While the multilateral treaty to protect endangered plants and animals, known as Cites, has already made far-reaching decisions about the future of some endangered animal species, a debate around how to curb the rampant illegal ivory trade has caused a rift between African countries on the best method to care for their elephants.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and Wild Fauna and Flora, which is under way in Sandton, saw a southern African coalition compromising Namibia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Zambia increasingly isolated as antitrade sentiments gained support at the talks.
The coalition believes that selling ivory could give a significant boost to the dwindling funds needed to conserve elephants in future, and says that banning all ivory trade would punish it for successful elephant conservation.
Only South Africa, Namibia and Botswana have stable or increasing elephant herds in Africa. The nations list their elephants under Cites Appendix 2, which allows limited domestic trade.
On the other side, however, is a call by a group of African countries for a formal global ban on ivory trade by listing all elephant populations in Cites Appendix I.
The countries vehemently opposed to any form of ivory trade include Burkina Faso‚ Kenya‚ the Democratic Republic of Congo and Chad. In many of these nations, poaching has all but destroyed their elephant populations, and they consider a total ban on ivory as the only way to salvage what little they have left of their natural stock.
Kenya said at the talks that 29 African countries were calling for the highest protection of African elephants. The east African state said the plight of its elephants was gaining support from other member parties around the world.
Several delegates said the desire by the southern African countries to sell the ivory stocks worth billions of rands would “spark more poaching” of other elephant populations in vulnerable regions.
Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa denied that her coalition was being isolated.
“Until the issue has been excessively discussed, we can’t talk about isolation. We have valid scientific arguments, not emotions,” she said.
On Monday, the first salvo was fired when a Namibian proposal to adopt a decision-making mechanism for future trade in ivory was shouted down. The plan had been proposed at previous Cites meetings.
Opponents argued strongly that even the idea of a one-off stockpile sale of ivory could lead to an increase in demand. As a result, this could fuel more poaching.
Jonathan Barzdo, chair of the committee discussing the ivory issue, said if the mandate was not extended by the committee, it would probably die, but that issue could still be discussed in plenary sessions in the coming week.
A group of eight other African states then put forward an unsuccessful counterproposal calling for the discussions to be abandoned completely, which could have left the proposed future trade in limbo.
Philip Muruthi, the vice-president of species protection at the African Wildlife Foundation, said considering the proportions that the poaching crisis had reached, it would be foolish to introduce a legal trade in ivory.
“What happens in other regions affects the whole of Africa. South Africa has done well, but what about other nations that are under siege?” he asked.
But Molewa said South Africa supported the claim made in a research paper released at the talks that there was no evidence linking one-off ivory sales and the poaching crisis.
She said the southern African countries knew how to sustainably manage their populations.
The US, which is driving the proposal to shut down all ivory markets, argued that the shutting down of ivory markets would go a long way in decreasing poaching.
The southern African coalition also threw a curve ball at the debate by arguing that Cites had no standing to intervene in their domestic trade. Molewa said that Cites should not meddle in domestic markets.
“Cites is responsible for only international trade,” reiterated Stephen Mwansa, permanent secretary in Zambia’s tourism department. He described the perceived interference as “neocolonial” behaviour.
Zimbabwe, especially, has been vocal about the stockpile proposal, but critics have questioned whether it was trying to raise money for the cash-strapped country through a stockpile sale.
Zimbabwe has a 70-ton ivory stockpile worth at least $35 million (R481 million). Zimbabwe Environment Minister Oppah Muchinguri said the “imperialistic policies” infringed on the sovereign rights of the nations to manage their wildlife.
The EU, however, is opposed to a total ban on ivory sales and has been working with South Africa behind the scenes to facilitate a deal on the ivory markets.