Battle lines drawn on the future of elephants

This week, 183 countries at the Cites Congress of Parties (CoP) meeting in Panama will consider more than 100 proposals on wildlife trade and protection. At the top of the agenda are elephants and sparks are sure to fly.

In 1980, the African elephant population was estimated at 1.3 million. Following a census in 2015, only 415,428 remained. A Report on the state of the African elephant calculated an overall decline of 68% over the past 30 years, with a catastrophic decline of 86% for forest elephants.

Protection status

Five countries (Burkina Faso, Equatorial Guinea, Mali, Senegal and Syria) will propose to include all African elephants in Appendix 1, the highest protection. This is a direct challenge to Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe where, with a special dispensation, their elephants were listed in Appendix 2 and marketable.

The proposal notes that elephants in Africa are not nationally owned and 76% are found in cross-border populations. These include the populations of Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Therefore, elephant conservation can only be effectively addressed at the continental level.

The current split list, they say, has caused legal anomalies, with the signatory parties adopting different interpretations. This has caused inconsistency and confusion in how Cites is applied to African elephants. Uplisting would provide this common framework for all elephants and the basis for coordinated action e unified elephant protection across the continent.

Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe will present a counter-proposal that will seek to secure the trade in ivory from government stocks. They will argue, as they did in valuable CoPs, that CITES underestimated “the importance of the elephant population of southern Africa and its conservation needs compared to other regions of Africa.”

The arguments to the contrary are that previous one-off sales have stimulated demand for ivory in China and other Asian markets, exacerbating elephant poaching and ivory trafficking. The one-time sale in 2008, according to the Max Weber Foundationcaused “the largest flows of illicit ivory trade from Africa”.


On the issue of national ivory stocks, 10 African countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kenya, Liberia, Niger, Senegal and Togo) will propose their total destruction.

This is because, they say, inventories are growing around the world, they are expensive to maintain and are not properly monitored.

“This poses a serious threat to elephants through the spillage of ivory in the illegal trade, which perpetuates the ongoing demand and markets for ivory.” Reports of missing or stolen ivory from stock are routine. Their continued presence, the presentation says, sends the signal that future ivory sales are expected.

“The destruction of ivory and the elimination of ivory stocks beyond commercial use will help neutralize expectations about the future ivory trade and discourage future markets.”

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In a separate presentation, Kenya will propose the creation of a fund to compensate for the destruction of stocks. A recent study found that ivory thought to have come from stocks appeared in seizures from 2017 to 2019.

Close the markets

The same 10 countries proposing the destruction of stocks will also demand the closure of the internal ivory markets. Many countries, their proposal states, have taken steps to close or close their ivory markets, including the US, China, Hong Kong, Israel, the UK, the EU and Singapore. But in several countries, open ivory markets persist and continue to threaten the conservation of elephants.

They highlight Japan as a non-range ivory market with large stocks and porous controls. The country continues to be a source of illegal ivory exports, undermining market closures by other countries. “Non-breeding states with open internal markets should have priority for closure, as their markets can only be maintained by importing ivory from elephant area countries.”

The 10 African countries will also propose an end to the trade in wild-caught elephants. They will express particular concern at their continued export from Zimbabwe and Namibia, which has generated widespread condemnation. Some of these elephants have been confirmed or are believed to have died in the destination countries. Others died during the capture and preparation for export.

Cites recognizes that elephants are highly social animals and that removing them from their social groups has detrimental effects on their physical and social well-being and disrupts reproductive herds.

The bigger picture

Cites was founded in 1973 and grants various degrees of protection to over 35,000 species of wild animals and plants. Currently, 184 countries are Parties to the Convention. The organization is often accused of inefficiency, and while it establishes internationally agreed rules on trade, it has no policing function to ensure that they are enforced.

The space for wildlife on earth and their numbers are shrinking dramatically in the face of relentless human assault on their bodies and pastures.

A quarter of the world’s mammals are threatened with extinction, particularly those in the tropics, with the largest mammals at greatest risk of extinction. Poaching has led to a dramatic decline in elephant populations, with all species now either endangered or threatened with extinction. Wild mammal biomass has decreased by 85% since the rise of human civilizations, mainly due to overhunting and habitat loss.

Wild animals make up only 4% of the world’s mammals. Human beings represent 34% and our livestock 62%. The scale is best understood through graphics. DM


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