At the just ended Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting in Sandton, Johannesburg, a coalition of African countries led by Kenya and Benin lost their bid to upgrade all African elephants to most protected status, after objections from Southern African countries.
What carried the day was a call for a stronger position on the closing of illegal ivory trade markets, which China – one of the biggest markets for illegal ivory – supported.
Interestingly, once China took is strong stance, its archrival Japan issued a statement saying that the adopted proposal on domestic ivory trade did not apply to it. Japan’s environment minister said the resolution wouldn’t apply to his country as there was no poached ivory in its market.
Allan Thornton, president of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), said Japan’s opposition to the domestic ivory ban proposals is a slap in the face for the 29 African states seeking to end the domestic ivory trade and protect their elephants.
“It is time for Japan to join global efforts to protect elephants and to permanently ban its domestic ivory trade,” said Mr Thornton.
Patrick Omondi, a Kenyan delegate, said that China’s move was a surprise, coming from a country that has long been accused of doing little to stop fuelling demand for and poaching of ivory.
“China wanted to make it clear that all domestic, legal markets should be closed. This was clear from their working group and will go a long way towards ensuring that they close their market soon,” said Mr Omondi.
The two countries took their geopolitical rivalry to a higher level with China supporting the 29 African countries, led by Kenya and Benin, that called for a total ban on ivory, while Japan supported the four Southern African countries that opposed the ban, while calling for a one-off sale of their ivory stockpiles.
Botswana, which has the largest number of elephants, broke ranks with its Southern African neighbours Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa, and voted for a total ban on the ivory trade. In past decades, Botswana supported the idea of limited, legal ivory sales from countries that managed their elephant herds sustainably but its support for a total and permanent ban on the ivory trade everywhere threw a spanner in the works, tilting the balance against its neighbours.
“There is a clear and growing global consensus that the ivory trade needs to be stopped if elephants are to be conserved effectively. We therefore support a total, unambiguous, and permanent ban on the ivory trade. Banning the ivory trade will not, on its own, save every elephant from poachers. But shutting down all ivory markets is a requisite element of a comprehensive conservation strategy,” said Tshekedi Khama, Botswana’s Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism.
In 1990, CITES banned the international ivory trade after a decade of slaughter in which the population of African elephants halved from 1.3 million to 600,000 animals.
Subsequently, most African countries successfully brought the poaching of elephants under control and began to see their elephant population recover.
The sale of ivory was re-permitted, experimentally, in 1997 and again in 2008 under the CITES framework that saw Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe allowed to sell part of their large ivory stockpile to Japan in 1999 and, in 2008, to China and Japan. Last year, Tanzania also asked to be allowed to sell its stockpile of ivory and use the proceeds to fight poaching.
Recent scientific reports show that between 2010 and 2012, some 100,000 elephants were lost to poaching across Africa, and there is no evidence to suggest that the number of animals lost to poaching has diminished in the years since. It is also estimated that over 1,000 rhinos were poached in 2015, in South Africa alone.
However, while arguing for a one-off ivory sale, South Africa’s Environment Minister, Edna Molewa said that the rural communities can only benefit from the elephants if they are allowed to participate in trophy hunting and legal ivory sales.
“We have seen an increase in elephant populations leading to disastrous human-animal conflicts. These rural communities must benefit from elephants if they are to tolerate the damage caused to crops and the lives sometimes lost. Trophy hunting is the best return on investment for elephant protection and has the least impact,” said Ms Molewa.
Threat to withdraw
At one point, Namibia threatened to withdraw from CITES if all the populations were upgraded to the highest levels, which would effectively ban any kind of ivory trade.
As the discussions hit the homestretch, the Southern African countries lost the vote as the delegates at the wildlife conference endorsed calls for the closure of all domestic ivory markets. Namibia and Zimbabwe failed to convince the delegates that they should be allowed to export ivory, which they said would protect rather than further endanger Africa’s elephants.
Namibia’s proposal lost by 73 votes to 27, while Zimbabwe lost by 80 votes to 21, both far short of the two-thirds required to pass. This meant that countries were now required to close the domestic markets for ivory, while the process that could allow one-off sales of ivory stockpiles was shot down and tougher measures to deal with nations failing to control poached ivory agreed on.
The winners here, despite not getting the elephants the highest level of international legal protection — a Cites “Appendix 1” listing which bans all trade — were Kenya, Benin and Tanzania, which have long suffered from the menace of poaching, despite Tanzania having earlier supported the one-off ivory sale of its stockpiles.
Ginette Hemley, the head of the CITES delegation for conservation group World Wildlife Fund said that if the two countries got their way, it would pave the way for criminal syndicates to launder poached ivory, undermining law enforcement.
“African elephants are declining across much of the continent due to poaching for their ivory, and opening up any legal trade in ivory would complicate efforts to conserve them,” said Ms Hemley.
Kenya’s Environment Minister Judi Wakhungu said the country was pushing for a total ban on the ivory trade, noting that the demand for illegal products drives supply.
“For us, dealing with the trade, requires aggressive law enforcement, effective elephant ivory and rhino horn movement control and influential market dis-incentivisation. Ivory belongs to the elephants and ivory is worth more on a live animal rather than on a dead one,” said Ms Wakhungu.
Kenya torched 105 tonnes of ivory on April 30, 2016 at a ceremony led by President Uhuru Kenyatta and attended by dignitaries at the Nairobi National Park.
The non-binding proposal was approved, with conservationists hailing it as a significant step towards ending the current elephant poaching crisis. The agreement is not legally binding and Cites can’t compel countries to implement it, but conservationists believe it is a strong move as it is the first time that the 183 countries that have signed the Convention have taken a unified position on this issue.
Robert Hepworth, a former chair of the CITES standing committee, said this was an important step towards shutting down the ivory markets worldwide.
“This is the first time CITES has agreed to intervene so directly in the domestic ivory trade. The new resolution will now see countries gradually close their markets, which have been seen as contributing to poaching and the illegal ivory trade,” said Mr Hepworth.
On other animals, CITES failed to raise the status of African lions to category one, which would offer them complete protection, leaving the fate of an estimated 20,000 lions in the balance and raising fears that countries that don’t have lion trophy trade will now allow it.
Nine African countries of Togo, Niger, Chad, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Guinea, Mali and Mauritania had proposed to ban the trade of lion bone, claws, teeth and skin.
South Africa and Zimbabwe, are some of the countries that voted against the protection status. It is estimated that 1,500 lions are hunted for trophies, with experts saying this could slowly rise leading to their extinction.