SADC Faces Tough Battle at CITES 17


Sifelani Tsiko, The Southern Times

Date Published

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.

The demand to sell ivory is likely to be on top of the agenda for most SADC countries at the 17th World Conference of Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (COP17 CITES) that is scheduled to take place in Johannesburg, South Africa, from September 24 to October 5, 2016 this year.

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.

In previous CITES standing committee meetings, the United States, the European Union, Kenya, Uganda and many other parties to CITES argued that given the current poaching crisis, it would be unproductive and dangerous to proceed with discussions about legalising the ivory trade.

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.

SADC states are also strongly opposed to resolutions that support the destruction of government stockpiles of ivory seized from poachers and traffickers.

CITES and most other countries believe that destroying illegal ivory is the best way to deter people from buying ivory products.

For many countries opposed to ivory sales, public ivory destructions usually by crushing or burning have been used as a strategy by governments to deal with their stockpiles of illegal ivory seized from traffickers.

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.

Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa benefited from their stockpiles in 2008 when CITES approved a one-time ivory sale to China and Japan. CITES, which banned the international commercial ivory trade in 1989, permitted Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe to sell some stocks of ivory to Japan, totalling over 150 tonnes in 1997 and 2002.This decision was based on the fact that some southern African elephant populations are healthy and well managed.

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. 

The accelerated pace of wildlife poaching using dangerous chemicals across Southern Africa in recent years is threatening the region’s rich wildlife heritage raising global alarm over the indiscriminate and reckless use of a variety of poisons.
A new round of wildlife poisoning reported in South Africa’s Kruger National Park recently led to the death of more than 100 vultures and two lions. The lions and vultures are said to have died after eating the poisoned carcass of an elephant.

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.

“Next month we are all meeting as SADC countries to map out our regional position in preparation of the CITES conference on our home soil.

“As a country we now have a position but we need to work closely with others to develop a regional position.”

In 2010, Tanzania and Zambia sought approval to sell government-owned stocks of ivory that had accumulated over the years. During that year, Tanzania had nearly 90 tonnes of such stock while Zambia held just over 21 tonnes.

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.

“It’s not just rhinos, tigers and elephants at risk, the unsustainable and illegal wildlife trade impacts a whole host of other animal species,” says an animal rights activist.

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.

Hopes are high that global leaders who will gather for the major conference will formulate strategies to help eradicate illegal wildlife trade and better protect the world’s most iconic species from the threat of extinction.

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.