In June 1989, in the face of a devastating decline in wild elephant numbers, particularly across Africa, (1979: 1.3 million; 1989: 620,000) a coalition of wildlife groups joined forces to fight the ivory trade and protect wild elephants. Spearheaded by Born Free, Elefriends focused on the urgent need to end the international ivory trade that was driving the poaching epidemic sweeping Africa. Key to their efforts was the 7th meeting of the international community under the auspices of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), to be held in Lausanne, Switzerland, in September – just four months later. At that meeting it has been proposed that a global international ivory trade ban be approved. While many countries were in support, others did not agree. Could Elefriends help tip the balance?
The coalition gathered a 600,000-signature petition calling for a global ivory ban. Born Free’s Co-Founder and CEO, Will Travers, personally drove the petition to the meeting where it was delivered by His Highness Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan. It must have helped! At that meeting, CITES effectively banned the international commercial trade in ivory by uplisting African elephants to Appendix I – the highest level of protection from commercial trade afforded to species under threat.
Three years on from our Elefriends victory, the 8th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES headed to Kyoto, Japan, where a number of African southern countries lobbied for elephants to lose their hard-won protection from the international ivory trade and be de-listed back to Appendix II.
Ahead of this meeting, Born Free launched a huge Elefriends campaign fronted by Born Free’s Co-Founder, Bill Travers, and Founder Patron, Joanna Lumley, resulting in a 1.9 million-signature petition that, without doubt, helped ensure the ivory ban was upheld.
In 1997, despite all our efforts, CITES succumbed to the siren voices of those who wanted to trade ivory once more. At the 10th meeting of CITES, in Harare, Zimbabwe, certain elephant populations were downlisted and an ‘experimental one-off’ trade was approved of up to 60 tonnes of ivory from Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana to Japan. Three years later, as CITES prepared to meet in Kenya, four countries (South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe) lobbied strenuously and sought permission to sell another 54 tonnes of ivory to Japan.
In April that year, Born Free published its ground-breaking Stop the Clock report and campaign to persuade CITES that there should be no further trade in ivory. The report challenged figures published by CITES which claimed just 235 elephants had been poached for their ivory in 1998-1999. Stop the Clock estimated that, in fact, 30,795 elephants had been killed in those two years.
Born Free’s Co-Founders Virginia McKenna and Will Travers launched the campaign outside the House of Commons, backed by celebrity friends including singer Bryan Adams. A Born Free petition found 82% of people and 129 MPs backed an international ivory ban.
Having recorded cases of illegal ivory seizures and elephant poaching since 1998, Born Free published Tip of the Tusk, a comprehensive compilation of elephant poaching and ivory smuggling data.
Tip of the Tusk found that between 1998 and 2004, at least 95.3 tonnes of ivory had been reported seized, representing the ivory of more than 15,000 elephants. On the basis that the ivory recovered probably represented just 15% of the actual illegal ivory in trade, Born Free estimated that during the period as many as 100,000 elephants had been poached. We followed this up with two further updates in 2006 and 2007 which highlighted that the situation for elephants across most of their wild range remained critical.
However, again ignoring the evidence and seemingly oblivious of the risks, CITES approved a second ‘one off’ sale of more than 100 tonnes of ivory from South Africa, Botswana and Namibia to Japan and China. This move was opposed by many other African countries which recognised the threat it represented to their fragile elephant populations. As a compromise, CITES agreed a nine-year moratorium in 2007.
In 2016, ahead of the 17th meeting of CITES, Born Free joined the Global March for Elephants and Rhinos in London calling on world leaders to step up the pressure on ivory markets. The situation in Africa had deteriorated with a continent-wide census confirming that elephant numbers now stood at between 400,000 and 450,000.
Born Free’s Co-Founder, Virginia McKenna OBE, was joined on the march by chef and investigative reporter Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, journalist and presenter Nicky Campbell, and hundreds of concerned members of the public. She also delivered a letter to Downing Street urging CITES to vote for the strongest measures of protection for elephants and rhinos. These calls were backed by the majority of Africa countries with elephants – The African Elephant Coalition – whose position was also supported by Botswana, a country previously in favour of trade.
Something had to be done!
The USA and China had both shown leadership and taken steps to almost entirely bring an end to their own domestic ivory trade. Carving factories shut and retailers ceased selling elephant ivory products. Hong Kong is due to follow and Taiwan will end all domestic trade by the end of 2018.
The UK government announced plans to consult on a domestic ivory trade ban in 2017. Born Free submitted a detailed response, met with government ministers and President & Co-Founder, Will Travers OBE, gave evidence at a Parliamentary Committee hearing. In early 2018, the government confirmed a domestic ivory ban would be put in place and the Ivory Bill is currently making its way through parliament. It is expected to become law by October 2018.