Namibia’s wild elephant sales draw global condemnation

The southwest African country denies it violated an international wildlife treaty.

Today, at a France-based global summit on the international treaty that regulates the wildlife trade, numerous countries condemned Namibia for its recent international sale and export of 22 wild African elephants.

Namibia says it has more than 24,000 elephants and that roundups of elephants are essential to alleviate potentially lethal encounters with humans and to raise money for conservation and wildlife management. Last year, elephants killed three people, and there have been numerous claims of crop damage in recent years, according to data the Namibian government shared with National Geographic.

The United Kingdom, among others, raised a number of questions about Namibia’s elephant export which appears to violate the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). That’s because the treaty stipulates that African elephants from countries including Namibia cannot be exported to a country that hasn’t previously had or doesn’t now have wild elephants—unless there’s a proven conservation benefit.

Last year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature listed savanna elephants as endangered and forest elephants as critically endangered. Decades of ivory poaching have taken a heavy toll, and as few as 400,000 elephants remain in the wild across Africa.

In December 2020, Namibia auctioned off 57 elephants to three separate bidders. Fifteen have gone to one winning bidder, a nature reserve inside the country. The other two successful bidders were foreign.

The Namibian government told National Geographic on February 15 that it can’t release details about the destination of the elephants until the “entire process is completed.” It must still export another 20 elephants to fulfill its remaining obligations.

Namibia still has not announced or confirmed the elephants’ destinations and says it’s up to the buyers to disclose that information, but this week the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) confirmed in a statement that one of its members, Al Ain Zoo, in the United Arab Emirates, had bought some of the elephants. “We do not have any information at this stage on how many elephants or whether the elephants have arrived or not,” the organization told National Geographic in an email.

The original auction notice specified that bidders must arrange all logistics for the capture and export of the elephants, including any infants or juveniles, and must keep family groups together.

Where are the elephants going?

Yesterday WAZA told National Geographic that taking elephants from the wild “without a legitimate need for conservation breeding programs, education programs, or basic biological studies” is considered a breach of its code of ethics and animal welfare. It said it’s  investigating whether that has occurred, which could result in the zoo’s expulsion from WAZA.  

Neither Al Ain Zoo, the United Arab Emirates, or CITES representatives have responded to National Geographic’s requests for comment about the destination country or countries. The Namibian government has declined to say who bought the elephants.

At today’s meeting, in Lyon, the U.K. representative to CITES demanded a “full explanation” of how Namibia’s exports complies with the treaty and requested details about how United Arab Emirates could prove that the elephants weren’t going to be used for commercial purposes. Moreover, it asked what conservation benefits this export could have.  

Burkina Faso, Senegal, and others also decried the international sales. We “deplore” this export, Burkina Faso’s representative said.

Namibia’s representative responded that “we want to underscore that we have been very transparent about this sale. We have nothing to hide.” The representative said that Namibia issued export permits for the elephants only after it was satisfied that all requirements for domestic laws and CITES had been met.

The CITES Secretariat, in Geneva, hasn’t taken any immediate action against Namibia and said that members should take note of all concerns about this in the future. “CITES parties have agreed on mechanisms to deal with compliance matters where a party has not followed agreed rules for trade,” a CITES spokesperson told National Geographic in a statement. “Any concerns of this nature would be brought to the attention of the CITES Standing Committee,” and that leadership group would assess overall compliance with the convention.

Yesterday, Romeo Muyunda, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism, declined to comment on National Geographic’s new requests for details about the export, beyond confirming that the elephants had arrived at their destination. On March 6, the ministry said in a statement that one elephant, a cow, was not doing well, but it has since provided no update on her condition.

At least two elephants were born while the 22 animals awaited export, but no information has been forthcoming about the well-being of those babies.

The National Geographic Society supports Wildlife Watch, our investigative reporting project focused on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com. Learn about the National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact.

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