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‘Let us trade’: Debate over ivory sales rages ahead of CITES summit

Elephants in Namibia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

  • Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe want to sell off their ivory stocks to raise money for conservation.
  • Growing human and elephant populations in these southern African countries have provoked increased human-wildlife conflict, and the governments see legal ivory sales as a way to generate revenue for conservation and development funding.
  • Other countries, most notably Kenya, oppose the proposal, on the grounds that previous legal sales stimulated demand for ivory and coincided with a sharp increase in poaching.

VICTORIA FALLS, Zimbabwe — A decade ago, what was supposed to be a one-off sale of 102 tonnes of ivory from southern African states raised $15 million for conservation and community development. But that sale coincided with a massive increase in levels of poaching across Africa. Now, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe — which host 60 percent of Africa’s remaining elephants between them — have tabled a proposal for a further sale of ivory stocks and a resumption in the trade of elephant hunting trophies.

Speaking to media on June 27 at the Wildlife Economy Summit held in Victoria Falls, President Emerson Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe laid out the basic argument: he said the sale of ivory would raise $600 million, Zimbabwe’s share of which would go toward strengthening management of the country’s 11 national parks and conservancies.

Zimbabwe is battling a severe economic crisis, and Mnangagwa told journalists the money would mean improved surveillance for the country’s protected areas.

“What is wrong if we use that ivory or those horns to collect revenue and improve the maintenance of national parks [and the] lives of the communities around them?” Mnangagwa said.

But another group of countries, prominently including Kenya, has submitted a counter-proposal to tighten restrictions on trade in elephant parts.

“Kenya has chosen not to benefit from its own natural resources given by God,” Mnangagwa said, “but we are saying we would want to benefit. Whether you like it or not an elephant someday will die and [its] tusks will fall off and when you see them, you burn them. We are saying let us trade.”

Tusks ready for destruction in Kenya. Photo: Roz Reeve
April 2016: Tusks ready for destruction in Kenya. Photo: Roz Reeve


Rewarding conservation success or reawakening demand?

African elephants were placed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1990, meaning commercial trade in wild-caught specimens is illegal. Despite clear evidence of the threat posed to the species by poaching, this classification was hotly contested. Having later satisfied CITES authorities that their elephant populations were sufficiently healthy, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe’s pachyderms were downlisted to Appendix II in 1997, which permits carefully regulated trade. The same was done for South Africa in 2000, and Zambia is also currently seeking to downlist its elephants.

The African elephant (Loxodonta africana) is listed as vulnerable to extinction on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It is estimated there were 1.2 million elephants in Africa in 1980. In less than 40 years, that number had fallen to around 415,000, according to the IUCN’s “2016 African Elephant Status Report,” with more than 70 percent of those found in southern Africa.

According to government records, Zimbabwe’s elephant population has grown steadily, from 46,000 in 1980, to more than 58,000 in 1989. Today, the country has an estimated 85,000 elephants — 30,000 more than its carrying capacity, says the government.

Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia defend their argument to be allowed to trade ivory on the basis that legal sales will eliminate illegal markets and that the money raised will fund wildlife protection. Max Graham, CEO of Space for Giants, an international conservation organization based in Kenya, says other governments disagree.

“Something close to 20 other African nations, led by Kenya, believe a legal trade helps drive demand for ivory to the point where it overwhelms frameworks and institutions put in place to manage that legal trade,” Graham told Mongabay. “That fuels a destructive illegal trade that is controlled by dangerous criminal syndicates, corrupts national institutions, puts wildlife rangers and conservationists in the line of fire, and will ultimately lead to the extinction of elephants in the wild.”

Graham added that discussions about the ivory trade, or the broader utilization of wildlife, are, at their core, discussions about funding, or the lack of it.

Researchers from the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research have argued that the 2008 legalization of ivory sales was linked to an increase in black market trafficking in ivory. In a 2016 paper, Solomon Hsiang and Nitin Sekar track a steep 66 percent increase in illegal ivory production following the announcement of the legal sale.

“An estimated ~71% increase in ivory smuggling out of Africa corroborates this finding, while corresponding patterns are absent from natural elephant mortality, Chinese purchases of other precious materials, poaching of other species, and alternative explanatory variables,” they wrote. “These data suggest the widely documented recent increase in elephant poaching likely originated with the legal sale.”

A recent survey by Elephants without Borders, a nonprofit based in South Africa, found that elephant poaching was on the rise in Botswana, which in May this year lifted a five-year self-imposed ban on elephant hunting. The survey indicated that 156 elephants were poached in the country in 2018.

The Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) project, an initiative by CITES that tracks poaching levels, shows that there was an increase in levels of illegal killing of elephants starting in 2006. The killings peaked in 2011 and declined thereafter. MIKE recorded more than 17,780 carcasses between 2003 and 2017 at monitoring sites across the continent.

Patricia Awori, of the Pan African Conservation Network, said she’s doubtful that selling ivory will solve questions of funding for conservation. “We are not keen on reopening the ivory trade, even if it is one-off sales, because it reopens markets that are closed and awakens a voracious appetite for ivory that cannot be quenched by existing ivory. Demand for ivory results in the needless slaughter of elephants around the continent.”

African elephants in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
African elephants in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo: Rhett A. Butler.

Broader perspective needed

In an interview at the wildlife summit, Ivonne Higuero, secretary-general of CITES, told Mongabay that the various proposals will be put on the table for discussion at the next conference of parties to the convention, scheduled for Geneva in August.

“This is sort of a tense moment on the continent in that there is a difference between what the requests are from the various African countries that have populations of African elephants,” she told Mongabay.

Higuero acknowledged that countries with African elephant populations are bearing enormous conservation costs that they need to offset, and that the ivory trade is one of the alternatives open to them.

“Conservation is absolutely important for the present and future generations. We depend on nature, wild species of flora and fauna and ecosystem services for our food, health, water, livelihoods and economies,” she said. “However, the benefits accrue for the entire world while the costs are borne by the custodians. We need more recognition of these costs of conservation and the alternative costs associated with not using resources to ensure sustainability and replenishment of stocks (with fisheries for example).”

The CITES chief said that while there’s a focus on the question of hunting elephants and trading ivory, there’s a legal international trade in many other animal and plant species that are very profitable for the southern Africa region and Africa more widely.

“We need a much broader and wiser vision of what a wildlife economy means,” she said, “and that should not only focus on animals, but it is plants and animals and that there are many areas of legal trade that we should pay attention to, and develop those that could bring in much more money and improve economies in many African countries.”

Higuero called for clear systems of payment for natural environment benefits that could support conservation efforts in habitat countries.

“In this way, also, the custodians put value on those resources and will have incentives to take care of the resources and use them sustainably,” she said.

As the CITES summit approaches, Zimbabwe and others are talking tough.

“Up to now we have not agreed with CITES and we are keeping our ivory,” Mnangagwa told the press. “We will only dispose of our stock when we have agreed. If we do not agree, we will keep our stocks. We will not burn our stocks.”

Banner image: Desert elephants in Namibia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

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