ZSL at CITES CoP - African elephant

African elephant (Loxodonta africana

The 17th CITES CoP (Conference of the Parties) in Johannesburg will have a major focus on elephants and ivory.  

It represents an opportunity for Parties to address the critical issues of (1) reducing the illegal killing of elephants, (2) increasing efforts to combat ivory trafficking and (3) reducing the demand for ivory that is driving this trade.  

ZSL will be working to encourage Parties to support initiatives at CITES that put in place robust measures that will help conserve African elephants.

African elephant in Kenya

Conservation status and protection:

The African elephant (Loxodonta africana) is facing a poaching crisis driven by a demand for ivory and ivory products. Illegal killing began to escalate in the mid-2000s, peaking at an estimated 35,000-40,000 individuals killed in 2011 and, although the latest MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) report shows that these levels have declined slightly, they still remain high (1,2). 

The recently released Great Elephant Census estimates a decline of around 30% in the savannah elephant populations in 15 of the 18 sub-Saharan African states surveyed – equivalent to almost 150,000 elephants – over the period 2007-20154. For the forest elephant populations of Central Africa the situation is particularly grave, with the population of the subspecies across the region estimated to have declined by 62% over the period 2000-2010 (3).

While in other parts of its range some elephant populations have stabilised or increased, overall the evidence supports ZSL’s experience through its field programmes in West, Central and East Africa that ongoing pressure from illegal killing continues to be a major threat to elephants across many former strongholds for the species.

In 1989, in response to a poaching crisis in the preceding decade, CITES listed all African elephant populations on Appendix I. Populations in Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe were transferred to Appendix II in 1997, followed by South Africa in 2000. 

ZSL positions at CITES CoP17:

ZSL bases its recommendations to Parties at CoP17 on a recognition of:
-    the current poaching crisis and ongoing demand for ivory;
-    the challenges posed by corruption, low levels of enforcement and institutional capacity along the ivory supply chain;
-    evidence of leakage of illegally-sourced ivory into legal trade; 
-    absence of evidence that regulated trade could meet market demand and reduce poaching pressures on wild populations.  

As a consequence ZSL:

  • opposes any resumption of international trade in ivory;
  • supports the closure of all domestic markets for ivory;
  • supports initiatives to reduce demand for and consumption of ivory and ivory products;
  • supports efforts to strengthen Parties’ capacity to implement or enhance in-situ protection of elephants, law enforcement, closure of domestic ivory markets and combat trafficking e.g. enhancing the National Ivory Action Plan framework and implementing the African Elephant Action Plan and the Elephant Protection Initiative;
  • supports strengthened compliance mechanisms for Parties not complying with CITES obligations.

ZSL briefing note on African Elephants 

PDF icon ZSL Briefing Note - African_Elephant.pdf (2.66 MB) (2.66 MB)


ZSL recommendations to Parties at CoP17:

CoP17 Props 14 and 15 [Namibia, Namibia and Zimbabwe] Alter the listings of the Namibian and Zimbabwean populations of African Elephant (Loxodonta africana) in Appendix II by deleting any reference to Namibia in that Annotation and removing the annotation related to Zimbabwe. 

Removing these annotations would enable a resumption of international trade, as per standard Appendix II conditions. 

ZSL encourages Parties to oppose proposals 14 and 15.

CoP17 Prop. 16 [Benin, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sri Lanka, Uganda] Inclusion of all populations of African Elephant (Loxodonta africana) in Appendix I through the transfer from Appendix II to Appendix I of the populations of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. 

None of these populations meet the biological requirements for transfer to Appendix I detailed in Resolution Conf. 9.24 (Rev. CoP16). ZSL does not believe that transferring these populations to Appendix I will reduce pressure from illegal killing across the species range. 

ZSL encourages Parties to oppose proposal 16 and focus efforts on other initiatives at the CoP that can have a more significant positive impact for elephant conservation.

CoP Doc.18.1 [The United States of America] Demand reduction strategies to combat illegal trade in CITES-listed species and CoP Doc. 18.2 [Gabon, Guinea, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo] Development of CITES demand-reduction guidelines.

Demand for ivory underlies the current poaching crisis and without addressing this all other efforts to combat elephant poaching and ivory trafficking are likely to fail. Encouraging demand reduction initiatives is therefore paramount. ZSL strongly supports adopting an evidence-based approach to demand reduction, grounded in a behaviour change model that incorporates monitoring and evaluation. 

