Orders of the Day — Ivory Trade

– in the House of Commons at 2:27 pm on 16th February 1990.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Nicholas Baker.]

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen , Leyton 2:31 pm, 16th February 1990

It is a privilege to speak in this debate on the ivory trade. On 17 January, the British Government announced that they had given approval for Hong Kong to reopen its markets in the ivory trade, and they have avoided debate on the issue in the House ever since. Until now, they have got away with that ignominious decision, but I have called this debate because elephants never forget. I support the ban on the ivory trade, along with all the major wildlife and environmental organisations, so that we can save the African elephant from extinction.

There is a risk of extinction because the numbers of African elephants are 50 per cent. down over the past 10 years. Last century, there were some 10 million African elephants. In 1970 that figure was down to 2 million. In 1979 it was 1·3 million, and now it is just over 600,000. That is a rate of decline of 10 per cent. per annum, and at that rate they will be extinct by the end of the century.

The poem by Edward Braithwaite contains two lines that are tragically appropriate: Horn of the Elephant; The Mournful Cry of the Elephant That mournful cry will not be heard much longer.

Last year, 100 countries got together at the convention on international trade in endangered species conference. They voted by 76 votes to 11 that the African elephant should be an appendix 1 specimen. That meant that it should not be returned to commercial utilisation in any form. The United Kingdom strongly supported that, and moved a resolution that was passed with overwhelming support to give immediate effect to the ban, which commenced on 18 January this year.

However, there is a get-out clause. Countries can register a reservation within 90 days, and the United Kingdom did that on the day the ban was due to commence. They have opened the door to the continued destruction of the African elephant.

The exception for Hong Kong means that there is a tremendous spur to poachers whose markets were to be closed by the ban. They now have a chance to cover up their sales from recent killings by claiming that they come from the existing Hong Kong stocks. Of the 670 tons of ivory in Hong Kong, it has been estimated by the Environmental Investigation Agency, that 570 tons came from illegal sources in the first place. There is already evidence that poaching has resumed.

This week Members of Parliament received a letter from Elefriends, the elephant protection group, which said: News from Kenya reports that over 20 fresh carcases have been found in the last 3 weeks indicating that, despite the efforts of a revitalised and dynamic Parks Service, the poaching problem is far from over. Many other organisations have condemned the Government's lifting of the ban. George Medley, director of the World Wide Fund for Nature, said: The British Government has effectively created a major loophole … Poachers will simply step up their activities. Countless elephants will be slaughtered. We are right back to square one. Mr. Allan Thornton, of the Environmental Investigation Agency, said: This will have a disastrous effect on elephant conservation. It will reward the same ivory syndicates the ban was supposed to put out of business. Isabel McCrea, wildlife director of Greenpeace, said: It is very embarrassing in terms of international conservation. We are the only Western country to enter a reservation.The Government's supposedly green credentials have been sullied". William Travers of Elefriends said: This is devastating. Dealers, poachers and smugglers will rub their hands with glee. Other countries have been more responsible than Britain. France imposed a unilateral ban on ivory imports in June last year. Japan, which is thought of as an eco-terrorist, and is in some respects—its treatment of whales, for instance—has stuck to the CITES ban, although it used to take 40 per cent. of the world's ivory. Kenya has publicly destroyed its stocks, and the United Kingdom should do the same to the Hong Kong stockpile.

Elefriends asks a number of questions that I think the Minister should answer. The Foreign Secretary said that the Hong Kong stockpile is legal. How can it be legal when ivory exports from the whole of Africa amounted to 200 tonnes in 1988, and in the same year Hong Kong imported more than that–260 tonnes? All the representatives of the conservation movement, including the World Wide Fund for Nature, Elefriends, the RSPCA, the Environmental Investigation Agency, the World Society for the Protection of Animals—which has observer status at the United Nations—and the international fund for animal welfare, have said that the Government's decision will undermine international efforts to protect the elephant and will increase poaching.

How can the Foreign Secretary say, as he did in the Daily Express on 18 January, that allegations that the British decision would condemn elephants to death were "nonsense"? What is the Government's response to the deputation—the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr.Greenway) and I joined it, as did many other hon. Members—that went to Downing street on 31 January, along with outraged people representing wildlife organisations worldwide? If the Hong Kong ivory traders cannot dispose of their stocks within the six-month reservation period, will the Government's policy be to allow them the 18-month extension that they have already requested?

There is a consensus in the conservation movement that the Government's decision will increase poaching pressure on Africa's remaining herds. What additional resources will the Government make available to the anti-poaching forces so that they can combat the effects of that decision—a decision that puts at risk the lives of rangers as well as elephants?

