Unfortunately it is well known that African elephants are in deep trouble. They are being poached at an unsustainable rate, and their numbers have dropped from 600,000 a decade ago to some 400,000 today.
That’s why this month’s meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is critical. CITES is the treaty signed by 182 countries that regulates wildlife trade across borders. In 1990 CITES banned the international trade in elephant ivory in an attempt to stem poaching, but the slaughter continues unabated.
At the upcoming meeting, known as the Conference of the Parties, or CoP 17, representatives from each member country will get together in Johannesburg to decide how best to manage Africa’s elephants. Two proposals would bring back the ivory trade, while a third would give all of Africa’s elephants the highest level of protection, which would preclude any chance of ivory sales. The battle over these proposals promises to be heated.
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s most comprehensive inventory of how well or badly species are doing, the status of the African elephant “varies considerably across the species’ range.” The southern African countries of Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Botswana, for instance, have tens of thousands of elephants.
Under CITES, species are assigned to one of three appendices, which strongly reflect the IUCN’s threat levels. Species in Appendix I are most endangered, and their commercial trade is prohibited. For Appendix II and III species, which have lower threat levels, trade is allowed but controlled. The CITES Secretariat agreed to divide Africa’s elephants between Appendix I (generally East, central, and West Africa) and Appendix II (southern Africa).
With permission from CITES, Appendix II countries can sell stockpiled ivory, as Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe did, to Japan, in 1999. Another sale by the three countries, joined by South Africa, took place in 2008, this time to China as well as Japan. According to a 2016 study, these one-off legal sales stimulated ivory demand in Asia, leading to more elephant poaching and illegal trading.
A Storm Brewing Over Listings
In 2008 most elephant-range countries agreed to join the African Elephant Coalition, an independent consortium dedicated to ensuring a healthy continent-wide elephant population free from poaching. It also seeks to promote elephant tourism for the benefit of local communities. The coalition—together with France, Sri Lanka, and a group of 55 conservation NGOs—is now proposing that CITES end split listing and put all elephants on Appendix I, the highest level of protection, with no possibility of any future ivory sales.
But some 70 nations, along with the world’s leading wildlife conservation organization, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), reject the idea of continent-wide Appendix I listing.
Namibia and Zimbabwe are proposing a continuation of Appendix II—but with fewer restrictions than before, to allow an “unqualified trade in ivory.” That is to say, Namibia and Zimbabwe want to bring back the international ivory trade. Meanwhile South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe have submitted a working document to CITES calling for more discussions about a future legal ivory trade. All three countries assert that they’re successfully managing their elephant populations.
A number of European nations, including Spain, Belgium, and Austria, line up with the Appendix II proponents. According to Mercedes Núñez, of Spain’s CITES management authority, “The southern African countries are accomplishing a big effort, and it would be wrong to punish them with the listing in Appendix I instead of rewarding them for their accomplishments.”
Núñez’s reasoning is that if the Appendix II countries continue to manage their elephants well, they should be allowed to benefit financially from future sales of their ivory stockpiles.
But some think this is an insult to the rest of Africa. “The notion of reward and punishment by European nations when it comes to Africa highlights the lingering legacy of imperialism,” says Patricia Awori, of the secretariat of the African Elephant Coalition. “Africans are still regarded as subordinate, and this is both disrespectful and offensive.”