“It’s not the sales themselves that cause the problem; it’s the petitions to sell,” Mr. Wasser said. “Whenever there is word out that there is going to be a legal sale, you see a huge increase in poaching because [criminals] figure there is an opportunity to smuggle contraband into the sale.”
However, the CITES report suggests crime networks ultimately would lose customers to a legalized system on which markets could rely, and claims it would achieve better results than the two previous sales.
“The practice of selling ivory stockpiles at lengthy, irregular intervals departs from normal commercial practices,” the report said. “Because the supply of legal ivory is uncertain, it provides no incentives to ivory traders to confine their trade to legally available ivory.”
The response in Geneva
The notion of a legal trade system has garnered scrutiny this week in Geneva, where several officials criticized the report for not prioritizing needs for improved enforcement in China and better laws in Thailand.
Officials said Thailand’s ivory ban has loopholes so large that it amounts to no legislation at all, and noted that most stores are not held accountable for selling ivory once it enters the country.
Legalizing trade would not discourage sending illicit ivory to Thailand because it would remain a low-risk, high-reward trade.
“The fact is that there’s no reason on the face of it why trade from Central Africa to Thailand would stop,” said Colman O'Criodain, a World Wildlife Fund policy adviser attending the meetings in Switzerland.
Others emphasize the need for better infrastructure in Africa to seize contraband ivory before it is shipped. Although government corruption remains a problem, Mr. Wasser said, this is a much more affordable way to regulate ivory trade.
“Imagine what you’re paying the law enforcement here compared to those countries,” he said. “We need to get these countries back into policing the trade, and all that really requires is vehicles, guns and bullets — that’s it.”
Mr. Wasser also battles the illicit trade at the other end of the process by operating a unique laboratory that matches elephant DNA from large ivory seizures — including the 1 ton haul in New York — to a database that can trace the elephant’s country.
CITES will not reach a decision this week on ivory trade because any results in Geneva will need to be approved at a larger convention in March. Coincidently, Thailand will host.
Still, the prospect of a legalized trade system generated ample discussion during the first days of the conference, and may remain a possibility. In the report, authors defended the idea as merely a starting point, not an ironclad solution.
“It contained some useful information and ideas, [but] it was never going to win over the middle ground in the ivory debate,” Mr. O'Criodain said. “It has already been agreed that the issue will be sent back.”
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