The recent international conference on trade in endangered species held in South Africa offered little joy for southern Africa as key expectations were not met.
Despite consensus from most countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to lift a ban on trade in ivory, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) maintained the restrictions.
CITES, which is an international agreement that aims to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival, argued that the ban is still necessary to protect the elephants from extinction.
This decision is a great setback to SADC as countries hoped that CITES would either regularize international trade of ivory or at least allow them to sell off their ivory stockpiles, now valued at millions of dollars.
Prior to the meeting, SADC countries challenged CITES to finalize and approve the development of a decision-making mechanism for a process of trade in ivory.
In particular, Namibia and Zimbabwe submitted a proposal to CITES seeking amendment of the present Appendix II listing of their elephants by removing restrictions that bar them from selling stockpiles on the international market. The meeting voted against this proposal.
Appendix 1 of CITES lists species that are threatened with extinction while those in Appendix II are not necessarily threatened.
Southern Africa argues that the ban in ivory trade will seriously erode the revenue base for wildlife conservation and can lead to increased cases of poaching as communities are not benefiting from ivory trade proceeds.
Countries in southern Africa have always contested the move to maintain and reinforce global ban in ivory trade, saying that their elephant population have grown way above the carrying capacity of their forests.
For example, the elephant population in Botswana stands at more than 130,000 while in Zimbabwe, it is above 80,000 — nearly three times its sustainable carrying capacity.
In Namibia and South Africa the elephant population stands at over 22,500 and about 28,000 respectively.
According to CITES, southern Africa has the largest number of elephants in Africa at about 350,000 – double that for East Africa, which boasts of about 166,500 elephants, mostly in the United Republic of Tanzania, which is also counted as part of southern Africa.
The rising elephant population in southern Africa has worsened cases of human-wildlife conflict, and has led to extensive environmental degradation, in the form of increased soil erosion, vegetation damage and loss of biodiversity.
For example, the elephant population in Namibia is found in Etosha National Park in the north-central part of the country with serious challenges of water.
The growth of elephant population in Zimbabwe has added pressure on available water resources as most of these populations are concentrated in drought prone areas forcing the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority to use borehole water as an alternative though it is very expensive to pump.
South Africa is facing challenges in managing the increasing elephant population in the Kruger National Park.
The 2015 national survey of wildlife in Zambia indicated that elephant population is growing but more efforts are needed to address threats of poaching and human settlements in protected areas.
In Botswana, incidents of poaching have increased, forcing the government to set up a full-time anti-poaching unit to deal with the situation.
The increase in poaching continues to threaten the security and livelihoods of the local people, particularly the vulnerable communities within elephant ranges in southern Africa.
In 2010, the SADC Technical Committee on Wildlife pronounced that human-wildlife conflict was one of the main problems for Africa’s rural populations in terms of human security and economic loss.
Based on these strong arguments, the region had expected the convention to consider the proposals submitted by Member States and at least allow a once off sale of ivory stockpiles in order to promote sustainable conservation of the elephant populations.
South African Minister of Environmental Affairs, Dr Edna Molewa, said there is need for parties to understand that elephant populations in southern Africa do not meet the criteria to be listed in Appendix I.
She said for any species to be included in Appendix I of CITES, its population should either be in decline or that it is small and fragmented.
“As you know, South Africa’s elephant population is still growing with a current population of more than 28,000 elephants. The populations of other SADC countries are also stable or increasing and therefore the criteria were not met,” she said.
Country director for Environment Africa in Zimbabwe, Barney Mawire said although hunts are still being permitted, the rejection of trade in accumulated stocks is a big disappointment.
Mawire said while it is appreciated that hunts are still being permitted, CITES could have done better by dealing with the stockpile issue.
“We don’t believe in burning our stockpiles but in legal sales that can benefit local communities and improve infrastructure in our game parks,” he said.
Countries supporting the total ban of ivory, such as Kenya, had proposed for the inclusion of all populations of the African elephant in Appendix I through the transfer from Appendix II to Appendix I of the populations of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. This was, however, rejected.
Southern Africa argues that holding all stocks with no trade will increase poaching by driving up prices, while release of stocks would reduce demand and prices.
In 1989, CITES banned the international commercial ivory trade and later permitted Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe to sell some stocks of ivory to Japan, totaling over 150 tonnes in 1997 and 2002.
The decision was made in recognition of the fact that some southern African elephant populations are healthy and well managed.
The 17 th Conference of Parties (COP 17) to CITES, held from 24 September-4 October 2016 in Johannesburg, was attended by over 2,500 participants from governments and observer organizations. COP18 will be held in 2019 in Sri Lanka.
This was the fourth time that Africa hosted CITES since the establishment of the governing body in 1975. However, this is the first time that the continent has hosted the meeting since 2000.