Why Some Countries Don't Want to Do More to Protect Elephants

What to do about the African elephant poaching crisis looms large ahead of next month’s major international wildlife trade meeting.

That African elephants are in deep trouble has been widely publicized in recent years. They’re 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 next 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.”

Spain and other European nations have thriving ivory markets—they sell antique ivory, mostly to China. Leonardo Anselmi, director of the Fondation Franz Weber for southern Europe and Latin America—an organization that worked closely on the African Elephant Coalition’s Appendix I proposal to CITES—says some countries oppose Appendix I listing because it would shut down their ivory markets. As he puts it, business “always seems to trump genuine conservation measures.”

'An Abomination'

The World Wildlife Fund’s support for split listing has had a ripple effect because the organization works closely with hundreds of governments, businesses, and communities throughout the world. According to Rosalind Reeve, international lawyer and author of a book about the CITES trade system, European nations are “heavily influenced” by WWF’s positions.

The World Wildlife Fund supported the 2008 ivory sale, which, according to France’s Minister of Ecology and Sustainable Development Ségolène Royal, drew on stockpiles representing about 8,500 dead elephants.

Colman O’Criodain, a wildlife trade policy analyst with WWF, conceded in 2014 that the 2008 ivory sale “didn't work out the way we at WWF expected. So we wouldn't automatically endorse a future ivory trade regime." He said the sale encouraged the laundering of illegal ivory in China, because the government made the ivory available to carvers at an inflated price, which encouraged them to source cheaper ivory illegally.

But in a briefing paper in July, WWF denied that the 2008 sale caused the current poaching crisis and called for the withdrawal of the Appendix I listing proposal. While WWF, in the same paper, also opposes proposals to reopen the ivory trade, it nonetheless supports the continuation of a system that allows for the possibility of another ivory sale.

The World Wildlife Fund’s opposition to the proposal that would give all elephants the highest level of protection is frustrating to some conservationists. “WWF’s perpetual endorsement of split listing is an abomination—the system has become the nemesis for elephants everywhere,” says Bill Clark, a former delegate for Interpol’s Wildlife Crimes Group and now the Kenya Wildlife Service’s United States representative. He was the lead author of a 1989 proposal to list elephants under Appendix I.

When asked to explain why WWF backtracked in its July briefing, O’Criodain said that all the elephant proposals are a distraction from the real issues, which, the July briefing says, are “corruption in range, transit, and consumer countries, together with the growth of wealthy elites in East and Southeast Asia.”

According to O’Criodain, “Virtually all the current poaching and illegal trade is coming from countries whose elephant populations are already on Appendix I,” so up-listing the Appendix II countries to Appendix I won’t make any difference.

EU Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella wrote in his blog recently that the EU agrees with the World Wildlife Fund when it comes to elephant policies in Africa. The EU’s official stance is to oppose Appendix I listing, a position shared by the CITES Secretariat, which has rejected the proposal to give elephants the highest level of protection. The Secretariat has also recommended that Zimbabwe’s and Namibia’s proposals to open up the ivory trade be rejected.

On the Wrong Side of Public Opinion?

Vella’s blog was in response to a petition calling on the EU to support the African Elephant Coalition’s proposal. The petition garnered well over 1.5 million signatures.

Beyond that, European citizens sent more than 32,000 emails to their governments urging support for a ban, and African citizens—most in Appendix II countries—were moved to write to the EU Commission, the agency responsible for voting on behalf of the EU at CoP 17.

Defending WWF’s and the EU’s positions, O’Criodain says the current Appendix II populations do not meet the agreed scientific criteria for Appendix I listing. “If we depart from these criteria for the sake of what could be seen as seeking popularity with our support base, we have no cause for complaint when countries like Japan oppose, say, listing of shark species on Appendix II, even though those species meet the agreed criteria.”

But Bill Clark says the split listing system is “fatally flawed” because it’s based on political boundaries, not biological populations. “The boundaries were drawn in imperial European conference rooms more than a century ago by people who were satisfying imperial ambitions and didn’t care two hoots about the integrity of wild species populations that move freely across state boundaries.”

Split listing, Clark says, “cuts many African elephant biological populations into fragments, sometimes imposing different levels of international protection depending on where a particular animal has wandered over the course of a day or a week or a month.”

It’s a bad way to manage elephants, he says. “It’s just bad science. There needs to be a single, continent-wide approach to protecting elephants.”

'There Should Be Dialogue'

Judi Wakhungu, Kenya’s environment minister, criticizes the southern African countries for following an outdated, Eurocentric form of conservation. In those countries, she says, many elephants not protected in national parks are the property of private owners who keep them in fenced conservancies and have the right, within limits, to shoot them. That, she says, is very different from her country’s way. “In our country, elephants can’t be owned or killed. They’re an intrinsic part of Kenya.”

Elephants have no commercial value, Wakhungu says, other than as draw cards for tourists. An elephant is protected as a national heritage, not as a commodity that can be traded for its ivory.

Members of the African Elephant Coalition are urging the three southern African outliers to adopt more Africa-centered policies, citing conservation successes in countries where this is happening.

In Kenya, Uganda, Benin, Burkina Faso, and Niger, according to the preliminary results of the Great Elephant Census, elephant numbers are increasing, with benefits for nature as a whole. Elephants are keystone animals, acting as gardeners, engineers, and architects for ecosystems, dispersing seeds, clearing scrub, and fertilizing the soil with their dung. Without them, other animals and plants would suffer, as would villagers who rely on the natural environment for their livelihoods.

“There should be a dialogue with the countries in southern Africa,” says Dawud Mume Ali, director general of Ethiopia’s Wildlife Conservation Authority. “If Africa shows a united front, its position will be strong.”

Mume Ali says that if the continent reaches consensus in calling for Appendix I, the decision will send a clear message to consumers that African elephants belong in Africa, alive.

Wakhungu, who plans to meet with her South African counterpart, Edna Molewa, before the CITES meeting for a bilateral discussion about the ivory trade issue, believes that if the host country speaks out, it can unite the continent.

“By endorsing the AEC [African Elephant Coalition] proposal for Appendix I,” Wakhungu says, South Africa “stands to gain the admiration and respect of the continent and the entire world.”

Read more stories about wildlife crime and exploitation on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.

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