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Working together to save wildlife – the No Domestic Trade campaign

24 August 2018
Working together to save wildlife – the No Domestic Trade campaign

A secondary school teacher in New Zealand, Virginia Woolf has worked tirelessly over the past five years, campaigning to protect animals in the wild who are at serious risk of becoming extinct because they are being poached for their skin, tusks and horn.

Although many Kiwis may not be aware, she says, trading of elephant ivory and rhino horn is still legal in this country. The commercial sale of ivory has been banned for over 30 years, but providing it is for ‘personal use’ and adheres to certain regulations, it can still be traded domestically. Virginia says a lot of New Zealanders will be shocked to hear that this means people can still bring ivory into the country with a purpose to sell it, as long as the ivory is used for ‘personal reasons’ and it is accompanied by the necessary permit.

There are regular antique fairs or auctions held across the country where ‘luxury’ items made from ivory are sold, usually in the form of jewellery, ornaments and collectables. Due to our geographical location, New Zealand is also used as a conduit for international trade in the South Pacific and Asia. While New Zealand’s trade in ivory may not be as significant as that of other nations, any level of trade is fuelling the problem, as Virginia explains: “It’s a huge misconception to think that New Zealand has nothing to do with ivory trading and fuelling the crisis our international wildlife is facing. Where there is any trade, there is no solution. We need to do everything we can to oppose the trade in New Zealand and save these animals from a terrible fate.

The African plains

As someone who has always been deeply passionate about wildlife, conservation is a cause that has been close to Virginia’s heart since she was a child. “I grew up fascinated with Africa and always wanted to visit. My parents took me to see Born Free when I was very young. After watching that film I was hooked and would run around the house singing the theme tune. I dreamed of roaming across the African plains with lions and elephants,” recalls Virginia.

Sadly, the existence of many species of wild animals across Africa and Asia is under intense threat. For many decades, elephants and rhinos in particular have been killed by poachers for their skin, horn and tusks. Elephants specifically are often killed for their tusks, the ivory from which is then used in art, collectable goods, jewellery and other ‘luxury’ items.

Virginia (right) was thrilled to meet Dame Daphne Sheldrick in July 2015 – Dame Daphne was a renowned conservationist who dedicated her life to saving orphaned elephants and releasing them back into the wild; she died in April this year.
Virginia (right) was thrilled to meet Dame Daphne Sheldrick in July 2015 – Dame Daphne was a renowned conservationist who dedicated her life to saving orphaned elephants and releasing them back into the wild; she died in April this year.

Elephants are known to mourn the loss of their own kind, and whole herds can be slaughtered in a very short space of time – all so their ivory can be used to make collectable items. The populations of these animals across their native Asia and Africa have plummeted. It is estimated that one elephant is being killed every 15 minutes, and one rhino every 9 hours. Rhino are also being poached for their horns, as there is high demand for this to be used in traditional Chinese medicine and in gifts that are given as a sign of high social status.

Despite international concern around poaching and its dramatic impact on rhinos and elephants, the destruction poaching causes is showing little sign of slowing down. Poachers are often backed by criminal syndicates, and it has been suggested that the sale of ivory funds militant movements; poaching and illegal wildlife trading is thought to be worth billions of NZ dollars. Kruger National Park in South Africa is a hot-spot for rhino poaching, while the most common areas for elephants to be poached are Tanzania and neighbouring parts of Mozambique.

Trading in New Zealand

New Zealand is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES); this is an international agreement by governments, first signed in 1975, that aims to safeguard wild animals and plants by ensuring that international trading of wild animal and plant specimens does not threaten their survival.

While New Zealand follows such guidelines strictly and CITES states that the trade of illegal ivory is prohibited by statute within the borders of the country, domestic trading of ‘legal’ ivory is actually prevalent in Aotearoa. Under CITES, only items of Asian elephant ivory imported prior to 1975, or since then with an official permit for commercial trade issued by the Department of Conservation, can be legally traded in New Zealand. The trade ban for African elephant ivory was introduced in 1989.

“The domestic ivory trade in New Zealand is also unregulated, requiring no proof of age or demonstration of relevant import permit documentation at point of sale, which in turn provides an opportunity for illegal ivory to be imported and sold.”

“The problem is that not all items of ivory necessarily have the appropriate certificates of compliance, so illegal ivory can get into the mix of legal items. Illegal ivory can quite easily be disguised as antique by being deliberately marked, stained or cracked,” says Virginia.

