Johannesburg - Declining elephant populations in Africa are coming under the spotlight during the climate conference CoP17 Cites under way at the Sandton Convention Centre.

NGOs have spent enormous amounts of money on highlighting the problem with the ivory trade, while some governments are lobbying to make it legal.

The gentle giant of the African savannah is once again making brows furrow and emotions rise at the thrice-yearly wildlife conference.

Wildlife Conservation Society vice-president Susan Lieberman said there were several pressing issues when it came to elephants, but legalising ivory sales was at the top of the list.

Ten countries have put in a proposal to alter all African elephant populations to Appendix I listed. This would ensure that the four countries listed as Appendix II – namely South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe – would be banned outright from trading in ivory domestically.

The proponents argue that although the populations in these areas appear to be stable and sustainable, the emergence of ivory on the international market would fuel demand, and central and western populations would be at more risk.

Lieberman said criminals could launder their ivory into a country and hide it behind the domestic market.

According to The Humane Society, the populations of Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana transferred to Appendix II in 1997, with export of 49 437.5kg ivory to Japan in 1999.

South Africa’s population transferred to Appendix II in 2000, and a one-off trade in registered stockpiles of 60 tons of ivory from Botswana, Namibia and South Africa was approved at CoP12.

The discussions during day three of CoP17 came after many reports showed sustained populations in some southern African countries. A report by Vulcan International showed that the African savannah elephant’s population had declined by 30 percent between 2007 and this year. The report, released before the Cites conference, also showed the loss was primarily due to poaching.

“This was an extraordinary collaboration across borders, cultures and jurisdictions. We completed a successful survey of a massive scale, and what we learnt is deeply disturbing,” said philanthropist and Vulcan founder Paul Allen.

“Armed with this knowledge of dramatically declining elephant populations, we share a collective responsibility to take action and we must all work to ensure the preservation of this iconic species.”

Up to 352 271 elephants were counted in the 18 countries surveyed, including South Africa, which reported a stable population.

Namibian Minister of Environmental Affairs Pohamba Shifeta said that if the Namibian government sold its stockpiles of ivory, it could raise $100 million (R1.4 billion), which he said would be put back into conservation for wildlife conservancies and water supply.

The WWF’s Colman O’Criodain said reports of poaching continued to rise even when ivory was traded legally, and it complicated the governance issues.

In another report, The African Elephant Status Report, completed for four meetings of the Cites standing committee to date released on Sunday, the estimated losses in southern Africa were almost 30 000. The estimated number of elephants in areas surveyed in the past 10 years in Africa is 415 428.

The decline is caused mainly by the surge in poaching for ivory that began around 2006 (Cites, 2016), the worst that Africa has experienced since the 1970s and 1980s. Losses in Tanzania account for the major share of this decline. Other underlying drivers, such as loss of habitat and increasing human-elephant conflict, are critical to conservation but have been receiving less attention from managers, conservationists and policymakers due to the immediacy of the poaching crisis.

A number of working committees have been set up and the proposals will be debated later in the week, before going to a vote next week.

@SamHartsie