JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (Oct. 5, 2016) – The following assessment on elephant conservation at CITES CoP17 was released today by the Wildlife Conservation Society

After the 12-day CITES conference, Simon Hedges, WCS Ivory Trade Analyst developed these conclusions.

“The decisions, resolutions and proposals adopted at the 17th meeting of the CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP17) made it a little better to be an elephant. However, I was disappointed to see some media reports focus, erroneously, on one controversial proposal’s outcome to deem this a disastrous CoP for elephants.

“Below are seven reasons why the Parties’ actions at this CoP were a huge win for elephants: 

1)      Namibia’s and Zimbabwe’s proposals to sell their ivory failed – whatever one thinks of the arguments for and against a legal trade in ivory, it is clear that now is not the time to reopen any trade in ivory with tens of thousands of elephants being killed illegally every year for their ivory, law enforcement capacity to combat poaching and trafficking still much too weak in most countries in Africa and Asia, and demand in Asia still much too high.

2)      CITES’s vital National Ivory Action Plans (NIAPs) were much improved – these CITES plans actually ‘have teeth’ and require problematic ivory source, transit, and consumer countries to clean up their act or be held to account or face trade suspension (‘sanctions’). Before this CITES CoP, the process for entering and exiting the NIAP process was unclear and, critically, the evaluation process for assessing progress with implementation was too reliant on self-assessment by the countries themselves. This has now been addressed with independent assessments by appropriate experts now included in the process.

3)      CITES called for closure of domestic ivory markets – even though it is not a binding Resolution, its passing by consensus here in Johannesburg sends a huge signal from the CITES Parties, including from China as the largest ivory market in the world, that ivory will have nowhere to go in future. It calls for closure of markets if open markets contribute to illegal trade; all such markets have a significant risk of laundering of illegal ivory..

4)      Illegal trade in live Asian elephants finally attracting serious attention from CITES – several Decisions were made by the CoP including a call for a registration system for captive elephants, and NGOs and IUCN offered support for this important initiative.

5)      The divisive and unnecessary “Decision-making mechanisms and necessary conditions for a future trade in African elephant ivory” known as the ‘DMM’ was finally abandoned – this process, which began in 2007 and could have resulted in further one-off ivory sales, is no longer relevant given the severity of the elephant crisis, which has escalated to unprecedented levels since 2007. The DMM was a waste of scarce resources and an unnecessary and divisive distraction from the real priorities which are to secure elephant populations in key sites across Africa, combat trafficking, and greatly reduce demand for ivory.

6)      Trade in live elephants from countries whose elephants are in Appendix II will now be better controlled – CITES will begin focusing on what constitutes acceptable destinations for these animals, hopefully preventing trade to questionable circuses in Asia.

7)      The problems posed by mammoth ivory trade is now receiving more attention – CITES is now urging all Parties to consider expanding domestic trade bans, where they exist, on elephant ivory in order to include mammoth ivory and other look-alikes, in order to prevent mislabelling and laundering. Other decisions should result in updated identification, training and forensic training materials for the identification of mammoth and elephant ivories to help prevent elephant ivory being sold illegally under cover of the mammoth ivory trade.

“Many people are disappointed, even shocked, that a proposal to transfer the elephants of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe onto Appendix I – under which all commercial trade is prohibited – was defeated. But those populations do not meet the CITES biological criteria for Appendix I, and so the defeat of the proposal was an affirmation of science-based decision-making in CITES. More importantly, listing those population on Appendix I would have done nothing to change the present situation since all international trade in ivory is already banned under CITES.

“The essential problem is that lack of enforcement of domestic and international law in elephant range states and ivory-consumer states alike, poor governance in range and consumer states, the challenges posed by the large and increasing role in the illegal trade in ivory now played by large-scale organized crime, and a lack of resources commensurate with the scale of the problem. 

“None of these problems would be addressed by adding the four southern African countries to Appendix I. Indeed, many countries with elephant populations in Appendix I have seen very high rates of elephant poaching as shown by the CITES Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) Program’s reports to CITES over the past decade. Instead, efforts should be focused on protecting elephant populations from poachers through effective law enforcement at key sites and counter-trafficking measures across Africa and Asia, as well as on reducing demand for ivory.”


For WCS positions at CITES, go to