Photograph by Frans Lanting, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Botswana announced today that it supports the greatest possible protection for Africa's beleaguered elephants.

Photograph by Frans Lanting, Nat Geo Image Collection

Breaking: Pro-Ivory Trade Country’s Change of Heart Upends Elephant Debate

In a dramatic switch, the country with the world’s largest population of elephants, Botswana, urges a ban on ivory trading.

In a surprising about-face, Botswana—the country with the largest remaining number of wild elephants—has thrown its weight behind a proposal to end trading elephant ivory for good.

The move, announced at a major international wildlife conference, puts Botswana at odds with its southern African counterparts, which continue to support limited legal ivory sales. It also stands to strengthen the global push to ban the ivory trade: Botswana has 130,000 wild elephants, according to the latest elephant statistics, giving the country enormous clout on the issue.

The announcement came during heated debate on October 3 at the triennial conference for CITES, the 183-government body that regulates the global wildlife trade. The body is considering a number of proposals on the legality of the global ivory trade—including one that would prohibit international trade of ivory from countries including Botswana.

“There is a clear and growing global consensus that the ivory trade needs to be stopped if elephants are to be conserved effectively,” said Tshekedi Khama, Botswana’s Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism. “We therefore support a total, unambiguous, and permanent ban on the ivory trade," he added in an online statement.

As soon as Khama spoke, applause rippled through the room.

Robert Hepworth, a former CITES official and now an advisor for the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, one of the NGOs that supports closing all ivory markets, said he thinks the announcement “will move the Earth.” He speculated that it “may attract enough votes to get this crucial decision made.”

As Khama acknowledged in his statement, the move represents a break from Botswana's former aim for a sustainable ivory industry.

“Although Botswana supported the idea of limited, legal ivory sales from countries that managed their elephant herds sustainably, we now recognize that we can no longer support these sales," he said. "We must unite [in] solidarity with our colleagues regionally and worldwide to stop this crisis."

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Botswana's Okavango Delta has been a safe haven for herds of elephants. The Botswana government wants to keep it that way.

Botswana—along with Nambia and Zimbabwe—had been allowed to sell part of its large ivory stockpile to Japan in 1999 and, in 2008, to China and Japan, with South Africa added to the trio. These two sales, according to a recent study, provoked a dramatic acceleration in elephant poaching across Africa.

Botswana’s realignment “will be a giant leap to curb the slaughter,” says Mike Chase, director of Elephants Without Borders, a Botswana research-based organization dedicated to the conservation of wildlife. “Botswana stands to become the apple of the world’s eye and the champion of elephants.”

Elephants are suffering losses of about 30,000 each year from poaching for the illegal ivory trade to China and elsewhere in Asia, where ivory carvings are prized and ivory art is seen as an investment. Results from a new report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which monitors the conservation status of species, show that roughly 30 percent of the continent’s elephants have been wiped out since 2007.

The IUCN report, which was released during the CITES conference, noted that while poaching in southern Africa has not had the same impact as in other areas, Botswana and its neighbors are now increasingly in traffickers’ crosshairs.

The proposal to ban the trade, presented by 12 other African elephant range states, as well as Sri Lanka, seeks to have all elephants listed under CITES’s Appendix I, which prohibits any and all trade in ivory and live animals too.

As of now, elephants in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe—countries long-regarded as having stable, well-managed elephant populations—are listed under Appendix II, which allows for a regulated trade in ivory. (A side note to the listing has prevented them from trading ivory, with the exception of the two special sales.)

Botswana’s 130,000 elephants represent a third of the continent’s population, and the country has long been regarded as the elephant bastion. But “since the previous elephant census in 2010,” Khama said, “we lost 15 percent of our elephants, and the carnage continues.”

“That’s roughly 20,000 elephants killed for their tusks in just five years,” says Chase. “It’s the equivalent of South Africa’s or Namibia’s entire elephant population.”

“Put simply,” Khama told the conference committee, “a threat to elephants anywhere is a threat to elephants everywhere. There is no time to waste. Botswana unequivocally supports the proposal to list African elephants under Appendix I.”

Strong African Support for Elephants

Among hundreds of delegates, NGOs, and other representatives attending the Conference of the Parties, as the CITES conference is called, there has been growing sentiment that elephants are about to get better protection.

Last week, following strong statements by Burkina Faso, Kenya, Republic of Congo, and Chad, delegates agreed to throw out a recommendation by Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe to adopt a mechanism for a future trade in ivory.

And after the majority of nations attending the International Union for the Conservation of Nature meeting in Honolulu last month called for the closure of domestic ivory markets, a CITES working group guided largely by the Chinese delegation unanimously agreed to commit nations with legal domestic markets to shut them down.

“Domestic markets are now firmly en route to closure, to which we must commend China above all who in my opinion made the decision politically feasible,” said Robert Hepworth after the working group meeting, which he attended.

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About 20,000 elephants in Botswana have been killed for their tusks during the past five years.

In his statement, minister Khama also praised the African countries that submitted the total ban proposal, as well as consumer countries such as China, Sri Lanka, France, and the United States for supporting it. Botswana, he said, “appreciates the commitment to adopt measures in closing down their legal domestic markets.”

'Selling Ivory Is a Conservation Tool'

Botswana’s announcement came during the debate and voting not only on the proposal to list Africa’s elephants under Appendix I but also proposals by Namibia and Zimbabwe that would keep their elephants on Appendix II and allow their ivory to be sold across borders.

Elsa Nickel, a director in Germany’s environment ministry, says she “would not expect a change in the voting, except the vote of Botswana.” Parties, she believes, will “remain aligned to their previous positions, especially those voting in blocs, like the EU and its 28 member states.”

The EU’s official stance is to oppose Appendix I listing, a position shared by the CITES Secretariat, which has rejected the proposal for a full ban.

“Selling ivory is a conservation tool,” said Edna Molewa, South Africa’s environment minister, explaining why many countries still favor a split-listing, with some elephants under under Appendix I and others under Appendix II. “It earns revenue which can be plowed back into conservation.” Southern African countries, including her own, she said, have healthy elephant populations and in some cases even “too many elephants.” According to Molewa, a legal ivory trade is an effective means of managing an over-abundance of elephants.

“When the country with the largest elephant population on the continent recognizes the urgency of the need for maximum protection from the dangers of ivory trading, the arguments in favor of extending the current split-listing fall away,” says Keith Lindsay. An ecologist, Lindsay is technical advisor for the Amboseli Trust for Elephants and Fondation Franz Weber, organizations providing technical and legal support for delegations behind Appendix I listing.

Hepworth thinks that if the EU decides to follow Botswana’s lead and votes for Appendix I, it may be enough to get the Appendix I proposal approved.

“Botswana now leads the field in making this decision to ban all trade for the foreseeable future,” Lindsay said. “All parties to CITES should take note of the crucially important message this sends to the world.”

The vote over whether to give all African elephants the highest level of CITES protection will happen by the end of today.

(Read more stories out of the CITES meeting in Johannesburg here.)

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