File picture: AP Photo/Kevin Anderson

Countries on Thursday voted overwhelmingly to maintain a ban on international trade in elephant ivory at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe had proposed being allowed to sell their stockpiles, but Kenya and several neighbouring states opposed the move. But the future of elephants still hangs in the balance.

The battle over the future of elephants is far from over and the two sides are as polarised as oil and water. 

On the one side are those who wish to use elephants and elephant parts in the same way that commercial goods are traded on global commercial markets – including to hunt them for trophies. On the other side are those concerned with elephant conservation and welfare following massive declines in elephant numbers across the continent. The weapons are Appendix 1 and Appendix 11 of CITES rules on the international status of elephants.

  • Appendix I involves species threatened with extinction and allows trade in only exceptional circumstances.
  • Appendix II includes species not threatened with extinction and permits trade. It has strict regulations to avoid utilisation incompatible with survival, though this had proved a moving target easily circumvented.

Elephants are on Appendix 1 everywhere in the world except Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, which were permitted a special exemption to Appendix 11 because of healthy populations and ivory stockpiles.

How do the arguments stack up? Those who call for an end to all trade in elephants or their parts – including 32 members of the African Elephant Coalition established in 2008 in Mali as well as many NGOs, want tighter controls to curb illicit killing (predictably, probably not the United States).

Peter Knight of WildAid claims relaxing of ivory trade restrictions could lead to a massive increase in the killing of elephants as past CITES one-off sales have failed to stem the demand for tusks.

All populations of African elephants were listed on CITES Appendix I in 1989, effectively banning international ivory trade. But the protection was weakened in 1997 and 2000 when Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe were down-listed to Appendix II to allow two sales of ivory stockpiles to Japan and China in 1999 and 2008.  

In 1980, the African elephant population was estimated at 1.3 million individuals – in 2015, only 415 428 remained according to the 2016 IUCN African Elephant Status Report, a decline of 68 percent.

Those experimental sales, says Knight, enabled traffickers to ply their trade because of the difficulty of distinguishing legal ivory from the one poached. 

Those who want all elephants on Appendix 1 argue that:

  • Elephant populations across most of the continent are crashing because, mainly, of poaching. There are only about 450 000 wild elephants left, down from millions at the start of the 20th century;
  • Illegal ivory can be laundered through legal exports;
  • Dire warnings in a shocking UN report earlier this year showed that we are losing wildlife at an unprecedented rate and that more than a million species face extinction. This has prompted conservation organisations like Humane Society International to call on countries to resist proposals for changes to CITES that would facilitate trade.

The four Southern African pro-trade countries, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, oppose restriction and support trade in live animals, hides, trade in hair and leather goods for commercial or non-commercial purposes.

The region is also calling for trade in individually marked and certified ivory incorporated in finished jewellery. Each has varying arguments for scrapping CITES restrictions. 

South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs supports the argument that there are too many elephants. In fact there possibly are and for a particular reason. 

Unusually in South Africa, it is permissible to own wild animals and the many private tourist-focused reserves have elephants. Culling is deemed unacceptable and elephants can breed like bunnies. Contraception would solve the problem but is seldom used.

At CITES last week, to the horror of conservationists, South African delegates voted against a proposal to stop Zimbabwe and Botswana from wild capture of elephants for captivity. This view is in direct contradiction of prohibition of this practice within its own Elephant Norms and Standards. 

South Africa also has a growing stockpile from natural deaths and confiscated illegal ivory which it wants to sell. So its argument at CITES is:

  • An oversupply of elephants, and
  • The need to sell its stockpiles.

Zimbabwe, with its economy in a nosedive, desperately needs foreign exchange and makes no bones about using its wildlife to supply it. Tourism Minister Prisca Mupfumira is quoted as saying the country has an excess of 30 000 elephants and ‘we are prepared to ship wild animals to any other interested countries.’

It has caught and sold dozens of wild baby elephants for export to China and has around 30 in pens awaiting export. The main supply is Hwange 

National Park where herds are run down until the youngsters are exhausted. The herd is driven off by helicopter while the captives are loaded into trucks. 

As with Namibia and Botswana, Zimbabwe claims CITES restrictions are ‘foreign interference’ and cites elephant damage to croplands and communities as a reason to reduce numbers. Its two reasons for fewer restrictions are therefore:

  • Foreign revenue;
  • Human-animal conflict.

Botswana’s reasons for joining the trader advocates are tied up with its new president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, and his moves to overturn the conservation policies of his predecessor, Ian Khama, notably the restriction on hunting. The country has around 130 000 elephants, but many are migratory and a survey by Elephants Without Borders found that numbers had not been increasing as the government has claimed. EWB also found that poaching is also increasing.

The government claims there was ‘a negative impact of the hunting suspension on livelihoods, particularly for community-based organisations’ that were previously benefiting from hunting. It also claims the Department of Wildlife and National Parks was taking too long to intervene and control destructive elephants, which can destroy a season’s worth of crops in a single night.

"The general consensus from those consulted was that the hunting ban should be lifted on the basis of these issues’ and it lifted the hunting suspension."

So the reasons for Botswana seeking to ease trade restrictions are:

  • Politics;
  • Human-animal conflict
  • Hunting revenue.

Namibia keeps its reasons close to its chest. It did not allow its elephants to be counted in the Great Elephant Survey and uses elephant numbers and problem animal damage to justify the consumptive use of wildlife. Requests to the Ministry of Environment and Tourism for population numbers have gone unanswered.

A 2016 report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) indicated that there were 22 754 elephants in Namibia, though it did not say how it derived this figure. 

Also, as with Botswana and Zimbabwe, hard numbers are difficult to substantiate because elephants do not obey borders, so counting is heavily influenced by migration patterns. The four pro-trade countries share elephants and movement is constant. A count in the rainy season would produce very different numbers than during a drought. 

Several elephant specialists I consulted said Namibia and the IUCN was most likely overstating the numbers to justify Namibia’s trade and hunting position at CITES.

According to investigative journalist John Grobler, Namibia's reputation as an African conservation success story took a major knock after it emerged the Ministry of Environment and Tourism had abused its problem animal permit system to have an iconic desert elephant bull named Voortrekker hunted as a trophy under false pretenses.

"With a crippling drought," he wrote, "a cash-strapped, debt-burdened government and national elections looming at the end of this year, the SWAPO-run government appeared to have identified the 120 desert-adapted elephants as a ready source of cash to keep their rural supporters loyal."

Local communities penned an official letter to the government claiming Voortrekker was not a problem-causing elephant and had great tourism value.

According to Grobler, the director of wildlife management and parks, Colgar Sikopo, claimed that the national elephant herd had grown from 7 500 animals in 1995 at a constant 3.3% per annum to 16 000 by 2004. By end of 2018, Sikopo said, this herd had increased to 24 000 to 25 000 elephants.  

This increase is most unlikely, said Grobler, but these numbers are being used to justify a relaxation of the CITES restrictions as the parties battle it out in Geneva. 

Elephants have always dominated the arguments at CITES meetings, held every three years. In essence, their future depends on a debate now in progress between two poles:

  • Elephants are both a commodity to be traded and a danger to communities; or
  • Elephants are at risk of extinction, should be protected, their welfare is important and conflict with people is not because of too many elephants moving into settlements but too many people encroaching on traditional elephant ranges.
Of course elephants are not themselves part of the debate over their future. But if they were, they would be holding their collective breath.

* Don Pinnock is an environmental journalist