ZSL encourages Parties to support documents, the draft resolution in 18.1 and draft decisions in 18.2.

CoP Doc. 24 [Secretariat] National Ivory Action Plans process and CoP Doc. 57.1 [Secretariat] Implementation of Resolution Conf. 10.10 (Rev. CoP16) on Trade in elephant specimens

ZSL strongly supports the CITES National Ivory Action Plan (NIAP) process and has had the opportunity to support Parties in developing and implementing their NIAPs. Putting in place measures that strengthen the development, implementation and evaluation of NIAPs should be a priority for Parties at CoP17. 

ZSL encourages Parties to support reinforcement of the NIAP process.

CoP Doc 57.2 [Angola, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Cote D’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kenya, Niger and Senegal] Closure of domestic markets for elephant ivory.

Legal domestic ivory markets provide a route for illegally sourced ivory to be laundered and enter the market as ‘legal’5. In addition, research indicates that the supply of ivory from wild elephant populations will not be sufficient to meet current let alone likely increased demand. In the current poaching crisis with ongoing demand for ivory and continued illicit trade, closure of domestic ivory markets is therefore essential. Closure of domestic ivory markets globally has widespread support amongst African range states, has been the subject of a recent IUCN Resolution  and a number of countries have already made commitments in this direction. 

ZSL strongly encourages Parties to support this initiative and incorporate the suggested changes to Resolution Conf. 10.10 (Rev. CoP16).

CoP Doc 57.3 [Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Cote D’Ivoire, Kenya, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal] Ivory stockpiles: proposed revision of Resolution Conf. 10.10 (Rev. CoP16) on Trade in elephant specimens

ZSL supports securing ivory stockpiles and putting them beyond economic use as a key tool to support law enforcement. Destruction of stockpiles is one method to ensure ivory is put beyond economic use and does not find its way into illegal trade but should not be done without full compliance with other CITES requirements or be done in the absence of effective plans for ongoing management.  

ZSL strongly encourages Parties to support this initiative and incorporate the suggested changes to Resolution Conf. 10.10 (Rev. CoP16).

CoP 17 Doc.84.1 [SC], 84.2 [Benin, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, Niger and Senegal] and 84.3 [Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe] Decision-making mechanism for a process of trade in ivory

ZSL notes that little progress has been made in agreeing a ‘Decision-making mechanism (DMM) for a process of trade in ivory’ over the 9 years since Decision 14.77 was adopted in 2007 (Decision 16.55). ZSL considers that the context in which this was adopted has changed dramatically and that given the current poaching crisis, ongoing trafficking and demand for ivory and ivory products, it would not be appropriate for Parties to pursue the DMM.  On this basis, ZSL recommends that Parties focus their efforts at CoP17 instead on other topics that seek to address the current poaching and trafficking threats to elephants and reducing demand for ivory. 

ZSL encourages Parties to support Recommendation 84.3 and end the mandate of Decision 16.55.



1.    Report on Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE). 2016. https://cites.org/sites/default/files/eng/cop/17/WorkingDocs/E-CoP17-57-...

2.    Wittemyer, G., Northrup, J.M., Blanc, J., Douglas-Hamilton, I., Omondi, P. and Burnham, K.P., 2014. Illegal killing for ivory drives global decline in African elephants. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(36), pp.13117-13121.

3.    Chase, M.J., Schlossberg, S., Griffin, C.R., Bouché, P.J., Djene, S.W., Elkan, P.W., Ferreira, S., Grossman, F., Kohi, E.M., Landen, K. and Omondi, P., 2016. Continent-wide survey reveals massive decline in African savannah elephants. PeerJ, 4, p.e2354.

4.    Maisels, F., Strindberg, S., Blake, S., Wittemyer, G., Hart, J., Williamson, E.A., Aba’a, R., Abitsi, G., Ambahe, R.D., Amsini, F. and Bakabana, P.C., 2013. Devastating decline of forest elephants in Central Africa. PloS one, 8(3), p.e59469.

5.    Doak, N. (2014). Polishing off the ivory trade: surveys of Thailand's ivory market. TRAFFIC International, Cambridge, UK.

6.    Bennett, E.L., 2015. Legal ivory trade in a corrupt world and its impact on African elephant populations. Conservation Biology, 29(1), pp.54-60.