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Australia has the chance to join a growing number of nations including China, the UK and France, which are closing legal loopholes that allow domestic ivory markets and its illegal international trade to flourish.

China was the biggest market for elephant ivory in the world until 2016, when it announced it would shut down its domestic ivory trade by the end of 2017. For a country that had been trading ivory since at least the first century BC, this was a big step. Conservationists and environmental groups celebrated the news, but there was a sobering reality – markets did not simply collapse when trade was outlawed.

Demand for ivory in the classical world saw elephant populations in Syria and North Africa driven to extinction. Now the last remaining wild elephants in Africa and Asia face the same fate as the international community grapples with how to police illegal markets emerging in some of the most unlikely places.

For countries such as Australia, the complexities of the illegal wildlife trade may seem a world away, but a Joint Parliamentary Inquiry report published in September has accepted that Australia’s unregulated ivory and rhino horn market should be closed. With nothing to lose and so much to save, Australia’s inaction on banning the domestic trade of these animal products seems hollow.

Hunting for ivory, harvesting horn

Central Africa’s largest elephant herd is believed to live in the Zakouma National Park in Chad, a protected area where deadly skirmishes between wildlife rangers and poachers are common. For the other elephants that roam the rest of Africa, it is a life almost constantly caught in the crosshairs. Conservationists from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), a global non-profit for the protection of animals, believe that one elephant is killed for its ivory tusks every 15 to 26 minutes. According to data collected by IFAW, that equates to the global poaching of between 20,000 and 50,000 elephants each year.

Kelly Pearson, a program officer with IFAW’s Sydney branch, says those numbers are conservative and that eight years ago the kill-rate was much higher.

“2010 was the peak of the elephant poaching crisis, but while the rate of poaching has decreased, the level of ivory in illegal circulation is the same level as it was eight years ago,” Pearson says.

Ivory has been a prized material for all kinds of objects throughout human history, but in the past decade demand for elephant ivory has ballooned. With a growing middle class in Asia, where the animal product is considered a luxury item, and the internet facilitating easy transactions, conservationists say there has never been a more critical time to act.
Findings by the Great Elephant Census suggest that between 2007 and 2014, poachers contributed to the death of 30 per cent of Africa’s elephant population.

“The census in 2016 estimated that there were just over 378,700 savannah elephants left in 18 African countries that year, which isn’t great,” Pearson says. “Poaching isn’t the only thing that’s threatening elephants, but it’s certainly going to help if developed countries can support developing countries, which they’ve been requested to do for years.”
IFAW data shows there is a very real risk elephants and rhinoceros will become extinct within two generations.

Pearson, 28, joined IFAW at the start of the year, mid-way through the non-government organisation’s major investigation into the ivory and rhinoceros horn trade in Australian and New Zealand auction houses. The international sale and purchase of elephant ivory has been banned since 1989. For antique ivory specimens that predate the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), which came into force in 1975, trade is allowed. In 1974, the international trade of rhinoceros horn was also banned.

“In simple terms, there should be no ivory traded internationally that is younger than 1975,” Pearson says.

The largest seizure of elephant ivory was made by Australian authorities in 2015, when an air cargo shipment was delivered at Perth Airport from Malawi en route to Malaysia. The Department of Environment and Energy said the ivory shipment weighed in at 110 kilos. Five people were arrested in East Africa.

The year before that, authorities seized 15 vials of rhino horn powder (1.5g per vial) from a traveller at Adelaide International Airport, who was found to be carrying the items in their personal baggage as they travelled to Australia from China. The department’s submission to the parliamentary inquiry reported that global authorities have been able to seize only about 10 per cent of the total poached ivory being illegally trafficked by traders each year.

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Kelly Pearson, program officer, International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

“The census in 2016 estimated that there were just over 378,700 savannah elephants left in 18 African countries that year.”

Not in my backyard

It has been Pearson’s job to help monitor online sites such as Ebay, Gumtree and local auction websites for ivory or rhinoceros horn products listed for sale. A good part of her day is spent trawling the internet for suspicious items – raw ivory and horn items in particular – and reporting vendors to the Australian Department of Environment and Energy if IFAW is unsatisfied with provenance stories. Pearson used to work at the department, joining its graduate program after completing a double degree in science/law at Macquarie University in 2014.

“If we did identify suspicious items, our first step would be to reach out to the trader and ask for information about the items. Then, if we didn’t get a response, or if we were suspicious about the provenance of it, we would report that to the department,” Pearson says.

Identifying whether ivory or horn pre-dates the relevant year of prohibition can be difficult by sight alone, while illegal traders have developed tricky methods to mark and stain fresh ivory to appear older. Under current Australian law, domestic sellers of ivory and rhino horn also are not required to show evidence at the point of sale to prove the item is a legal import or indicate the provenance or age of a specimen.

As a graduate with the department, Pearson’s first rotation was working in the wildlife trade group, which sparked an interest in combating wildlife crime. Working for a conservation advocacy group was a chance for the young lawyer to engage more directly with the community on issues that mattered most to her – but the job change didn’t see her leave Canberra entirely.

“The thing I was most interested in was the advocacy side of training,” Pearson says. “This job was an opportunity to actually step up and say what I really believed in and really push that.”

Pearson’s public service background helped to get politicians around the table to discuss the impact of an unregulated domestic ivory market. She researched the issue, sought pro bono advice on IFAW’s behalf from the Animal Law Institute and Animal Defenders’ Office, and sent a parliamentary briefing to every Australian senator and member of parliament.

Political nous was also necessary for her advocacy, as respective Commonwealth and state ministers would point to other jurisdictions, of the view that an unregulated ivory market was not their problem to reform.

While constitutional limitations restrict a unilateral implementation of a domestic ban, legal options are available for a domestic trade ban to be introduced by the Commonwealth government – Pearson’s task was to explain this to the legislators. If it could be done for a national gun ban in the 1990s, it could be done with the illegal wildlife trade today.

“This issue isn’t controversial, because nobody is pro ivory trade,” Pearson explains. “The challenge is just trying to explain that this is an issue that needs to be addressed.”

Nobody is pro ivory trade.

When the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement published recommendations from its inquiry in September, the report acknowledged a “poaching frenzy” in Botswana, which was reported to have taken place in the same month. The incident resulted in the killing of 87 elephants, many for their tusks. For the six-month duration of the inquiry, about 10,000 elephants were poached globally and 528 rhinos killed in South Africa.

Now, with all Australian states and territories signalling positive support for the ban, and a Parliamentary Joint Committee recommending that the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) develop a nation-wide agreement to close the domestic ivory and rhino horn trade, the power lies with the Commonwealth to do something. The government is expected to respond to the report’s recommendations by December 2018.

“CITES is only as good as its implementation and, like any international instrument, cannot regulate what happens within its member states’ jurisdictions,” Pearson says.
“With markets shutting down in the UK and the EU, and the US and China, traffickers will look to see whether they can sell their wares anywhere else. IFAW is calling on the ban in Australia for preventative measures, to err on the side of caution.”

  • Wildlife crime has grown over the past decade into a “significant and specialised area of transnational organised crime”. – UNODC
  • One elephant is killed every 26 minutes for its ivory tusks. – IFAW
  • The global wildlife trafficking industry is worth $23 billion annually. – United Nations Environment Programme
  • Alibaba, eBay and Facebook have joined a Global Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online by 80 per cent in 2020.