Why did EU suspend imports of some elephant hunting trophies

Posted on 27 July 2015

Collapsing elephant populations see EU halt imports of trophies from Tanzania and Mozambique
The recent decision by the EU to suspend imports of African elephant hunting trophies from Tanzania and Mozambique has gained media attention but its significance is open to misinterpretation,
writes Colman O Criodain, WWF Policy Analyst, International Wildlife Trade. - See more at: http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/species/problems/illegal_trade/wildlife_trade_campaign/wildlife_trade_blog/?248793/What-difference-will-EU-membership-make-to-CITES#sthash.B9TXisf5.dpuf
writes Colman O Criodain, WWF Policy Analyst, International Wildlife Trade.

The EU has clearly taken the collapse of elephant populations in these two countries over the past five years into account but this is not an indication that the EU’s stance on trophy hunting has changed.

Most importantly, tusks from the tens of thousands of elephants poached in both countries in recent years have not been flooding into the EU. They have – as data shows – been heading primarily for Asia, especially for the major markets in China and Thailand.

But the decision is still significant. So how does the EU make these decisions?

Implementation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in the EU is governed by a suite of EU-wide laws that go further than the requirements of the Convention.

Among other things, they require a determination – on a species-by-species and country-by-country basis – that the import of Appendix I and II species is sustainable. CITES has a similar requirement in the case of Appendix I imports but for Appendix II species it only requires that the exporting country makes a determination of sustainability before issuing export documents; it does not require the importing country to undertake any screening other than to ensure that valid documents are presented with the relevant specimen.

The philosophy underpinning the EU approach is that, as a major importing block, the EU shares some responsibility to ensure that its demand for wildlife and wildlife products is not driving species to extinction. Without this second screening procedure at the point of import, there are concerns that poverty, lack of capacity or corruption could encourage some countries to export valuable species at unsustainable levels, despite this being against CITES rules.

So how does the procedure work in practice?

A person wishing to import a specimen of an Appendix I or Appendix II species – e.g. an elephant hunting trophy – must apply for an import permit in advance to the CITES Management Authority of the country specified on the export document. For example, if the trophy comes from South Africa and the export permit specifies Germany as the importing country than the importer must apply to the German authorities.

Before issuing the import permit, the relevant EU Management Authority must consult its Scientific Authority to determine whether or not the import is sustainable. In the case of hunting trophies of Appendix I species there must also be a determination that the trophy-hunting programme benefits the conservation of the species and/or the local communities that live in proximity to it.

If the Scientific Authority responds positively then the import can go ahead. If it responds negatively, however, then the case is referred to a committee of scientists from all Member States, known as the Scientific Review Group (SRG). If the SRG concludes that the import is sustainable after all it issues a positive opinion – and in that event the import can go ahead. The positive opinion also stands as guidance for future cases concerning the relevant species and country, unless there is evidence of a change in circumstances.

If, however, the SRG concludes that the import from the relevant country is not sustainable then it issues a negative opinion – as it did in the case of elephant hunting trophies from Tanzania and Mozambique. Member States are expected to refuse import applications in this event.

The European Commission then writes to the relevant country giving them a chance to provide information that might reverse the negative opinion. If no reply is received or if the SRG is not convinced otherwise then the negative opinion becomes a formal import suspension which is published in the EU Official Journal. The list of suspensions is updated once or twice a year.

As well as dealing with referrals from Member States, the SRG conducts taxon-specific or country-specific reviews from time to time, with the aid of input from the UNEP Word Conservation Monitoring Centre. In some circumstances, instead of forming positive or negative opinion, it can stipulate that all future import applications must be referred individually to the SRG. Where it concludes that trade levels from the relevant country are negligible, it registers “no opinion”; again this is subject to review if trade commences.

So what is the current situation regarding African elephants?

Following the decisions on Tanzania and Mozambique, the situation for imports to the EU is as follows for countries where the SRG has reviewed imports:
  • There are positive opinions for Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe;
  • There are negative opinions for Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia;
  • There is a formal import suspension for Cameroon; and
  • There is no opinion for Ethiopia.

The fact that there are positive opinions still in place for the countries that export the most elephant hunting trophies should make it clear that the EU does not oppose trophy hunting on principle.

Indeed, the EU’s policy does not differ greatly from WWF’s in that it recognises that such hunting can be sustainable and can yield conservation benefits – but that it needs to be regularly monitored and assessed.

The EU’s decisions send a clear message to the authorities in Tanzania and Mozambique that they need to start take urgent measures to rein in the poaching of their elephants. But on their own, they will have little impact on the current crisis, as the vast majority of the poached ivory is heading east to China and Thailand as illegal cargo on planes and ships
African elephant (Loxodonta africana), bull with large tusks. Amboseli National Park, Kenya.
African elephant (Loxodonta africana), bull with large tusks. Amboseli National Park, Kenya.
© Martin Harvey / WWF

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African elephant bulls drinking at a water hole
© Martin Harvey / WWF