wildlife trade policy analyst with WWF, to the Guardian.