In auction houses, items created from ivory can fetch tens of thousands of dollars, and as populations of these wild animals drastically decrease, there is less ivory in the world, which means the value of ivory increases.

For the love of wildlife

Virginia is one of the key figures flying the Kiwi flag in support of the No Domestic Trade campaign in Australia, which was initiated by the wildlife and conservation foundation For the Love of Wildlife founded by Donalea Patman. The foundation’s mission is to inspire change far and wide, and to encourage the human race to reconnect with the environment and planet and to protect all wildlife, especially endangered species. The foundation aims also to combat the environmental destruction that is plaguing the planet and causing the demise of many species of wildlife.

In July 2014, Virginia took a petition of 4000 signatures to Parliament, requesting that ‘The House urge the Government to take decisive and affirmative action to help save the elephant from the very real threat of extinction resulting from the current poaching crisis and subsequent ivory trading.’

Fiona Gordon, an environmental policy analyst and mediator, had also compiled an extensive report supported by the International Fund for Animal Welfare entitled ‘A Report on the New Zealand Trade in Ivory – Imports, Re-Exports and Domestic Trade 1980–2012’. She was invited to share the writings of her report on the topic to complement Virginia’s petition.

They had the support of MP John Banks in bringing this to the attention of the foreign affairs, defence and trade select committee. He joined them in the hope that this would encourage the government to bring New Zealand legislation in line with the US and China, who previously announced plans to put an end to domestic trading and combat the illegal trade of ivory.

Calling for change

Fiona Gordon’s report shed light on how Australia and New Zealand are contributing to the demise of elephants and rhinos in the wild because of the domestic and illegal trading of ivory. This report detailed that an estimated 100,000 elephants were killed by poachers between 2010 and 2012, and that populations of the African forest elephant have declined by 65% since 2002.

The report also revealed that ‘on a per capita basis for ivory carving imports from 2009 to 2012, New Zealand easily tops the United States – a globally-significant ivory consumer nation’. The demand and trade is still very evident in New Zealand, as Virginia explains: “Just recently, I visited a local antique fair and was shocked to see one stall selling an alarming amount of ivory.” Evidence of the illegal trading of ivory exists in New Zealand, and the report highlights that, in 2013, one man was fined $12,000 after pleading guilty to eight charges of trading in endangered species without a permit.

In 2014, another man faced charges of illegally importing 31 pieces of elephant ivory. In September 2014, Virginia organised the first Global March for Elephants and Rhinos in Auckland, and was joined by others passionate about making change in New Zealand. As a result of the impact of this march, and of the petition and call for change to Parliament, Virginia was delighted to see that Trade Me announced a ban on the sale of all ivory products on its site. Unfortunately, the response from the foreign affairs, defence and trade select committee was not enough to force the change that was needed.

Inspire a nation

Virginia’s aim is now to spread awareness and encourage public support across New Zealand via this movement. “For the Love of Wildlife founder Donalea Patman is so determined and her success is inspiring. I wanted to support and continue her work here in New Zealand. Just last year, she had the import of lion trophies banned in Australia, with the support of MP Jason Wood.

Ivory and rhino horn trading is still huge in Australia, and although the trade that exists here in New Zealand is smaller, we need to work together to save these iconic species.” Virginia now plans to continue spreading awareness by reaching out to communities to join her cause, and is calling for people to show their support by signing further petitions to Parliament.

While there is also work to be done to save and protect New Zealand’s native species, Virginia is keen to highlight how easy it is to help animals in the wild internationally too. “It is essential that we do everything we can to tackle the problem with our native endangered species, but we cannot ignore the severity of the threat to our beautiful wild species worldwide.”

How to show your support

“The answer is simple: ban all trade, and we may be able to save what is left of these incredible creatures.”

Virginia runs a community platform and organisation entitled NZFEW (New Zealanders for Endangered Wildlife) which aims to highlight these significant wildlife issues, and continues to encourage as many people as possible to sign the online or paper copy of the letter to Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage so that there are enough signatures to persuade her to take the issue to Cabinet for discussion over changing the legislation.

“Much-needed change is long overdue in NZ legislation to ban all trade in ivory and rhino horn here in the South Pacific, thereby allowing us to play our part in contributing to the preservation of these species,” says Virginia.

New Zealanders are encouraged to sign the petition and show their support by visiting http://march4elephantsandrhinos.org/

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