An alternative take on elephant conservation and the ivory trade


Clemence Machadu, The National

Date Published


Landmark decisions were made about wildlife when members of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (or Cites) gathered in South Africa.

The elephant was a key subject of discussion at the conference. The first proposal was to ban the sale of all African elephants, but this failed as it did not receive the required majority.

Zimbabwe has long argued that the proposal contravenes the Convention of Biological Diversity, the Addis Ababa Principles and Guidelines for the Sustainable Use of Biodiversity, which confirm the right and the need for the sustainable use of natural resources.

Apart from that, some southern African countries have large elephant populations that need to be managed. I grew up in the Zaka rural area of Zimbabwe where elephants would wreak havoc every night, destroying huts and crops, instilling fear among villagers.

The elephant population has continued to increase in parts of Zimbabwe, particularly in the Hwange-Matetsi Complex where the estimated elephant population is 54,000. However, there have been significant declines in populations elsewhere in the country, according to conservation groups.

There are limited resources in the Hwange-Matetsi Complex, resulting in elephants sometimes roaming into villages in search of food and water.

This threatens the survival of other species of plants and animals. An adult elephant, for example, drinks about 200 litres of water a day. Catering for a large number of them is a challenge, especially in the dry season.

To help manage the elephant population, countries such as Zimbabwe have been exporting elephants. The move also allows countries in southern Africa to raise funds to take care of the remaining animals in parks, as budgetary allocations alone are paltry.

Another proposal made at the Cites meeting – and overwhelmingly voted for by 180 countries – was the maintenance of the international ban on trade in ivory and rhino horn and the closure of domestic ivory markets. Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe had proposed to sell their ivory to raise funds for conservation.

The decision was applauded by conservationists, including the World Wildlife Fund and others, who argue that the elephant population has been declining due to poaching and opening up any legal trade in ivory would complicate efforts to conserve them.

Ginette Hemley, head of the WWF delegation, commented: “It could offer criminal syndicates new avenues to launder poached ivory, undermining law enforcement, and would undercut efforts to reduce the consumer demand that is driving the mass poaching.”

But an umbrella ban on ivory trade does not automatically kill the illegal trade market. Strategies should have been discussed on how to deal with illegal trade.

Cites should also have focused discussions on the issue of security of animals in parks and how countries can be assisted to beef up security using innovative technologies to avoid poaching.

An umbrella ban somehow assumes that all ivory is gathered through poaching, which is not true. In many cases, elephants that would have died from natural causes are dehorned and that is how the ivory has been accruing over the years.

Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri, Zimbabwe’s environment minister, has said: “Zimbabwe has 96,000 tonnes of ivory and if sold we can get $9.6 billion [Dh35.2bn].”

However, it won’t be able to sell this huge stockpile. Countries such as Kenya have had to burn their ivory.

The interesting point about Zimbabwe is that if it were to be allowed to sell its ivory, it would be able to clear much of its international debt and be able to get fresh concessionary loans to jump-start its economy.

An alternative move for Cites would have been to allow for the legal sale of ivory gathered from natural elephant deaths.

Clemence Machadu is a writer based in Harare