The future of elephants, both in Africa and Asia, rests in the hands of the UN wildlife trade body that is tasked with deciding on proposals to change protection levels of species under international trade.
Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe have submitted a proposal to the upcoming meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), that seeks to re-open international commercial legal trade in registered ivory sourced from their own elephant populations, as well as from South Africa’s populations.
Zambia has submitted a proposal to decrease protection of its population under Cites from Appendix 1 to Appendix II, with a view to selling its ivory stockpile in the future.
Another group, led by Kenya, Burkina Faso, Liberia, Niger and Togo, want elephants in southern Africa to be moved from Appendix II to Appendix 1 of Cites.
“The three proposals on African elephants show the divergence of opinions among range states of this species on how to deal with international trade in elephant products: two aim at easing controls on international trade in African elephant products, and one at prohibiting all commercial trade,” said Cites, ahead of its 18th meeting of Conference of Parties (CoP18) in Sri Lanka in May.
New analysis by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Traffic finds in Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana’s support statement, details on precautionary measures are lacking and the document does not provide details on how the proposed trade would be assessed for sustainability, and controlled.
“Parties would need to be satisfied that Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe are implementing the requirements of the convention and that the appropriate enforcement controls and compliance with the requirements of the convention are in place.
“Insufficient detail of such measures is provided in the supporting statement to determine whether or not this would be the case.”
From 2006-15, Africa’s elephant population suffered its worst decline in 25 years, said Shruti Suresh, the senior wildlife campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).
The trade proposals, she said, raised “dire concerns” about the future of elephants.
“This is a practice we had hoped would never be repeated after we saw the repercussions on elephants the last time such trade took place in 2008.”
It resulted in a surge of demand for ivory in Asia, expanded operations of organised criminal networks trafficking ivory globally and an escalation of elephant poaching throughout much of the continent.
“The EIA, world governments and conservation organisations oppose this proposal. At the forthcoming Cites meeting we’d like to see an increase in protection for elephants to address poaching and ivory trafficking; instead this proposal seeks to overturn the existing international ban on trade in ivory further exacerbating the threat posed by illegal ivory trade.”
Dr Colman O Criodain, the policy manager of wildlife practice at the World Wide Fund for Nature, said: “Based on the outcome at the last CoP, a large middle ground of parties, while acknowledging the four countries’ successes in growing and maintaining their elephant populations, are concerned about the lack of any credible trading partner, as are we.”
Trade bans, he said, were challenging to implement, and “certainly don’t change things overnight”, but the counter-argument that injecting legal product into the market would solve the problem was not necessarily correct either.
“Southern Africans may point (correctly) to many aspects of Kenya’s wildlife management that are not working - in some places there are clashes with local communities over human wildlife conflict, on some private reserves there are excess numbers of herbivores.
“And there are some practices in southern Africa, like the export of live elephants from Zimbabwe to Chinese zoos, or the export of lion bones to China.
“For the most part, this is a case of people on both sides who want to do the right thing and who are passionate about their beliefs.
“That said, one common trait on both sides is that they tend to blame one another for the current problems, rather than asking themselves what they can do differently.
“We believe that the path to reduced poaching lies in closure of the remaining Asian markets and in better compliance with and enforcement of the present rules by African range countries on both sides of the ‘use’ debate.”