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Why six African nations seek to lift the ivory trade ban

July 27, 2022
topic:Hunting & Poaching
tags:#ivory, #wildlife trade, #poaching, #elephants, #Africa
located:Angola, Botswana, Zambia, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania
by:Cyril Zenda
Southern African nations that are home to the world’s largest elephant populations are demanding the lifting of a CITES ban on ivory trade, alleging that the blanket ban punishes them for the success of their wildlife conservation efforts.

Six southern African states met in Zimbabwe in the last week of May, where they came up with a common position to push at the upcoming 19th conference of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which will be held in Panama in November.

The six nations, Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, signed an agreement establishing a joint position seeking the lifting of a 33-year old ivory trade ban. 

The African Elephant Conference was held at Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, which is part of the five-nation Kavango-Zambezi (KAZA) Transfrontier Conservation Area that brings together the wildlife populations of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

It is estimated that there are 300,000 elephants in the KAZA area, and member states want their voices to be heard. 

"Countries with high elephant populations must be heard and listened to and must benefit from their efforts in conserving their elephants," the declaration states.

Signatories further stated that they want, "to forge a new and better deal for the elephant conservation, tourism and rural communities in key African range states."

These countries carry the bulk of Africa’s 400,000-plus elephants, and are complaining that the jumbos have reached overpopulation which leads, they claim, to increased cases of human-wildlife conflict and a growing ecological crisis.

CITES banned international commercial ivory trade in 1989, but in 1997 and 2008 allowed Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to make one-time sales of ivory to Japan and China totaling 50 tonnes and 108 tonnes, respectively. 

For its part, Zimbabwe is seeking to dispose of its 136 tonne ivory stockpile, which it claims is worth $600 million - resources that the government says would go a long way in wildlife conservation. 

A Continent Of Two Extremes

This is an emotive issue in Africa. As a sign of how divided the continent is on the matter, of the 19 African elephant range states that were invited to the Hwange conference, only six attended.

This is because other members prefer keeping the ban in place, as they have very small - and in some cases dwindling - elephant populations. The African elephant conservation project straddles two extremes: while the total number of African elephants has declined in recent years, the numbers have boomed in southern Africa.

Kenya, for instance, is strongly opposed to any move to lift the ban. In 2016, President Uhuru Kenyatta demonstrated his opposition to trading in wildlife products by ordering the burning of a 103-tonne ivory stockpile

The ivory trade debate has been ranging for many years. This is not the first time that the southern African bloc of the African elephant range states has sought the lifting of the ban, having tried and failed in 2016. It is due to frustration resulting from this opposition why some countries like Zimbabwe, which has an estimated 100,000 elephants, are threatening to pull out of the 183-country CITES, a UN agreement that protects wildlife from over-exploitation. 

Move Faces Stiff Opposition

Many believe that lifting the ban would raise appetite for ivory and lead to more poaching.

Among those vigorously opposing the lifting of the ban is Humane Society International, whose Africa wildlife director, Audrey Delsink, was quick to highlight that a 2021 assessment by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) African Elephant Specialist Group concluded that there had been a decline of about 50 percent in the African elephant population over 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," Delsink wrote to FairPlanet. "Therefore, Zimbabwe management choices, including the proposal to lift an ivory trade ban, could have devastating consequences for transient elephants."

The HSI official raised eyebrows over some of the statistics, especially the 100,000 elephants reported to be in Zimbabwe, as well as the carrying capacity concerns that she said were "extremely subjective."

"There is also much discrepancy in the population numbers and carrying capacity figures that are being quoted for Zimbabwe… Thus, in response to the statement regarding elephants as being 'a conservation success' within Zimbabwe and some of the other southern African nations supporting the proposal, this must be taken in consideration that Savannah elephants are now assessed as endangered with tremendous spatial and temporal trans-boundary fluctuations across the continent." 

On suggestions that lifting the ban would satisfy demand for ivory and reduce poaching, Delsink said the opposite was actually correct.

"History is the best predictor of future success, or in this case, failure. Two CITES-sanctioned sales of national ivory stockpiles occurred in 1997 and 2008 of 50 tonnes and 108 tonnes that yielded US$5 million and US$15 million, respectively. This led to a massive poaching spike in Tanzania during 2010-2014, whereby approximately 60,000 elephant were killed," Delsink said. "Thus, contrary to 'flooding the market,' it created a renewed appetite and simply provided a legal means of laundering illegal ivory in legal domestic ivory markets.

