Although increasingly squeezed for space and support in a crowded land, the elephant remains one of India’s most powerful cultural and religious symbols. A pioneer in banning even the domestic trade in ivory in 1986, India has always been at the forefront of global elephant conservation initiatives.
That is why India’s decision not to vote against a proposal to re-open the international trade in ivory at the ongoing conference of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) surprised many.
That proposal, to allow a regular form of controlled trade in ivory from Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, was defeated 83-15 in Panama City on Friday.
CITES is an international agreement between governments — 184 at present — to ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of the species. The convention entered into force in 1975 and India became the 25th party — a state that voluntarily agrees to be bound by the Convention — in 1976.
All import, export and re-export of species covered under CITES must be authorised through a permit system.
CITES Appendix I lists species threatened with extinction — import or export permits for these are issued rarely and only if the purpose is not primarily commercial. CITES Appendix II includes species not necessarily threatened with extinction but in which trade must be strictly regulated.
Every two years, the Conference of the Parties (CoP), the supreme decision-making body of CITES, applies a set of biological and trade criteria to evaluate proposals from parties to decide if a species should be in Appendix I or II.
Tussle over ivory
The international ivory trade was globally banned in 1989 when all African elephant populations were put in CITES Appendix I. However, the populations of Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe were transferred to Appendix II in 1997, and South Africa’s in 2000 to allow two “one-off sales” in 1999 and 2008 of ivory stockpiled from natural elephant deaths and seizures from poachers.
Subsequently, Namibia’s proposal for allowing a regular form of controlled trade in ivory by delisting the elephant populations of the four countries from Appendix II was rejected at CoP17 (2016) and CoP18 (2019). At the ongoing CoP19, the proposal was moved by Zimbabwe but met the same fate.
The four southern African countries argue that their elephant populations have bounced back and that their stockpiled ivory, if sold internationally, can generate much-needed revenue for elephant conservation and incentivising communities.
Opponents of the ivory trade counter that any form of supply stokes demand and that sharp spikes in elephant poaching were recorded across the globe after the one-off sales allowed by the CITES in 1999 and 2008.
India and ivory trade
The endangered Asian elephant was included in CITES Appendix I in 1975, which banned the export of ivory from the Asian range countries. In 1986, India amended The Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 to ban even domestic sales of ivory. After the ivory trade was globally banned, India again amended the law to ban the import of African ivory in 1991.
In 1981 when New Delhi hosted CoP3, India designed the iconic CITES logo in the form of an elephant. Over the years, India’s stand has been unequivocal on the ivory issue.
1992 CoP8: In Kyoto, Japan, Indian delegate Arin Ghosh, then director of Project Tiger, noted a polarisation of parties — one for sustainable use and trade in wildlife, the other favouring total ban and stricter control — with the latter, fortunately, outnumbering the former.
1994 CoP9: At Lauderdale, US, India opposed the down-listing of the elephant population of South Africa from Appendix I to II.
1997 CoP10: At Harare, Zimbabwe, India opposed the proposal to down-list the southern African elephant populations, expressing “concern over…repercussions for the Asian elephant, particularly with regard to poaching”.
2000 CoP11: At Gigiri, Kenya, India moved a proposal along with the host country to up-list all elephant populations in Appendix II to I.
At CoP17 and CoP18, India voted against proposals to re-open trade in ivory from the southern African states. In Johannesburg, South Africa, five years ago, “India expressed its willingness to share their experiences of protecting elephants and supporting rural development without recourse to trade in ivory”.
What has changed
After protracted negotiation, India signed an agreement in July with Namibia to fly in cheetahs. Last month, The Indian Express reported that India has agreed to promote “sustainable utilisation and management of biodiversity” by supporting advances in this area of bilateral cooperation “at international forums including meetings of” CITES.
While the word “ivory” was not mentioned, Namibia sought India’s support under this agreement for the longstanding proposal to re-open the ivory trade at CITES. A Namibian government spokesperson confirmed the same to The Indian Express.
Reacting to the report, the Environment Ministry said that the “Government of India has not received any written communication from the Republic of Namibia regarding lifting of ban on ivory trade”.
“Though the agreement signed between the Government of the Republic of Namibia and Government of the Republic of India includes ‘wildlife conservation and sustainable biodiversity utilization’ as one of the areas of cooperation, this cannot be construed as support for lifting the ban on trade in endangered species,” the Ministry said on October 13.
However, on November 19, when the proposal on the ivory trade was put to vote at CoP19, India chose to abstain and not vote against it.