In a First, India Abstains on Proposal To Allow Commercial Ivory Trade
Science The Wire
November 22, 2022
Abandoning its decades-old stance of strongly opposing ivory trade, India
for the first time abstained from a vote seeking the commercial sale of
African elephant tusks – a move that strengthens suspicions of a quid pro
quo deal with Namibia for facilitating the transfer of eight cheetahs.
The development came at a meeting of parties that signed the Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and (CITES), a
multilateral treaty to protect endangered plants and animals from the
threats of international trade. CITES protects more than 38,000 species
against over-exploitation by either banning trade completely or placing
At the meeting in Panama, Zimbabwe introduced a proposal to allow the
commercial sale of elephant tusks that were stockpiled by the governments
of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Though the proposal was
defeated on November 18, India’s decision to abstain is significant because
Namibia had said that it sought New Delhi’s cooperation on allowing ivory
trade in exchange for the translocation of cheetahs from that country to
the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh.
Eight African cheetahs from Namibia were brought to the park in Madhya
Pradesh on September 17 as part of an ambitious project that seeks to
reintroduce the big cat species in the country. India was home to the
Asiatic cheetah, which was declared extinct in the early 1950s due to
trophy hunting and habitat loss.
According to Indian Express, the agreement between Namibia and India to
transfer cheetahs included a commitment to promote “sustainable utilisation
and management of biodiversity” by supporting each other “at international
forums including meetings” of CITES.
Though ivory was not mentioned in the agreement, a representative of
Namibia’s Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism, told the newspaper
last month that the country had “approached India to support us in this
regard as per the provision of the agreement”. The Indian Ministry of
Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) did not entirely deny the
claim, saying only that it did not receive “any written communication” from
Namibia regarding the lifting of the ban on ivory trade.
Chandra Prakash Goyal, the director-general of forests, MoEFCC, told Indian
Express on November 19 that “he was not aware of the circumstances” in
which the voting took place. “What is important is that the (ivory trade)
proposal was defeated,” he said, when asked why India abstained from voting
and if it represented a shift in policy.
India ratified CITES in 1976, a year after it came into effect, and the
third conference was held in New Delhi, in 1981. It was during this
conference that the logo for CITES, which has an elephant tusk, was
designed in India and adopted unanimously by all parties.
As The Wire Science has reported, India has traditionally opposed ivory
trade within the country and globally. The country outlawed trade in ivory
from Asian elephants in 1986 through an amendment to the Wildlife
Protection Act, 1972. Although the amendment didn’t include ivory imported
into India, it was remedied through another amendment in 1992.
CITES and global ivory trade
At the start of the 20th century, millions of elephants roamed Africa. But
a combination of trophy hunting, ivory trade and loss of habitat resulted
in a catastrophic decline over the next few decades – falling to just 1.3
million in 1979 from 10 million in 1913.
In 1989, CITES banned international commercial ivory trade obtained from
both African and Asian elephants. It did so by placing them in Appendix I
of the convention, which bans trade in species threatened with extinction.
But poaching did not stop – just over 286,000 elephants were counted in
Africa in 1995. However, populations have stabilised since then.
In 1997, CITES moved African elephant populations in Botswana, Namibia,
South Africa and Zimbabwe to Appendix II – which allows commercial
international trade subject to certain restrictions. These governments had
argued that the elephant population within their countries had improved and
that selling stockpiled ivory would generate revenue that would be used on
projects to conserve elephants.
Subsequently, in 1999 and 2008, CITES permitted these countries to conduct
one-off sales of ivory stockpiled from natural elephant deaths and seizures
from poachers. But these countries have been arguing that regular,
controlled commercial ivory trade should be allowed, making proposals in
CITES Conference of Parties – not to be confused with the UN climate change
summit – summits in 2016, 2019 and again this year to that effect.
Zimbabwe, in its proposal this year, said that Botswana, Namibia, South
Africa and Zimbabwe have a relatively large elephant population, which “are
either increasing or have mild, non-significant declines”. These countries
account for 61.6% of all remaining elephants in Africa and have put in
place “collaborative and cooperative arrangements” for anti-poaching
“Africa has several geographically differentiated elephant populations with
different growth trajectories, so one size fits all policies do not apply,”
Zimbabwe said. It argued that ivory stockpiled from elephants that have
died naturally is “registered to ensure traceability”. “The same applies to
elephants that have to be destroyed for management purposes such as during
human-wildlife conflicts,” the proposal says.
Ivory that is produced entirely through routine conservation management can
be disposed to responsible markets, Zimbabwe said, as it will generate
revenue to fund the implementation of national elephant management plans
and anti-poaching strategies, support community-based initiatives for
securing elephant habitat, dispersal areas and movement corridors.
Conservationists, however, have pointed out that poaching has been on an
upward trend since 2008, when CITES last approved a one-time sale of
stockpiled ivory. According to the IUCN, “Both species (African bush and
forest elephants) suffered sharp declines since 2008 due to a significant
increase in poaching, which peaked in 2011 but continues to threaten
populations. The ongoing conversion of their habitats, primarily to
agricultural and other land uses, is another significant threat.”
Zimbabwe’s proposal was soundly defeated on November 18, with just 15
countries voting in favour and 83 against it. India was among the 17
countries which abstained.
According to the Indian Express, Namibia also voted against a proposal by
India and Nepal to allow sustainable commercial use of North Indian
rosewood, called Dalbergia sissoo, which is harvested for timber that is
then used to make products like handicrafts and furniture. The proposal was
At the same conference, four West African countries – Burkina Faso,
Equatorial Guinea, Mali, Senegal – and Syria proposed that all African
elephants should be listed in Appendix 1, in a direct challenge to
Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe’s request to allow commercial
ivory trade. They argued that elephants in Africa are not “nationally
owned” and 76% of them are found in transboundary populations.
Elephant conservation can only be effective if addressed at the continental
level, and the split listing by CITES has “caused legal anomalies, with
signatory parties adopting different interpretations”, the proposal says.
According to the Daily Maverick, a South African media outlet, the proposal
says the split listing “has caused inconsistency and confusion in the way
CITES is applied to African elephants. Uplisting would provide this common
framework for all elephants and the basis for coordinated action and
unified protection for elephants across the continent”.
However, this proposal was also defeated but garnered more support in
general. While 44 countries agreed with it, 59 did not and 13 abstained.
India was not present during the vote, according to CITES.
Going a step further, 10 African countries – Benin, Burkina Faso,
Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kenya, Liberia, Niger, Senegal and Togo
– proposed the total destruction of government stockpiles of ivory,
according to Daily Maverick.
They argued that stockpiles are growing worldwide, are costly to maintain
and are inadequately monitored. They said: “This presents a serious threat
to elephants through leakage of ivory into illegal trade, which perpetuates
demand and ongoing markets for ivory.” The submission says that reports of
ivory “disappearing” or being stolen from stockpiles are routine, adding
that the continued presence of stockpiles signals that future ivory sales
“Destruction of ivory and putting ivory stockpiles beyond commercial use
will help to neutralise expectations of future trade in ivory and will
discourage future markets,” the countries say.
This proposal is also likely to be defeated.