The EU is set to ban raw ivory exports from 1 July as it struggles to deal with what was almost certainly another record year of ivory seizures across the continent in 2016.
Europe sells more raw and carved ivory to the world than anywhere else, feeding a seemingly insatiable appetite for elephant tusks in China and east Asia.
Although the international ivory trade has been largely banned since 1990, European vendors are legally allowed to export ivory “harvested” before that date, whether raw – whole tusks, ivory chunks or scraps – or worked by carving, polishing or engraving.
Traffickers can infiltrate this legal market by, for example, using falsified or forged internal EU trade certificates to pass their poached ivory off as lawful produce. These papers may serve as the basis for re-export certificate applications from Europe to east Asian countries, particularly China and Hong Kong.
But a draft EU guidance document seen by the Guardian indicates a possible 1 July date for an export ban on unprocessed ivory to “make sure that tusks of legal origin are not mixed with illegal ivory”.
Heirlooms, cultural artefacts and scientific and educational specimens would be partly exempted from the EU’s trade embargo.
The sanction would also not affect worked ivory items or the EU’s internal tusk trade, although rules would be tightened.
However, the political signal sent by the export ban was warmly welcomed by campaigners, after similar moves to squeeze the bloody trade in China and the US.
Catherine Bearder, the Liberal Democrat MEP whose wildlife crime report proposing a total ivory ban won overwhelming backing in parliament last year, said: “Blueprints are only as good as the actions that follow them so I am delighted that the commission is rolling up its sleeves to get on with the job. This really is a hopeful development.”
Both 2014 and 2015 saw record spikes in the European ivory trade, with re-export volumes surpassing those of the previous eight years combined.
The picture darkened further last year with 2,972 kilos of ivory confiscated in just four large seizures across Europe – compared with 554 kilos and 1,043 ivory carvings taken in 2015, according to the respected German conservation group, Pro Wildlife.
“2016 has definitely been a record year for ivory seizures in the EU,” Daniela Freyer, Pro Wildlife’s co-founder told the Guardian. “There is also clear evidence of illegal ivory being traded within the EU. The EU needs to take responsibility and finally ban its own ivory trade as well as all exports. Its continued inactivity is threatening to undermine trade bans by other key players such as China and the US.”
The European commission said it was likely that a new record had been set in 2016, and confirmed that a ban on raw ivory exports would be introduced this summer.
Its guidance paper, which could change, also instructs EU states to exercise “maximum scrutiny” and “increased vigilance and controls” when dealing with permitted ivory transactions.
A commission spokesperson said: “As a further step, the Commission is ready to examine the rationale for and possible design of further restrictions on [the] export of worked ivory and intra-EU trade in ivory. This assessment would take place in the second half of 2017.”
For conservationists, this holds out the possibility of a comprehensive and watertight EU trade prohibition, as the 29 countries of the African Elephants Coalition urged earlier this month.
Bearder, a former antiques trader herself, said: “Until you have a complete ban, you’re not going to stop the ivory trade. All sorts of ivory is being shipped and sold – knife handles, snooker balls – so that it can be reworked, and that is creating the market. We will not protect elephants until everyone knows that you cannot trade in ivory.”
High profile hauls in 2016 netted 744 kilos of ivory in Spain last May, 470 kilos in three separate raids in France, and the largest ever cache of tusks in Austria’s history – weighing 564 kilos – in November.
That smuggling ring was reportedly broken up when police found a man trying to sell tusks on the streets of Vienna to a well-known boxer.
1,200 kilos of ivory with a street value of over €1m was seized in a record haul from a Vietnamese gang operating close to Berlin’s Schoenfeld airport and in a workshop in Koblenz last September.
The police investigation is still ongoing and senior German officials are not ruling out the possibility that other east Asian crime gangs may still be operating in the country.
“We hope not, but you can never say never,” Elsa Nickell, the director general of the German environment ministry told the Guardian. “We were taken by surprise by this big seizure. It was absolutely unexpected and we were lucky with it. But we will be keeping our eyes on this in the future.”
Officials believe that the smugglers based themselves close to the airport to easily launder their contraband, disguise its origins, and evade law enforcement agencies.
Frank Barsch, the German government’s Cites representative, suggested that the smugglers may also have been anticipating China’s moves to more strictly limit its ivory market.
“These workshops were equipped with milling machines and handsaws, suggesting that they were cutting the tusks and ivory pieces into suitable sizes for transport,” he said. “But no machines for fine artworking were found, so we believe that the end processing of the ivory was supposed to happen in the destination countries.”
Germany has banned raw ivory exports with dimensions greater than one kilo – or 20cm in length – since 2014, and is now a leading player in Brussels talks aimed at implementing the EU’s action plan to tackle wildlife crime.
“Anything on the market can be used for laundering the illegal stuff,” Nickell said. “That’s why we are trying to get everything off the market, even the pre-[Cites 1990] convention raw and manufactured ivory: to tighten every loophole, and to close the ivory market down.”
Conservation groups dispute this. Freyer said: “The German government presents its position as shutting down all loopholes, but in practice its proposals would leave the door open for trade in worked ivory. The smugglers will walk through this door.”