"It is estimated that from 2008 to 2014, an estimated 30-35,000 elephants were poached annually across the continent, and it is thought that the one-off sales stimulated the demand and led to this poaching pandemic."

She also expressed doubt over the figures of US$600 million for 130 tonnes of ivory that Zimbabwe is sitting on. "Unless, of course, they are sold to non-CITES parties (of which there are very few) if a one-off sale or ivory trade ban is not sanctioned or lifted or on the illegal market. This sparks real concerns of a renewed poaching pandemic.”

She added that research had shown that wildlife has more value alive than when it is dead, and that there were many creative ways to manage wildlife and of raise money for conservation purposes, including outsourcing the management of parks to non-governmental organisations.    

"Furthermore, there are ground-breaking developments by Dr Fabio Berzaghia and Dr Ralph Chami and their team to finance conservation by valuing carbon services produced by wild animals such as elephants. They are establishing a pilot study in West Africa, whereby a credible value on the carbon capture services produced by protected African forest elephants is channelled back to finance anti-poaching, conservation programmes and local communities.

"This is an extremely innovative and novel approach to climate change mitigation, conservation protection and community development - with substantial benefits simply from protecting elephants."

Lifting Ban Has some Benefits

However, the demand by the southern African states has is own backers. Among them is the Los Angels-based Ivory Education Institute, whose managing director, Godfrey Harris, told FairPlanet that his organisation is fully behind the African states. 

"Let me start by quoting Dr Daniel Stiles, a leading wildlife researcher," Harris said in written responses to FairPlanet. "He says, 'Make the species of value, and people will make an effort to keep it.' It has to happen in Africa. Until the locals benefit, the national government can’t benefit and conservationists everywhere won’t get the end result they claim to want."

Asked what positive effect would the opening of ivory trade have on conservation efforts in general and in African countries in particular, Harris said that the ivory trade would provide a source of funds for effective conservation among the elephant range states. 

"Start by earning fees for hunting, viewing on safari, export of elephant parts. All of these funds could go to better conservation programs. A consistent market for ivory that is geared to sustainable yields (that is only those tusks fulfilling the market needs that do not deplete the elephant herds below their habitat’s carrying capacity) would provide income to the hunters who provide the tusks. Taxes on their income, license and use fees and excise taxes on tusks would further add to the income for conservation needs."

Harris' organisation is a supporter of the Sustainable Use Coalition, a group of non-governmental organisations under the leadership of Eugene Lapointe, the former CITES Secretary General.

"At the moment, the countries of Africa are being asked by the West to care for their elephants and conserve them for the future, but [are provided] NO FUNDS to do this job. How smart is that?"

African Communities Want the Ban Lifted

Ishmael Chaukura, the chairperson of Community CAMPFIRE Association of Zimbabwe, is happy with the position that the six nations will be taking to Panama.

"The resolution passed by the six southern African countries is a positive development in the effort to maximise benefits derived from natural resources management," Chaukura told FairPlanet in an interview. He is a resident of the wildlife-rich Mbire district in northern Zimbabwe, where cases of human-wildlife conflict are rampant.

More than 60 people have already been killed in human-wildlife conflicts in Zimbabwe at the end of May this year, the same number as those killed the whole of 2020. In 2021, a total of 72 lives were lost to wildlife-human conflicts.

"The ban on ivory and elephant products will have a negative impact to communities who bear the cost of living with wildlife," Chaukura added. "As communities, we welcome this idea and it is also a conservation effort, because if benefits increase, there is a reason for us to conserve these elephants. The CITES meeting in Panama must give its ear and take this issue seriously if they are genuine conservationists."

Image by Lourdes Castro

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Angola Botswana Zambia Namibia Zimbabwe Tanzania
Embed from Getty Images
Of the 19 African elephant range states that were invited to the Hwange conference, only six attended.
© Elsen Karstad
Embed from Getty Images
"The ban on ivory and elephant products will have a negative impact to communities who bear the cost of living with wildlife."
© Martin Harvey
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