Southern African countries will face an uphill battle to seek approval for the sale of their ivory stocks at the forthcoming international conference on trade in endangered species which will be held in South Africa later this year due to a poaching crisis facing the region.
For decades, debate over the sale of ivory from African elephants has focused on the benefits that income from ivory sales may bring to conservation and to local communities living side-by-side with these large and potentially dangerous animals versus concerns that such sales may encourage poaching.
The fight has mainly been between those countries that have sizeable populations of elephants and want to ensure sustainable use and those countries that have already decimated their elephant populations.
Most southern African countries which include Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania and South Africa have always supported the proposal to review the ban on trade in ivory.
SADC countries often stand nearly alone in opposing the destruction of illegal ivory stockpiles and a total ban on ivory trade among a slew of measures widely believed to combat poaching.
The countries want to press for the continuation of the development of a decision-making process for the trade in ivory.
However, with CITES meeting on their home soil, SADC countries will push hard for further ivory trade discussions.
SADC countries believe strongly that legalising the trade will drive down prices by increasing the supply of ivory.
The southern African countries, which are the last frontier for the world’s wildlife say lower prices would provide little incentive for poaching.
But many wildlife and conservation groups in Africa and in the US, the EU and other countries against ivory trade reject this supply and demand model as too simplistic.
At the 66th CITES standing committee meeting held in 2015, many countries, including African and Asian countries, home to elephant populations, supported a proposal to suspend further work on this “decision-making mechanism”.
The CITES secretariat succeeded in halting the working group until September, when all members meet in Johannesburg.
CITES and most other countries believe that destroying illegal ivory is the best way to deter people from buying ivory products.
Pro-ivory ban countries say this is an effective way for preventing illegal ivory from re-entering the market. They also worry about poor security on government stockpiles which often leak and fuel the massive illegal trade in ivory.
Total destruction of ivory stockpiles, they argue, helps send the message that ivory markets should be shut down. Said Thea Carroll, a South African representative at the 66th CITES standing committee meeting: “South Africa is concerned about the negative consequences of destroying stockpiles.”
“South Africa’s view is that destroying ivory increases its scarcity and therefore drives up prices. When ivory gets more valuable, poaching intensifies.”
Zimbabwe and Botswana spoke up in support of Carroll’s opposition to ivory stockpile destructions at this meeting.
Other sales in these countries took place in 1999 and 2008 and earned some US$20 million for elephant conservation and community development programmes in and around the elephant range areas.
However, critics believe this permission for once-off ivory sales has accelerated the pace of the current elephant poaching crisis which has seen some 30 000 elephants being killed each year.
Since 2011, CITES has witnessed more than 15 public ivory destruction events in 10 countries: Kenya, Gabon, the Philippines, India, United States, China (including Hong Kong), France, Chad, Belgium, and Portugal.
Sri Lanka, Malawi, New Zealand and Vietnam have also joined the bandwagon of countries destroying their stockpiles.
This sparked alarm among wildlife and conservation groups who expressed deep concern over the use of chemicals such as cyanide — which poachers were now using as they adopt new methods of killing mammals in wildlife sanctuaries dotted around the SADC region, which is last frontier remaining with number of animals extinct in other parts of the world.
One of the worst affected countries within the SADC region is Zimbabwe, which is grappling with sophisticated poaching by local and international syndicates that has left more than 20 000 elephants dead over the last two decades.
Some wildlife analysts suggest that Zimbabwe could have roughly lost US$3 billion when an average sport hunting fee of US$120 000 is factored in for each elephant.
Zimbabwe has accumulated more than 90 tonnes of elephant tusks which it cannot dispose due to the international ban on trade in ivory.
A 2015 round of cyanide poisonings in Zimbabwe killed 14 elephants in September while 26 more were found poisoned at two sites in the Hwange National Park, according to the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.
In 2013, cyanide poisoning decimated about 300 elephants in Hwange as poachers placed salt laced with cyanide near wildlife watering holes.
Tusk Trust, a wildlife organisation, reports that 100 000 elephants were killed in the past four years, leaving a population of about 400 000 — half what it was more than two-and-half decades ago.
“Negotiating for approval of ivory sales will not be easy at the CITES 17,” said a senior Zimbabwe environment official.
“As a country we now have a position but we need to work closely with others to develop a regional position.”
Conditions set by CITES are tough. If sales are approved, the countries will not be permitted to sell ivory until the CITES secretariat has verified the stocks and assurance made to the secretariat that the proceeds of the trade will be used exclusively for elephant conservation and community development programmes.
South Africa is pressing to seek approval for the sale of its 21 tonnes of rhino horn which will earn the country US$1,36 billion if CITES okays it this year.
International trade in rhino horn has been banned by CITES since 1977. However, SA officials maintain that a decision has not been made on the matter.
CITES Secretary-General John Scanlon has also stated boldly that: “Rhino horn, elephant ivory, and tiger parts should not be traded commercially in any circumstances.”
Prospects for SADC countries to secure a win at the CITES conference are slim given the alarming levels of poaching experienced in the region. Wildlife crime is now big business and each year thousands animals are illegally caught and harvested from the wild and then sold as food, pets, clothing, medicine and tourist ornaments.
Environmentalists say these exploitative practices are threatening the survival of many endangered species.
In 2012 alone, they say, more than 900 rhinos were slaughtered in South Africa for their horns which are used primarily for medicinal purposes despite having no medical study in existence ever proving their beneficial effect on health.
Similar spikes in rhino poaching have also been recorded throughout other parts of Africa and Asia.
To fight the unprecedented spike in the illegal wildlife trade, animal and conservation groups say CITES member states will need to strengthen law enforcement and the criminal justice system, reduce demand for illegal wildlife products and support the development of sustainable livelihoods for communities affected by illegal wildlife trade.
Winning CITES approval will not be easy for southern African states desperate for revenues to boost their capacity to conserve biodiversity, strengthen enforcement controls and contribute to the livelihoods of the rural people living side-by-side with wildlife.
Stakes will be high for SADC at CITES 17. An ivory ban by most airlines in recent years across the world has hurt Sadc wildlife conservation programmes. A lose for Sadc will be disastrous for a region battling reduced revenue inflows from tourism, commodity markets and foreign investment.