Thailand bans ivory at CITES…or do they?

Big day today, 40 years to the day of the formation of CITES and the start of the CoP 16 CITES conference in Bangkok, Thailand, writes Philip Mansbridge. My first CITES meeting as CEO of Care for the Wild, but certainly not the first one that we have attended, having helping significantly in the uplisting of the Slow Loris in the past, and having a regular and valuable presence at these meetings over the years.

It wasn’t long before we were met with a video statement from none other than Prince William. He emphasised the importance of CITES and the critical decisions that all of us here can make and influence, and the massive impact of these on wildlife and biodiversity around the world – all referenced in the light of the increasing poaching, smuggling and criminality issues.

We then had a speech from the Prime Minister of Thailand. There has been increased pressure on Thailand over the last month or so, from a variety of high profile sources, culminating with Leonardo Di Caprio and over a million strong petition for Thailand to end their domestic market in ivory – something which can be legally and openly sold, which makes Thailand just one of a tiny amount of countries that allows this. The caveat is that it only applies to their own elephants and ivory sourced not from poaching (i.e. from death by natural causes). However, it is widely known that this acts as a mask for masses of illegal ivory entering the marketplace.

Whilst the NGO community held their breath she finally started to talk about elephants. The PM stated that elephants were massively important for Thai cultures, that they are a pillar of development for the nation, that kings have used them to defend the country’s independence, and that the royal family has played a leading role in returning elephants to their natural home. She mentioned also that Thailand has an obligation to protect their national symbol and, just like humans, elephants also have feeling and emotion. She laid out three points to tackle the ivory issue:

  • Enhanced intelligence and co-operation with other countries
  • Strictly enforcing existing frameworks and enhancing registration
  • To amend national legislation with a goal of ending illegal ivory trade

She concluded that ‘no one cares more about elephants than the Thai people’.

No ban on ivory sales. A big disappointment. From all the data I have seen about the use of elephants in tourism, the issues caused by the legal trade in ivory here, and the ‘loose’ wildlife protection and enforcement here, it all made her final statement resonate with irony a bit in my ears.

You’ll have seen from news reports however that not everyone shares this opinion: WWF and others have welcomed the statement, perhaps believing more than I that the ban we are looking for will materialise. But the devil is in the detail – and the detail isn’t there. We’ll all be waiting to see what really happens when the lens of the media swings away from Thailand. None will be more delighted than Care for the Wild if the ban happens effectively and quickly, but I sense a lot more work needs to be done before then.

In the afternoon business started formally, and the discussion started with secret ballots. Currently only 10 countries need to agree in order for an issue to be decided by secret ballot, and a proposal has been tabled to make this via a majority vote, something which we, and the whole of the Species Survival Network of which we are a member, support.

It is easy to get 10 countries (there is a lot of partnerships and brokering here) and it leads to a lack of openness for countries to hide behind when voting on controversial issues, and has even led to a miscount before which stopped the Porbeagle Shark getting listed. Also, it has been used extensively over recent years, and not in line with the original ethos of the secret vote.

Various stakeholders did not agree with the secret ballots and transparency, including China and South Africa, and fought vigorously against it. My question, if they have protection of endangered species in mind, why wouldn’t they want it? EU and Mexico put the motion forward and fought, with support of various other countries including the US and India, valiantly for it. Owing to the amount of conflict it was decided that no vote would be taken today on this issue. The debate continues.

Read more about CITES here.