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What's next for Africa's elephant states?

January 25, 2023
topic:Hunting & Poaching
tags:#elephants, #ivory trade, #Africa, #Human-wildlife conflict
by:Cyril Zenda
At the most recent CITES meeting in Panama, the request by Botswana, Zimbabwe and other southern African nations to monetise their vast elephant resources by opening up ivory trade was denied for the umpteenth time. Will they follow through on their threat to quit CITES?

Anger and dejection have been the collective reaction of the nearly a dozen southern African countries that have pushed for the down-listing of the African elephant in order to make their products tradable after a majority of the member parties of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna And Flora (CITES) once again rejected this proposal. 

In the run up to the 19th meeting of the conference of Parties of the CITES that took place in Panama in November, ten southern African countries, most of whom are home to over 90 percent of the world’s estimated 450,000 African elephants, were pushing for the opening up of trade in ivory and other elephant products.

The countries held a series of summits in Zimbabwe and Botswana where this position was reaffirmed. 

Huge Numbers, Huge Costs

Of the 450,000 jumbos found in the 19 African elephant range states, about 130,000 are found in Botswana, and another estimated 100,000 in Zimbabwe. Other huge populations are found in South Africa, Zambia, Namibia and Angola.

While these southern African nations are scratching their heads on how to control or reduce their elephant populations, countries like Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda are anxious to stabilise, and even grow, their own dwindling elephant populations.

The huge elephant concentrations in southern Africa are blamed for contributing to habitat loss and increasing cases of human-wildlife conflict. Besides, these countries argue that monetising their wildlife would help them fund their conservation efforts. 

But delegates to the CITES conference did not listen to the pleas of the African delegates, and swiftly discarded the proposal.

'Dangerous Proposals'

The outcome was not unexpected. In the run-up to Panama, conservation groups had vowed to vehemently oppose the proposal to down-list the African elephant.

"Our delegation team will oppose dangerous proposals in Panama, too, including two of a particularly reckless character," announced animal rights group Humane Society International (HSI) in a statement. "One [of the proposals] involves allowing the international trade in African elephant ivory from four countries."

HSI regarded the proposal by the African states "dangerous" because a 2021 assessment by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) African Elephant Specialist Group had concluded that there had been a 50 percent decline in the African elephant population in the last 75 years.

"With 76 percent of elephant populations spread across one or more national borders, and therefore the majority of southern African elephant populations being trans-boundary, management actions taken at the incorrect scale can have massive consequences and ripple effects that extend far beyond the targeted zone, area or population," HSI Africa wildlife director, Audrey Delsink, previously explained to FairPlanet. 

SADC Declares Dispute With CITES

Unhappy with the 'no' vote, the ten southern African countries have since declared a dispute with CITES.

"The way CITES is currently operating is contrary to its founding principles," the countries said in a statement presented in Panama on their behalf by Tanzania.

The other countries are Botswana, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

"Today CITES discards proven, working conservation models in favour of ideologically driven anti-use and anti-trade models. Such models are dictated by largely non-State actors who have no experience with, responsibility for, or ownership over wildlife resources," the statement reads.

"The result has been failure to adopt progressive, equitable, inclusive and science-based conservation strategies. We believe this failure has arisen from the domination of protectionist ideology over science decision in making within CITES."

The SADC bloc alleged that this anti-sustainable use and anti-trade ideology now dictates decisions made by many states that are party to CITES. 

"States are increasingly influenced by the dominance both at meetings of the decision-making structures of CITES and in their run up by protectionist NGOs whose ideological position has no basis in science or experience and is not shared in any way by the Member States of SADC and their people."

The bloc accused CITES of undermining the rights of people living in rural areas of SADC states to have access to, and use in a sustainable manner, the natural resources in their communities.

"The consensus expressed through CITES by the majority of States undermines our region in our efforts to secure social and environment justice through the sustainable use of our natural resources. In doing so it is compromising our ability to meet obligations and responsibilities to other multilateral agreements and to our peoples."

'CITES Has Multiple Problems'

Dr Rodgers Lubilo, the chairperson of the SADC Community Leaders Network, sees significant flaws in CITES.

"CITES has multiple problems, especially when it comes to making decisions on key species such as elephants, lions, leopards, hippos, etc.," Dr Lubilo told FairPlanet.

"The system has failed to take into account the positions and proposals of range states that bear the brunt of managing these iconic species like elephants," he added. "It plays a colonial mentality where it uses animals rights groups to fund other non-range states to oppose all progressive proposals from range states in Southern Africa."

He accused CITES of undermining the opportunities of community based natural resources management (CBNRM) approaches, especially through its failure to appreciate the successes recorded in southern Africa. 

"The voting system is flawed in CITES," he said. "For example, I would appreciate that range states propose and vote, and not countries that do not even have an elephant on their soil.

"The CITES has to reform, otherwise its legitimacy will be eroded and it will lose respect."

He said that after declaring a dispute with CITES, SADC states should convene a meeting to map a way forward.

"SADC member states need an urgent meeting to discuss the pros and cons of the relevance to continue to be part of this global treaty that does not respect them," he said. "We need to put our demands clear on the table, but also start building new market outside the traditional West. CITES is a voluntary membership [organisation] and the bloc can withdraw its participation, or CITES agrees to reform."

Is A CITES Walkout Possible?

In the run-up to the Panama meeting, Zimbabwe and Botswana were threatening to pull out of the 184 member Party convention, citing unfair treatment over this emotive issue. It’s a position that has many backers within the region and even beyond.

Dr Lubilo thinks it is possible for the SADC states to leave CITES. 

"SADC states can walk out if they see that CITES is not adding value," he said. "But as they plan a march out, they should develop a regional business model that can support conservation and also consume the products. They should open new avenues with like-minded countries in Asia."

African environmental journalist and writer Emmanuel Koro thinks southern African states are not doing enough to push their position.

"It almost seems as if the SADC countries, rather than try to change minds and prove the animal rights groups wrong, prefer to be the 'victims' of the 47-year-old near universal ban on international trade in ivory," Koro, author of the book Western Celebration of African Poverty, told FairPlanet.

"The ban allows them to complain that they are being punished by CITES and their former colonial masters for wanting to use their natural resources in ways they find beneficial," he added.

"It is as if SADC countries think it is to their domestic political advantage to complain about Western interference rather than try to find a solution to the ivory trade ban problem impacting them internationally."

Image by nashadabdu.

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Embed from Getty Images
Anger and dejection have been the collective reaction of the nearly a dozen southern African countries that have pushed for the down-listing of the African elephant to make their products tradable.
Embed from Getty Images
While these southern African nations are struggling to control their elephant populations, countries like Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda are anxious to stabilise, and even grow, their own dwindling elephant populations.
Embed from Getty Images
The southern African countries argue that monetising their wildlife would help them fund their conservation efforts.
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