Israel is spearheading efforts to better regulate illegal trade in elephant ivory by banning the sale of products allegedly from an extinct species — the woolly mammoth — in what is likely the first regulation of its kind.
Representatives of some 180 nations are meeting in Geneva this month to agree on protections for vulnerable species, taking up issues that include the ivory trade and the demand for shark fin soup.
The World Wildlife Conference on trade in endangered species, known as CITES, which takes place every three years, aims to ensure that global trade in specimens of wild animals and plants doesn’t jeopardize their survival.
The conference opens Saturday and runs through August 28, with key decisions expected to be finalized in the last two days.
The meetings come as Africa faces an internal debate about elephants and ivory.
Zambia — which argues its population of wild African elephants is large and stable, at about 27,000 — wants to “downlist” that population to allow for ivory stockpile sales and exports of hunting trophies, hides and leathers. A few other countries in southern Africa want another rule on elephants eased. But 10 other countries — all but one African — want total protection for elephants from any international ivory trade.
Israel is proposing tougher regulations on the legal trade of mammoth ivory, hoping to undercut illegal traffickers of elephant tusk who sneakily try to pass it off as “ice ivory” — ivory that comes from mammoth tusks. CITES refers to proposed regulation as “the so-called ‘look-alike provision.’”
Elephant and mammoth tusks can be almost indistinguishable to the untrained eye, and the mammoth ivory trade has become a booming business. Conference attendees will have to determine whether products from a long-extinct species can or should be covered by CITES.
The proposal notes that mammoth ivory trade is almost completely unregulated and undocumented.
It notes that, if it is passed, it would likely mark the first time that trade in an extinct species is outlawed.
Alongside the international efforts to reduce ivory trade, Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority, tasked with wildlife protection in the country, said Sunday that it would tighten its policies on trading and possessing ivory in Israel.
New regulations, which will take effect on January 1, 2021, will allow for the possession of “old” ivory, dating back to before the mid-1970s, but outlaw import, export, and domestic trade of all elephant and mammoth ivory. Trade in old ivory will receive special permits if it is a part of a larger product, such as keys on a piano or the handle of a knife.
The authority, which requires permits for all trade in ivory, said it would extend its ban on post-1970s artifacts to those products similar in appearance to elephant ivory — such as mammoth ivory.
Three months ago, the first comprehensive UN report on biodiversity warned that extinction is looming for over 1 million species of plants and animals. There are growing concerns that policymakers aren’t acting quickly enough to stop it.
“Business as usual is no longer an option … The rate of wildlife extinction is accelerating,” said CITES Secretary-General Ivonne Higuero in her opening remarks to the conference.
“The assessment confirms that nature’s dangerous decline is unprecedented,” Higuero said.
The meeting also comes just days after the Trump administration announced plans to water down the US Endangered Species Act — a message that could echo among attendees at the CITES conference, even if the US move is more about domestic policy than intentional trade.
Alain Berset, head of the Home Affairs Department of host Switzerland, noted that sustainable management of threatened species “of course requires taking into account the interests and the needs of the countries where these species live.”
CITES bans trade in some products entirely, while permitting international trade in other species provided it doesn’t hurt their numbers in the wild.
Demand is diverse for animal and plant products: some prized for their medicinal properties or as pets, others as culinary delicacies, and some used in products such as knitwear and handbags — among many other uses.
Customs officials around the world know to be on the lookout for the CITES logo on shipments of plants and animals across borders: It amounts to a highly respected seal of approval that trade in such species is legitimate.
The meeting’s agenda contains 56 proposals to change — mostly strengthen — the level of protection among vulnerable or endangered species. But some argue that protections should be downgraded because the relevant populations have stabilized or even increased. Officials say the decisions are to be based on science, not political or other considerations.
“The new wildlife trade rules… cover an array of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, trees and other plants. Twenty listing proposals are inspired by concern over the growing appetite of the exotic pet trade for charismatic amphibians and reptiles,” CITES says.
Advocacy group Avaaz says one key question is whether Japan, home to the world’s largest legal ivory market, will join other countries committed to closing their ivory trade.
“Japan’s ivory market is fueling the international illegal ivory trade,” Avaaz campaigner Andy Legon said in an e-mail. “And with elephants facing extinction, China, the US, Hong Kong, Singapore and others have recently committed to closing their ivory markets.”
Flora, arguably a less glamorous subject than animal life, also gets spots on the agenda. One proposal, for example, would exempt musical instruments from trade restrictions on a type of rosewood that’s prized by guitar makers.
Also on the agenda are sharks. Some researchers say commercial demand for shark fins — largely driven by the Chinese appetite for shark fin soup — is decimating populations.
Sharks are getting some support in high places, including from retired basketball all-star Yao Ming, who led China’s Olympic team three times. Yao became a WildAid ambassador in 2006 when he signed a pledge to give up shark fin soup and has since appeared in numerous ads calling for diners to skip the luxury soup to save sharks.
WildAid, an environmental group, also says Yao was instrumental in bringing about China’s ivory ban two years ago.
Luke Warwick of the Wildlife Conservation Society said dried shark fin can command up to $1,000 per kilogram, and listing more shark species to the CITES list would be just one of several measures needed to help vulnerable populations of the predators of the deep.
“You’ve got this huge, unsustainable global trade in shark fin and huge parts of it, 80%, are not regulated, with millions of animals dying,” he told a Geneva news conference this week. “We’re watching them disappear before our eyes.”
Dr. Abdulla Naseer, the Maldives’ environment minister, said his island nation supports three proposals to protect 18 species of sharks and rays, namely the mako shark, white-spotted wedgefish and giant guitarfish.
“We would be ensuring future trade is sustainable … before it’s too late,” he said. “We want to see the oceans protected for future generations.”
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