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Long ago acceptable, now illegal: Travel & Tourism on the front line of illegal wildlife trade


So often it happens completely innocently, unknowingly, unintentionally.

An item catches your eye – a unique memento of a place visited, the perfect keepsake to take home as an enduring reminder of a magical time of travel. The purpose of travel might have been a holiday marking a milestone, an adventure dreamt of half way across the world, or perhaps simply some needed quiet time somewhere close-by with one loved. It may be a reminder of a business trip that finally brought to life an opportunity held in mind and heart since an idea’s first spark. Or it may be a quick find during a stop-over en route to someplace else. Whatever the reason for travel, the beautifully carved ivory ornament is a perfect reminder! And it will sit perfectly alongside the precious ivory keepsake purchased years ago on a childhood family holiday. Perfect!

Or is it?

Slowly, unexpectedly, you feel another tourist, a stranger, approach you on the left. It’s a local night market, a well-known market, so the closeness of tourists lingering over tables of curious and crafts is not unusual. It creates a silent glue among the hundreds, thousands, of people hovering in this space – locals and travelers all mutedly buzzing about under simple night stall lighting, in the warm, thick evening air tinged with just a tiny bit of jasmine.

“It’s ivory,” you hear the voice say in a firm whisper. “Don’t buy it.”

And then they move on, disappearing in the crowd of similarly dressed tourists. Gone.

With that, what once would have been a great souvenir is now going back on the table. The right choice has become very wrong. You move on…


Several decades back the purchase of ivory was not an issue. Quite the opposite – it was a common sight, a precious aspiration, a way of vendors making an open income. Where items came from was never a question. But times have changed. Awareness and attitudes regarding sourcing have changed. What was once acceptable is now illegal. The curtain, has been pulled back. Conscience has been provoked. Finally.

Over the past two decades the issue of illegal wildlife trade has evolved dramatically. Once a hidden economic pipeline, the black market working within and across the shadows of nations worldwide has continued to grow to a value of over US$ 20 billion per year, fueling other dark sides of global trade: arms, human trafficking, drugs, to name but a few. The trade of ivory – ‘white gold’ as it is often referred to – was banned back in the 1990s by the UN body CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) which ultimately is, as called out on its website, ‘an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.’

Still, the demand for ivory has continued, strengthening to now be worth over US$2100/kg, supply being fed by the starvation of the globe’s elephant population of, in 2017, over 100 elephants per day. Where is the ivory going? Primarily into artifacts, distributed through Asian markets, formal and informal, wholesale and retail, hidden and openly exposed.

For this reason, Tourism has become a front window to cultural and environmental engagements with the world that are becoming questionable, and in many cases, unacceptable. Social consciousness has raised the alarm around practices that were known to be taking place yet not confronted. Passive acceptance has shifted to active rejection, with assertive action mobilized to make the purchasing, and therefore killing, stop.

A number of milestones have occurred in the past decade to raise the profile of the illegal trade, taking the conversation from conference room tables to dining tables. Amongst these are, critically:

1. The joining of forces of links of the global T&T sector and enforcement bodies committed to the end of illegal wildlife trade. These include: CITES, UNODC (United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime), UNWTO, WTTC, IATA, ACI and others. From the tables of local curio markets to the bellies of aircraft, and every airport immigration and security layer in between, the global T&T community is working to choke the land, sea and air supply chains.

2. The implementation of bans of the sale and purchase of illegal wildlife, especially elephant ivory and rhino horn, from high demand markets, especially China. In 2017 China made history by imposing strict near-total bans on the commercial trade of ivory, blocking one of the world’s primary arteries for the trade. One day remains one for the history books – March 31, 2017, when “China (closed) 67 of its licensed ivory facilities, including 12 of its 35 ivory carving factories and several dozen of its more than 130 ivory retailers. The rest will be closed before the end of the year.” An invaluable, literally lifesaving precedent set.

3. The United Nation’s declaration of 2017 as the ‘UN International Year of Sustainable Tourism For Development’, mainstreaming the critical role of promotion and protection of wildlife, culture and the environment as vital raw materials for the sector’s ability to advance the SDGs. This was further enhanced by the UNWTO’s #TRAVELENJOYRESPECT campaign, targeting and alerting travelers of their need to be sensitive to the actions, from behaviors and choice of experiences to purchases, including the risk of damaging and/or buying prohibited cultural or wildlife items.


4. Quantification of the Wildlife Tourism economy. Central to this has been the UNWTO’s 2015 Briefing Paper: “Towards Measuring the Economic Value of Wildlife Watching Tourism in Africa”, which revealed that the niche accounts for as high as 80% the continent’s total number of tourist trips, safari naturally top of the list. Central to the iconic imagery and economy of safari is the awe-inspiring beauty and majesty of African elephants and rhinos – two of the Big 5. Kenya dominated international headlines in April 2016 when it set alight over US$100 million worth of ‘worthless’ elephant ivory, arguing that Kenya’s elephants are worth 76 times more alive than dead due to its ecotourism value. Wildlife Tourism is vital to its protection, not to mention the industry’s both public- and private-sector lead efforts to further protect wildlife through support of anti-poaching and conservation.

Important to mention and directly linked to the tourism sector is aviation, the network through which travelers, and (often illegal) goods, cross the world. Two of the global aviation community’s leaders championing the end of illegal wildlife trade within their links of criminal supply chains are Angela Gittens, Director General, ACI World, and Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO. Their messages are essential echoes of the role of the aviation sector as the eyes and ears of illegal goods in transit.

As stated by de Juniac as the voice for the global airline community,

“The illegal trafficking of wildlife products, including many iconic and endangered species, is an issue which the aviation industry takes very seriously. It will take a team effort to combat this deplorable trade.”

IATA’s creation of the following video makes clear the need for collective commitment and action:

Gittens, representing the global airport community which has not only mobilized stricter enforcements methods to search and secure illegal items but also terminal signage to alert travelers of risks and wrongs when it comes to purchases while travelling, continues,

“ACI’s social responsibility goes beyond the impact of aviation on the environment. We are also engaged with the aviation industry against the use of its global connectivity to support the much under reported crime of wildlife trafficking.”


The links of the T& experience chain are melting into one united, committed, tireless community. Alchemy is occurring. Looking away is no longer an option. John Scanlon, the soon to depart Secretary General of CITES, has been unedited in his call to action to all leaders, across each link in the global T&T experience chain, to promote wildlife tourism, raise awareness among consumers of the value of wildlife alive, and train staff so that they can be the eyes and ears on the ground. His message is clear.

“You are not a fringe player, you are right at the center of it.”

In his mind, and fiery words, to sit back and ignore this growing crime facing our world, eroding our global community’s unwritten yet understood social code of ethics, and endangering our most precious creatures great and small, exposes makes one’s position by default.

“You are no better than the poachers and the smugglers.”

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About the author

Anita Mendiratta - CNN Task Group