Live Elephant and Rhino Trade Debated at Wildlife Convention


Jani Astman, National Geographic

Date Published

More than 500 live white rhinos and 20 live African elephants have been exported between 2010 and 2014 from range states to countries around the world. Swaziland recently exported elephantsto the United States, and Zimbabwe sent elephants to China. White rhinos have been exported to China and elsewhere.

Now eight countries are proposing to tighten the rules governing these exports to ensure the best outcomes for the animals and their future in the wild. The issue of live elephant and rhino trade was debated by signatories to an international convention on Tuesday at the convention’s 17th Conference of the Parties in Johannesburg.

Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), countries that have populations of rhinos and elephants listed on Appendix II of the convention (meaning they can be traded as long as the exporting nation finds that sending them to another country won’t pose a detriment to the population) can export them to “appropriate and acceptable destinations” in other countries. This means that exports go through if a scientific authority from the importing country affirms that it can house and care for the animals.

One proposal, submitted by the U.S., would beef up this definition of “appropriate and acceptable destinations” by requiring that the importing and exporting countries be satisfied that the trade would support “in situ conservation,” meaning that the profits of the sale would be used to advance the conservation of wild elephants. It also would add a provision stating that any rhino horn or elephant ivory of the imported animals or their offspring won’t enter commercial trade and that the animals and their offspring won’t be hunted.

Another proposal, submitted by seven African countries, asked that parties restrict trade in live elephants on the basis that they do not fare well during capture, transport, and in captivity. It also asked the member nations to agree that “appropriate and acceptable” should mean countries that are “suitably equipped to house and care for” live elephants and that the sales clearly benefit in situ conservation.

The debate went more or less as expected.

Zimbabwe appeared to oppose the proposals. “Animal rights and welfare issues are better handled in another forum, not CITES,” said the Zimbabwe representative.

Swaziland also opposed the proposal, maintaining that it should be allowed to continue exporting their wildlife: “Good conservation produces surpluses, even of elephants….We strongly support sustainable uses of natural resources including elephants.”

China, which has imported wildlife from Africa, also would like to keep the status quo. The Chinese delegation to CITES argued that there are conservation benefits of ex situ conservation, that is, keeping stocks of animals outside their natural habitats.  

Uganda and Ethiopia expressed support for the proposals from their fellow African elephant range states.

“Wild elephants belong in the wild, in their home range—not in captivity for entertainment,” the Ugandan delegate said.

Ethiopia echoed that statement: “African elephants should remain in Africa.”

Because the two proposals are so similar, the U.S. and Kenya, representing the seven African countries, agreed to work together to develop a joint proposal that they would present at a later time. The CoP runs until October 5.