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HWANGE, ZIMBABWE: Zimbabwe’s government recently concluded a conference to attempt to rally international support for the sale of its ivory stockpile. It argues that selling some of the 136 metric tons of elephant ivory and rhino horn that it’s holding — mostly from animals that died of natural causes — could fund its conservation efforts.
Critics say one-off sales in 1999 and 2008 authorized by CITES, the global convention on the wildlife trade, resulted in a sharp escalation in illegal killing and poaching of elephants across Africa, and that legalizing the ivory trade could drive African elephants to extinction.
Africa is home to two species of elephants: forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) are found in the forests of Central Africa, while the larger and better-known savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana) are found across Southern and East Africa, with small remnant populations remaining in West Africa. A third elephant species, Elephas maximus, is found in Asia.
Elephants have been slaughtered for their tusks in huge numbers for more than a century. According to global conservation authority the IUCN, elephant populations across Africa fell by around 111,000 in the decade from 2006-2016, primarily due to a wave of poaching, with elephants killed on a scale that had not been seen since the 1970s and ’80s.
Trade in elephant parts has been prohibited by CITES since 1989, but Zimbabwe, with support from Botswana, Tanzania, Namibia, and Zambia, plans to call for the lifting of the ban on trading ivory at the upcoming CITES meeting in Panama in November. The government is making the case that selling off its ivory stockpile will generate revenue for conservation and community development, at a time when the national budget is constrained and the COVID-19 pandemic has further reduced tourism and hunting income.
“Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Authority [ZimParks] requires $20 million to $25 million a year to fund its wildlife conservation activities,” ZimParks director Fulton Mangwanya told Mongabay on the sidelines of the conference, which took place from May 23-26 at Hwange National Park, in northwestern Zimbabwe.
“It costs us tens of thousands a month for storage and security of that stockpile, money that could otherwise be used for conservation. The COVID-19 pandemic has also negatively affected revenue which has affected management effectiveness. Added to that we are not on government budget.”
ZimParks’ funding currently comes exclusively from photo safaris, leasing of property in protected areas, and licenses to hunt wild game — including elephants. Mangwanya said its revenue has been crippled by the global pandemic.
“We face challenges of limited staff, lack of ranger patrol equipment and supporting services. We need to purchase planes, we don’t have any at the moment. We need over 100 vehicles, every region in the country needs graders, tippers, drones for surveillance,” he said.
“If we are allowed to sell our ivory stockpile, all proceeds from ivory sales will fund conservation in our wildlife parks and support communities that live near parks and bear the brunt of conflict with the wildlife.”
Rowan Martin, a former head of wildlife and fisheries research for Zimbabwe’s national parks, told Mongabay that elephant conservation in Zimbabwe requires around $3.5 million per year.
“It is important to realize that the major part of this income comes from trophy hunting — about $2.8 million. As Zimbabwe is sitting on large stocks of ivory not derived from sport hunting [about 90 metric tons] which they can’t sell legally, it would make a huge difference to the national income if they could sell a part of these stocks annually. Such sales could improve the livelihoods of rural people significantly,” he said.
In 1999, and again in 2008, CITES authorized one-off sales of ivory from Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia. In the latter sale, Zimbabwe sold 3,755 kilograms (8,278 pounds) of raw ivory, raising more than $500,000.
Proposals from these three countries for further sales at the two last CITES conferences failed, and the latest call has also been rejected by a bloc of 28 other African elephant range states, as well as by conservation organizations.
Lindsey Smith, senior wildlife campaigner for the Environmental Intelligence Agency, an NGO whose research and analysis formed part of the argument for the original CITES ban in 1989, told Mongabay in an email that any legal sales of ivory risks reigniting demand and stimulating poaching.
“Coupled with the fact that elephant populations of all three species are decreasing, and illegal killing continuing, resuming legal ivory trade will carry with it considerable risk that no potential monetary benefit can allay,” Smith wrote.
She acknowledged that elephant populations in Southern Africa are slowly recovering from catastrophic declines, as poaching in this region has waned since 2017. This has contributed to an increase in human-elephant conflict and related costs of managing these species, but Smith stresses that because elephants — as well as the poachers that hunt them — are a migratory species, managing their protection is necessarily a cross-boundary issue that requires international collaboration.
“We do agree with the views that more nuanced, sustainable funding models and mechanisms for protected areas, biodiversity conservation and community beneficiation need to be developed, but do not believe that ivory trade should have a significant, if any role, in such schemes.”
Daniel Stiles, an independent illegal wildlife trade investigator who has consulted for the U.N., the IUCN and wildlife trade monitoring NGO TRAFFIC, said poaching levels that coincided with earlier one-off sales should not be used to predict the impact of the legal trade in ivory.
“People knew there would be no more legal ivory sales after 2008. So then that sale happened and elephant poaching took off,” Stiles told Mongabay. “Rhino poaching took off at the same time as well. What caused that?”
The 2008 sale coincided with the global financial crisis and newly wealthy Chinese investors selling off property and stocks, he said. And ivory was among the new assets that they invested in instead.
“So what stimulated poaching was a combination of ivory ban and investors in China shifting from stocks to ivory. Normally when you increase supply of a product, the price drops, but it was the opposite with ivory because people were buying ivory for investment. They knew there would be no legal ivory on the market until [the next CITES meeting in] 2016, so they knew hoarding it would make them a killing — and by 2014 in China, ivory was selling at around US$3,000 a kg and that spiked poaching.”
Stiles said more rational, managed legal sales of ivory would not necessarily lead to a repeat of the spike in poaching a decade ago.
“You will have the legal commodity so why poach? There is always going to be illegal activity, but open trade will stop the big massive waves that are wiping out elephants,” he told Mongabay.
EIA’s Smith said her research contradicts this view, pointing out that China’s stock market has faced repeated crashes over the past 20 years that haven’t produced matching spikes in poaching rates.
“It must also be noted that during the time of increased illegal killing, there were many legal domestic ivory markets, not just in China, which also drove demand. Illegally sourced ivory has been found previously in those legal domestic markets. With the closure of domestic markets, appetite for ivory has declined and we have seen a subsequent decline in the number of illegal killings of elephants, although these killings as well as the illegal trade is still ongoing.”
She said collaborative dialogue among range states and other countries is the key to developing strategies to address challenges faced by Zimbabwe and its neighbors.
“We recognise that Southern African range states are facing many challenges in balancing their socio-economic development needs, the importance of protecting public safety, and their international commitments to elephant conservation.”