A future for African elephants

by ZSL on

With one elephant killed every 15 minutes for their tusks, the ivory trade is the most urgent threat we need to address in order to safeguard their future.

African elephants are most at risk and they were one of the main focuses at the world’s most important wildlife summit, Conference of the Parties for the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES CoP) in Johannesburg that saw 182 countries come together to fight trade damaging wildlife. 

ZSL sent a delegation to the CITES summit, collaborating with countries (known as Parties) to help protect species threatened by trade.

ZSL’s illegal wildlife trade specialist, Paul De Ornellas, explains why the strongest protections for elephants will come from the closure of domestic ivory markets, strengthening efforts to fight the illegal ivory trade and the reduction in consumer demand for ivory. 

Six African elephants found roaming through Tsavo, Kenya
African elephants spotted in Tsavo, Kenya

The 17th CITES CoP came at a critical time for Africa’s elephants, in the face of an ongoing poaching crisis driven by demand for ivory, populations are under serious threat in much of their range. 

At the CoP the ZSL team focused on outcomes that we felt would best address the current crisis; ensuring no resumption of international ivory trade, closure of domestic ivory markets, countries agreeing to robust measures to combat poaching and ivory trafficking and supporting efforts to reduce consumer demand for ivory. ZSL was delighted to see clear progress on all these areas.

One thing to bear in mind when thinking about CITES issues and the African elephant is that the species face different challenges in different parts of the continent.

Herd of African elephants
African elephants are protected by a total ban on international trade in Kenya
The majority of Africa’s elephants are found in four southern African states including Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. These populations have remained largely stable and avoided the poaching scourge over the last decade. These countries would feel that this reflects their good management and protection of their elephants at a difficult time.

In much of the rest of the continent, poaching is a major threat, with some populations in East and Central Africa seeing devastating declines over the same period to satisfy the illicit ivory trade.

This has been recognised within CITES, with the populations of much of the African Elephant range states on Appendix I (the highest level of international legal protection, a total ban on all trade) and those of the four southern states on Appendix II (where trade is closely controlled), based on an assessment of the biological criteria CITES uses to decide which listing to give. 

Crucially, however, an ‘annotation’ to that Appendix II listing means that no international trade  in ivory is possible from these countries, in effect the same trade status as Appendix I – a full ban.

In 2007, the southern states, who strongly feel they should be able to sell ivory from their large elephant populations, requested that a mechanism be put in place that would enable them to know under what conditions they would be able to resume trade, known as the decision making mechanism (DMM). This DMM was due to be established at CoP17 or, if it hadn’t been agreed, to lapse.

African elephants
African elephants' tusks can grow to an enormous 3.5 meters
In Johannesburg, rival proposals were pitched around the DMM, one to have the DMM removed and another from the southern states proposed a mechanism by which they could sell ivory internationally again.

In a furiously heated debate, both proposals were voted down.

The result? The whole process around the DMM lapsed, with no mechanism established to sell ivory again. Disappointing for the southern states but fantastic news for the continent's elephants!

Later at the conference rival proposals looked to change the current Appendix listings for African elephants, with heated debates over changes that could have profound implications for international trade in ivory. Zimbabwe and Namibia proposed that the annotations on their Appendix II listings be deleted, enabling them to trade again – thankfully both of these were voted down in secret ballots – so no avenue to re-open trade there! 

African elephants caught on Instant Wild camera traps in kenya
Family of African elephants caught on Instant Wild camera traps in kenya
We then moved on to the proposal from a number of West, Central and East African nations to move the four southern nations elephant populations to Appendix I. That caused such controversy. Some NGO's supported this, feeling it sent a strong message regarding elephant conservation.

A number of NGO's including ZSL, WCS, WWF and TRAFFIC opposed this change, which may seem strange for organisations who claim to be committed to elephant conservation. However ZSL took this stance for two important reasons: 

  • Firstly we feared that the change could, perversely as it might seem, lead to a resumption of the international ivory trade. How so? Any party can take out a ‘reservation’  on an Appendix listing change within 90 days of it being made, which would mean they are free to ignore the Appendix listing and trade, although only with a party that has also taken out a reservation. So if the southern states and a consumer took out reservations, they could trade in ivory with each other, despite an Appendix I listing – this was a very real risk of opening up trade by the back door that ZSL and others wished to avoid.
  • Secondly, CITES only exists as long as parties respect the workings of the convention if its decisions are made in a clear, transparent and scientific manner that no-one argue with. The Appendix II listing for the four southern African states was made based on an assessment of biological criteria and in the opinion of ZSL and others, an assessment based on those criteria in 2016 reached the same conclusion. The African elephant populations of Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe, do not meet the criteria for Appendix I. To transfer these populations to Appendix II risked undermining CITES itself and the good faith of these southern states.

ZSL and many others felt that on balance, why risk a resumption of trade? Why undermine CITES and risk the good faith of countries over a change that, given a total ban on international trade is already in place would have largely symbolic value?

The proposal was rejected, nothing changed but most importantly a ban on the international trade in ivory remains fully in place.

African elephants spotted
African elephants tusks are used for defence, elephant battles and to move obstacles
At the same time the parties agreed to develop and implement strong guidelines for programmes to reduce demand for wildlife products. This is something that ZSL feels passionate about; the need to make sure that the critical work to change the behaviour of people consuming wildlife and wildlife products is based on sound evidence and robust approaches that demonstrably have the effect we want; reducing demand and alleviating the pressure that drives illegal killing of elephants.

Two other major issues were addressed that will have a major impact in conserving the elephant and the ZSL team worked long hours in the working groups that drafted the resolutions and decisions that were endorsed by the Parties on the final days.

Firstly it was acknowledged that domestic ivory markets were a serious issue. ZSL and others feel these inevitably provide a route of illicit trade and ultimately help drive poaching of Africa’s elephants. At the CoP it was agreed that countries would close down any domestic market that was linked to illicit trade, a great step forward.

Secondly the Parties agreed to strengthen the National Ivory Action Plan process. This probably seems like just another piece of obscure bureaucracy but it has the potential to be a crucial tool for combating the illegal ivory trade.

African elephant, May 2015
Male and female elephants have tusks, which are modified incisor teeth
Countries that have been identified as being host to aspects of the illegal trade chain – maybe as a source for ivory, a transit route for traffickers or a final destination market; have to produce, implement and clearly deliver a National Ivory Action Plan (NIAP) that address the illegal trade issues that led them to being identified.

At the CoP17 we agreed a new framework for doing this, making it ‘fitter for purpose’, easier to assess progress and provided scope with our independent experts evaluating whether or not a country had successfully done what it said it would do (no more self-assessment by countries!)

Good news for countries doing well implementing their NIAPs and bad news for those lagging behind but most importantly great news for elephants and the fight against the illegal ivory trade! 

All this might just seem boring policy, cheap words perhaps, and in some ways it is.

For elephants what matters is what we do next; to use these new tools and policies and ensure countries implement them effectively on the ground to protect elephants from poaching, disrupt trafficking networks and reduced demand for ivory.

Policy change is only a first step, but its critical we get it right if we’re to meet the challenge posed by the illegal ivory trade.

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