On 25 January, I asked the Prime Minister who had made the representations to thwart the ban. The Prime Minister refused to answer, saying: It is not my normal practice to release such correspondence."—[Official Report, 25 January 1990; Vol. 165, c. 807.] Why is there such secrecy? Why can we not know who is responsible and what their case is—a case that appears to be so powerful that it is more important than the survival of the African elephant?

I think that we were given the answer on the front page of the Sunday Express on 21 January, which spoke of an "explosive rift" between the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for the Environment. It said: Environment officials have disclosed Mr. Patten's anger that the issue was taken out of his hands because of his likely opposition and handed over to Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd as part of a package to boost confidence in Hong Kong … One Whitehall insider said: 'If it comes to a choice between lining the pockets of a few Chinese millionaires or preserving the dwindling elephant herds, the elephant would win the people's hearts and minds every time. That is quite right. Two powerful individuals—the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary—have overriden a ban that has been overwhelmingly supported by hon. Members, by the people of this country and by world wildlife and environmental organisations. The Government have passed the problem from the Department of the Environment to the Foreign Office. The question is no longer conservation but political expediency.

If we are to tackle the problem, we need—if you will forgive the pun, Mr. Deputy Speaker—a two-tusked approach. First, we must back up the anti-poaching forces, since 80 per cent. of all trade in ivory is the result of poaching. Secondly, we must tackle the consumer market for ivory. That is why the ban is so important and it should be reinstated immediately. The Government's decision shows that capitalism and conservation do not mix. We must stop the bloody ivory trade. We must save the African elephant from extinction.

I shall give way to the hon. Member for Ealing, North.

Photo of Mr Harry Greenway Mr Harry Greenway , Ealing North 2:40 pm, 16th February 1990

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) for providing me with this small slot in his debate. I congratulate him on it.

Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster Central

Order. Is the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) making a contribution to the debate, or is he intervening? If he is making a contribution to the debate, am I correct in thinking that he and the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) have permission to take part in the debate?

Photo of Mr Harry Greenway Mr Harry Greenway , Ealing North

I reiterate my congratulations to the hon. Member for Leyton. Like him and the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), I speak as a sincere Elefriend. Capitalism is, I believe, big enough to overcome the challenge presented by that valuable stock of ivory in Hong Kong. Those who own it are greatly tempted to sell it. I plead with them not to do so. If they were to sell that enormous stock of ivory, amounting to several thousand tonnes, the temptation to continue to kill elephants thus leading to their extinction, would be great. For many, the temptation would be irresistible.

The elephant has a unique place in the animal kingdom and in our world. The extinction of the elephant through greed, since its ivory can be used for necklaces and other decorative purposes, would be a tragedy, morally wrong and disgraceful. I hope that the Minister will give ground in the debate and will try to ensure that that stock of ivory is not sold. If he cannot do that, I hope that he will ensure that the profits from its sale are used to police those areas of Africa where the elephant is in grave danger of extinction and that they are not used for man's commercial pleasure.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson 2:42 pm, 16th February 1990

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) on being lucky enough to secure this Adjournment debate. Our previous Adjournment debate on the plight of the African elephant and the disposal of Hong Kong's ivory stock was initiated by me on 26 May 1989. The Under-Secretary of State said: we will— that is the Government— be urging the European Community to take action together to ban the import of raw ivory prior to the decisions of the CITES meeting. Furthermore, when we go to CITES, we will make representations to the effect that, rather than wait the normal 90 days for the resolution to take effect, we should act immediately to preserve and protect the African elephant."—[Official Report, 26 May 1989; Vol. 153, c. 1300.] All hon. Members endorsed those sentiments.

Subsequently, the Government completely undermined that pledge. My hon. Friend referred to the fact that the Foreign Office shoved aside the Department of the Environment. It is using the Hong Kong ivory as a pawn in the game of politics that is unfolding in the Crown colony. The Government's disgraceful decision to enter a reservation on behalf of the 670 tonnes of Hong Kong ivory that are being allowed to come on to the market has boosted the ivory trade and world demand for ivory. As the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) and my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton said, it has resulted in further slaughter of the African elephant.

I plead—indeed I demand on behalf of all elephant lovers in Britain and around the world—that the Government rescind that disgraceful reservation that they entered on behalf of Hong Kong. They should go back to CITES and cancel the reservation. If they do not do that the Minister should describe to the House what regulations the Government will impose to ensure that no further illegal ivory enters Hong Kong and that when the ivory stock is disposed of there will be no question of further trade being encouraged by the Government. Despite their fine words on 26 May, the Government have let down the country and they stand condemned for it.

Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory , Wells 2:45 pm, 16th February 1990

I congratulate the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) on securing this debate and on raising an issue of considerable international concern. It is an issue in which it has often been difficult to separate facts from emotion. At times, the argument strays some way from the realities of habitat management and animal conservation. I believe that everyone who has spoken in this afternoon's debate is agreed on one thing—the African elephant must be preserved.

