Fate of Africa’s Elephants Hangs in the Balance after COP 17


Adam Cruise, Supplied Conservation Action Trust

Date Published

A golden opportunity to stop the catastrophic decline of Africa’s elephants had been missed as CoP17 wrapped up in Johannesburg yesterday.

Following the results from the Great Elephant Census as well as the IUCN’s African Elephant Status Report which show that roughly thirty percent of elephants have been wiped out since 2007, this conference was ideally placed to provide full international protection for the beleagured pachyderms.

Some gains were made for protection of elephants however, the most important proposal – the call for a total and permanent ban on ivory sales – was rejected.

The failed proposal, presented by twelve African elephant range states (as well as Sri Lanka) and supported by eighteen other African countries united under the African Elephant Coalition, aimed to include all Africa’s elephants through the transfer from Appendix II (which allows for a regulated trade in ivory) to Appendix I of the elephant populations of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

“The failure of this proposal is a tragedy for the elephants and all persons that are fighting to save elephants” said South African elephant expert Dr Marion Garai.” Botswana must be lauded for supporting the rest of Africa however the Southern African states opposing an uplisting clearly only had their personal interest in mind and not those of the elephants. The failure of this proposal has sent the entirely wrong message to the poaching syndicates who are the only winners in this war.

The Good News

There was some good news as counter-proposals tabled by Namibia and Zimbabwe calling for an unqualified legal trade in ivory were roundly rejected by the 158 delegations attending the conference. The same treatment was meted out for a document issued by South Africa asking for a continuation of a Decision Making Mechanism for discussion for a future legal trade in ivory.

Then nations, led by the Chinese delegation, committed to closing down their domestic ivory markets and there was broad agreement as to the future regulation and management of ivory stockpiles with positive discussions about the need for stockpile destruction.

The big news of the conference was Botswana’s announcement by Tshekedi Khama, Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism, who threw Botswana’s weight behind the Appendix I proposal just before voting on it commenced. It was a significant turn-around for a country who once favoured a legal trade. In the past, Botswana, along with Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa had particpated in the limited, legal sales of their ivory stockpiles to Japan and China.

Botswana boasts an estimated 130,451 elephants – one third of the entire continent’s population – and has long been regarded as the bastion of Africa’s elephants. But Khama is concerned about the increase in poaching that has seen his country lose 20,000 elephants in five years. The Botswanan minister believes “poaching will only be stopped if members vote for an Appendix I listing for all Africa’s elephants.”

In the lunch interim before voting began, Robert Hepworth, former CITES official and advisor for David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, hoped Botswana’s surprise announcement “would attract enough votes to get this crucial decision made.”

The Bad News

However, the proposal was defeated by the bloc vote of the European Union.

The EU participated as a full Party with 28 Member States in one voting bloc for the first time at a CoP. The organization all but upended the way voting traditionally occurs at CITES. By wielding 28 guaranteed votes, instead of individual Parties, the European Union held all the cards at voting time. The pattern of the conference was consistent: Whichever way the EU decided to vote on whatever species, the outcome was always in the EU’s favour.

When it came to voting for elephants, the EU opposed the Appendix I listing, arguing that the elephant populations of the four Appendix II countries were healthy, well-managed and did not meet the biological criteria of a decline of 50% over three generations (or 75 years in the case of elephants) for an uplisting to Appendix I.

Directly as a result of the EU vote, the proposal failed to gain the necessary two-thirds majority to pass.  

After the vote, a visibly angry Hepworth said: “A combination of European Commission bureaucrats and EU ministers managed the triple whammy at CITES of offending many African governments, blocking the proposal that would safeguard elephants for good, and weakening the positive decisions on closing the domestic ivory markets and discussions over stockpiles.”

Khama was baffled by the logic of the EU. “How can the EU vote against our desire for a full protection of elephants when we have all the elephants?”

Together with Botswana, the African countries that support an Appendix I listing comprise of almost 80% of the African elephant range.

“The European Union’s position is shocking,” said Vera Weber, President of Fondation Franz Weber. “Their patronizing and colonialist attitude to the vast majority of African elephant range states calling for an Appendix I listing is shameful.”

With the split-listing of elephants still in place, the possibility for a future sale of stockpiles of any of the four Appendix II listed countries to an approved buyer remains possible.

While much attention has been focused on China, the dirty secrets of Japan’s illegal ivory trade, have just been revealed and clearly demonstrates Japan’s unwillingness to take the action required to control its’ thriving and largely unregulated market.

Khama warns: “These member state delegates, when all they get together again at the next CoP in three years’ time, will find that elephant numbers have continued to free-fall as they have over the past decade. And that day,” he says, “they will find also that it will be too late to save the elephants”.