A Total Ivory Ban Must Be Installed Again


Strong Elephant  and an Eland antelope bull in the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem that streches on both sides of the colonial boundary between Kenya and Tanzania. – the tusker is known as “Fred”.
Photo credit: Fran Duthie

By VF/ET – 17. October 2019

Today, 30 years ago, on 17. October 1989 in Ottawa/Canada – during the Conference of the Parties to the International Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) – the 10 year moratorium and the global ban of ivory trade was adopted, since in the 1970s and 1980s, Elephant poaching triggered by the rush for ivory was at a dramatic high.

It was estimated in 1980 that Africa still boasted over a million Elephants (1979 estimate 1.5 million), but by the end of the decade the estimate was that only 400,000 remained.

The African Elephant was first listed by Ghana in CITES Appendix III in 1976. The following year, 1977, at the first meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP1) to this United Nations species protection convention, African Elephants were moved to Appendix II. Under Appendix II rules, species are not necessarily seen as threatened by extinction but their trade requires control to avoid use that would be detrimental with their survival as a species.

Elephants and ivory were monitored by CITES, but making the distinction between legal ivory and illegal ivory proved very difficult at the time. The drastic decline was brought to the attention of CITES and a proposal was brought forth to move the Elephants under Appendix I. Species under Appendix I are threatened with extinction and the trade of these species is only permitted in exceptional circumstances.

Not everyone was an advocate for listing Elephants under Appendix I. Well known ‘conservationists’ around the world and several South African countries argued that the listing was unnecessary in some places. South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana claimed that their elephant populations were growing at the time and were putting a strain on the ecosystem and local people. Some countries used the profits from legal harvesting of ivory, meat, and hides to support conservation and management. There was concern that with the new listing, crucial funds would be lost and conservation would suffer.

The Political and Bureaucratic Fight

Prior to this historic event in 1989, months and months of haggling between the two strong groups of lobbyists from the camps of the protectors and the users had continued and the two sides seemed irreconcilable.

Killing fo ivory trophies must be banned worldwide – here a German taker in Namibia.

The taker-lobby, lead by the money-laden sport-killers and trophy-collectors from e.g. the USAmerican Safari Club International and their affiliations, incl. corrupted governments, wanted to see “sustainable use” of the African Elephant populations to continue unabated and therefore also the ivory sales to flourish to “finance conservation”.

On the other hand the protectors presented strong evidence (see below) that such practice would certainly lead to the extermination of many African Elephant populations and bring the species close to extinction. They wanted all African Elephant populations be moved to the so-called Appendix I, which would mean a total ban of any trade in Elephants and any derivative (ivory, meat, hides etc.) like it had been put in place for the Asian Elephant that was placed and remained on CITES Appendix I since the CITES treaty had come into effect on July 1, 1975.


To break the deadlock and to take the most critical point out of the equation, the delegation of the Republic of Somalia to CITES tabled 30 years ago to the date today the so-called ‘Somalia proposal’, that left the disputed Appendix questions out of the debate, but called for a total ivory sales ban. Somalia at that time had a strong wildlife department, supported by the minister in charge as well as the president. Seconded by what was then the Kingdom of Swaziland, today Kingdom of Eswatini, that groundbreaking resolution sailed through was adopted against all odds by the state parties to CITES. It made immediately global headlines and caused a grave shock to the ivory poachers and traders.

Somalia itself had  – before a proper wildlife department was installed in 1987 – lost in just one year (1984) most of its Elephant population by a foreign lead culling operation targeting the strongest remaining population in the country that roamed the whole area between the River Juba and the border with Kenya. That ecocide saw the Somali Elephant population decline from around 64,000 to below 7,000. It was an unprecedented slaughter led by foreign logistics including spotter planes from Kenya and the support of local and international crime-networks.

The strong signal had immediate positive results with ivory prices tumbling and Elephant populations relieved from poaching pressure.

The bold move was then followed up at the next CITES meeting two years later in 1990, when after nearly a decade during which African Elephant populations dropped by over 50% the species was then finally moved to Appendix I of the CITES rule-book.

The result of the ivory moratorium and the Appendix I trade-ban of Elephants and all derivatives resulted in a drop in the price of ivory and a decline in the number of Elephants killed illegally (Dobson and Poole, 1992).

As the years passed, the ivory ban remained a hot debate. There were those who demanded a continuance of the ban out of fear that without it, an increase in demand would trigger an increase in poaching (Padgett). Those who proposed to uplift the ban cited past arguments – overpopulation in some areas, Human-Elephant conflict, and the potential for profits.

In 1997, CITES chose to continue listing Elephants under Appendix I. However, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia had successfully proposed to have the Elephants in their countries listed under Appendix II. This was to allow for the sale of nearly 60 tons of stockpiled ivory that the three countries had to Japan (Bulte, Kooten, 1999). South Africa’s Elephant population was transferred back to Appendix II in 2000. During the years following, poaching increased in Africa, reaching crisis levels in 2011.

Ivory can not be allowed to be the demise for the Elephants.

Today CITES still lists the African Elephant (since 18/01/1990) under Appendix I, with the exception populations of Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe (Appendix II, 18/09/1997) and South Africa (Appendix II, 19/07/2000)

The inconsistencies and exemptions, the ill-advised ‘permitted’ ivory sales in 1999 and 2000 or the paid for burning of ivory, the haggling over the domestic sales of “historic” ivory (right know in the UK) and the unearthing of larger quantities of mammoth ivory from areas where the permafrost vanished due to climate change has put once again the ivory question at the forefront.

Given the fact that the time during the ivory moratorium 1989 to 1999 was the only time since the 1950s during which all Elephant populations in Africa recovered, another moratorium and total ivory ban is mandatory to again stop the rampant killing of Elephants in Africa.

Under increasing human population pressure, evastating habitat loss in vast areas of Africa and undeminished ivory poaching despite all counter-measures, the last strong and reproducing populations of the African Elephant – like in Botswana, Zimbabwe, South-Africa, Namibia, DR Congo, Tanzania and Kenia must be seen as a global resource for the relocation of Elephants to areas in the African Elephant range that are recovering e.g. from war and must not be deminished by culling, trophy-shooting or zoo-sales. The local communities in these wildlands with healthy elephant populations must be uplifted and rewarded as the global Elephant guardians.

A renewed total ivory ban will help to boost these plans.



EIA’s report on the plight of the Elephants 1989

– Today a similar difficult situation exists and a new total ivory moratorium is mandatory.


Elephant ivory must again be taken out of the equation when it comes to Elephant protectionPicture: Getty Images


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