The Government were among the first to recognise the potential threat to this magnificent species, and have been in the forefront of moves to ensure its survival and its recovery. The main instrument through which those efforts are co-ordinated is the convention on international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora, known as CITES. We were one of the first countries to sign the convention in 1973, and since its inception have played a major part in strengthening and improving it.

As the hon. Gentleman probably knows, the Indian elephant was one of the first to be listed on appendix I of the convention and has always received the strongest protection. The African elephant was first listed on appendix III of the convention, and more latterly in appendix II and now finally in appendix I.

By 1985, it was clear that the earlier controls were not enough to stop the decline in the species. At the 1985 meeting of the conference of the parties to CITES, the United Kingdom played a leading role in the introduction of tighter restrictions on trade. Those included the establishment of the ivory trade monitoring unit, which is attached to the CITES secretariat. As no funds for the operation of this unit had been provided in the core budget of the convention, the United Kingdom has contributed £5,000 per year to the running costs of that monitoring unit.

Within the European Community, we went further than that. Ivory imports were first restricted and then, in May 1988, the European Community introduced a complete ban on the import of ivory and elephant products from certain African states where the elephant population was known to be under particular threat.

I am sorry to say that the African elephant has continued to suffer losses at the hands of ruthless, determined and well-organised poachers. That is why the population in 1989, as mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, was estimated at 610,000, which is a reduction on previous years.

On 23 May 1989, Lord Caithness, after a visit to Kenya, announced the Government's intention to urge our European partners to support proposals to list the species on appendix I of the convention, thus effectively banning commercial trade. We were successful in achieving that support and in securing agreement in principle to a ban on imports of ivory into the European Community.

While those arrangements were being made, the Government introduced on 9 June a unilateral ban on imports of ivory into the United Kingdom. That was followed by a European regulation imposing a Community-wide ban, which came into force on 17 August 1989.

The whole question of the conservation of the African elephant and the proposed appendix I listing was fully discussed at the seventh meeting of the conference of the parties to CITES held in Lausanne in October last year. It was a very complex and difficult issue, which generated a great deal of emotion, and there was a great deal of media interest. In such an atmosphere, objective and dispassionate scientific discussion was at best difficult. Although the conference was united in its desire to ensure that the African elephant was given the protection that it needed to survive, there were sharp differences of view about the best means of achieving that objective.

The east and central African states, whose elephants had suffered most from poachers, were strongly in favour of a complete ban on trade in ivory. A number of southern African countries, including Botswana and Zimbabwe, have elephant populations which are sustainably managed, and are therefore stable or increasing. The authorities have to cull the animals to reduce pressure on the habitats, on which the survival of their elephant populations depends. The proceeds from the sale of ivory can be ploughed back into local conservation projects, which help to provide work for local people. Those countries, perhaps not surprisingly, wished to continue to trade in elephant products. I have some sympathy with their view. If elephant populations are to be managed, that means the culling of animals, and therefore the production of legal ivory.

Although we listened sympathetically to the views of the southern African states, we concluded that an overall ban was necessary. Indeed, we went further and proposed to the conference a resolution urging that if the appendix I listing was agreed, parties who were able to do so should implement appendix I controls immediately, without waiting for the formal entry into force of the uplisting three months later.

However, many people, including some prominent voluntary conservation organisations, were concerned that if a complete and indefinite ban on ivory were introduced, a number of major ivory producer and consumer countries might opt out of the stricter controls. Without their support, a trade ban could not hope to succeed.

Accordingly, the conference considered a compromise put forward by Somalia, which attempted, as far as possible, to reconcile the differing views and interests. That entails listing the African elephant on appendix I and banning trade until such time as the conference of the parties decides that trade in particular elephant populations can be resumed without threatening the survival of the species. After much discussion, that proposal was accepted by the conference.

Photo of Mr Harry Greenway Mr Harry Greenway , Ealing North

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that a distinction must be drawn between culling and poaching. That is the difficulty that we face. Are the implications of the agreement that my hon. Friend described that the elephant will be culled in future, and worldwide? If not, will he pursue that?

Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory , Wells

I hope that the African countries will manage their elephant populations responsibly. In some cases, that must entail culling. We must strike a balance between populations and the habitat. An elephant population explosion in those countries would damage the habitat on which elephants depend. Management of the herds is important.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson

The Minister talked about pressure on the habitat being caused by the elephant. Governments can now claim, because they have so restricted the area of the African elephant, that some elephants should be culled. Man has put pressure on the elephant and, having done so, uses that as justification for further slaughter.

Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory , Wells

There is something in what the hon. Gentleman says. The exploding human population in some of those African countries has come into conflict with the elephant population. But rather than discuss that matter at length, I owe it to the hon. Member for Leyton to deal with Hong Kong.

Hong Kong was another difficult and sensitive issue. The CITES conference considered a proposal to allow trade to continue in stocks of ivory accumulated before the decision to transfer the African elephant to appendix I of the convention. This was of great interest to the United Kingdom, because it affected Hong Kong. In considering our position on that issue, we had to take into account the fact that the stocks of ivory in Hong Kong were held legally, and that the United Kingdom has special responsibilities to Hong Kong. Representatives from the colony were part of the United Kingdom delegation, and were able to explain to the conference their case for allowing trade in existing stocks of ivory to continue. However, having listened to all the arguments, the conference voted against the proposal; with the United Kingdom abstaining on behalf of Hong Kong and Portugal abstaining on behalf of Macau.

Hong Kong has traditionally been a major ivory trading centre. It has substantial stocks of legally acquired ivory, and an ivory-carving industry on which 3,000 local people depend for their livelihood. I dispute the newspaper reports, quoted with some approval by the hon. Member for Leyton, that the only people affected are millionaires. It is uncharacteristic of the hon. Gentleman to overlook the interests of 1,200 craftsmen and 1,800 workers who depend on that trade.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen , Leyton

The Environmental Investigation Agency said that 300 jobs were involved, not the number that the Foreign Office has quoted. What effort have the Government made to find those people alternative jobs—because the trade will end? Surely, it would have been better for the Government to make a big effort to get them replacement jobs so that the ban could be kept in place.

Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory , Wells

Urgent efforts are being undertaken to retrain and find alternative employment for the workers involved. This does not involve just their livelihood as regards employment, but would effectively render valueless stocks of ivory calculated at that time to be worth more than £80 million. That fact influenced the Hong Kong authorities, which have reaffirmed their commitment to comply with the ban on international trade in ivory, resulting from the conference decision. However, they are understandably concerned about the need to allow some time for their ivory traders to dispose of their stocks, and for the workers to find alternative employment. That is why the authorities approached the United Kingdom Government and asked us to enter a temporary reservation on their behalf. In making that request, they made it clear that the ban on the import of all forms of ivory into Hong Kong, which was introduced with ours in June 1989, would remain in force, and that only existing stocks of legally acquired ivory would be allowed to be exported. That was to ensure that there would be no loophole through which illegally acquired ivory could enter trade via Hong Kong.

We considered that carefully, and on 17 January my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs announced the Government's decision to agree to Hong Kong's request. The Government entered on that day a temporary six-month reservation against the listing of the African elephant on appendix I of the convention. The effect of the reservation will be that during the period that it remains in force, Hong Kong will be able to export its existing ivory stocks either to CITES parties which have entered appropriate reservations, or to non-CITES states. But in entering the reservation, we made it clear that it will not apply to the United Kingdom or to any of our other dependent territories. So none of the Hong Kong ivory will be imported into the United Kingdom and after the expiry of the six-month period, all further commercial exports of ivory from Hong Kong will be completely prohibited.

The reservation is the best way of meeting the Government's responsibilities to a dependent territory without compromising our support for measures to conserve the African elephant.

The Hong Kong Government have taken various measures to deter illegal trading and to enhance controls over existing stocks. A special customs task force has been set up to investigate and stop any illegal trade through Hong Kong, and maximum fines for violating endangered species legislation have been increased five-fold. Illegal consignments are confiscated. Controls over ivory in Hong Kong are now among the most comprehensive in the world.

All stocks of ivory in Hong Kong are registered, and since 12 January, possession licences have been required for all commercial ivory and personal effects in excess of 5kg. Movements of ivory between dealers is recorded and their records of stock holdings are adjusted accordingly. No ivory can leave Hong Kong without an export licence, and no licences are issued for exports to countries that have implemented the CITES ban. An export licence is granted only for ivory which has appropriate CITES documentation.

Those thorough and comprehensive measures are clear and reassuring evidence of the Hong Kong Government's firm commitment to adhere fully to CITES.

We and the Hong Kong Government are fully committed to the conservation of endangered species and to CITES itself. We would not have entered a reservation if we believed that by doing so we were putting at risk the future of the African elephant. Controls on imports and exports are only one part of the problem. A major threat to the elephant is from continuing poaching. Through our foreign aid programme we are giving the African countries concerned aid and practical and technical assistance to deal with the real threat to the future of the elephant.

Once again I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this important subject. The African elephant has been described with some justice as "nature's great masterpiece" and "the only harmless great thing". There is now an unprecedented international awareness of the plight of the elephant and a widespread determination to take appropriate action to ensure its future well-being. We shall not relax our efforts to conserve this "great masterpiece" because without it the whole world would be the poorer.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.