Southern African Countries Are Trying—Again—to Legalize Elephant Ivory Sales


Bryan Christy, National Geographic

Date Published

Today is World Elephant Day, but it isn’t necessarily good news for Africa’s elephants: Pressure is mounting in southern Africa to lift the ban on the sale of ivory.

In the mid-1980s, during the last great elephant poaching crisis, Africa lost nearly half its elephant population, roughly 600,000 animals, in a decade. But the world responded in 1989 with a global ban on the international ivory trade, and for a while elephants in many parts of Africa recovered.

Today the poaching crisis has returned owing largely to demand for ivory in Asia, where it’s carved into statues, bangles, and chopsticks. Roughly 30,000 elephants are killed every year by poachers, an unsustainable number that doesn’t take into account incredible violence and even terrorist funding behind the illegal ivory trade.

Twenty-seven years after Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi set fire to 13 tons of ivory, igniting the world in favor of a global ivory trade ban and launching an elephant recover, Zimbabwe and Namibia have filed petitions to lift the international ivory trade ban and allow the sale of ivory again.

The proposals come up for a vote during a meeting from September 23 to October 5 in Johannesburg, South Africa, where parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) will gather, as they do every three years, to decide which wildlife species gets protected, and how.

Countries in southern Africa—notably Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe—have not only opposed ivory destruction as a conservation tool, they wish to do the opposite of burning ivory. They want to sell it.

“The ivory ban is a total failure,” says Rowan Martin, Zimbabwe’s representative to CITES. Proposals by Zimbabwe and Namibia would remove their elephant populations from the global ban on commercial trade in elephants or their parts.

It’s a fight that has been waged for more than a quarter of a century, employing many of the same tools (last spring Kenya set fire to an estimated hundred million dollar’s worth of ivory) and even some of the same people—most notably Martin himself. In 1989 Martin was Zimbabwe’s CITES representative and led a block of southern African countries in opposition to proposals for a global ivory trade ban. Zimbabwe and its partners lost, and the ivory ban went into effect in 1990.

Although Zimbabwe threatened to ignore the international ban, it held, and elephant populations in hard-hit East Africa began to recover.

This year, Martin is back. He’s the brains behind pro-trade proposals by both Zimbabwe and Namibia that argue, as Zimbabwe did in 1989, that their elephant populations are healthy enough to sustain an ivory trade. (Namibia’s CITES negotiator drew on Zimbabwe’s proposal, Martin says, and the language of the two proposals is strikingly similar.)

Like Martin, the proposals pull no punches. Namibia’s proposal describes the CITES ivory trade restrictions as ultra vires, meaning beyond the law, and makes a diplomatic threat: Unless CITES parties agree to a framework for selling ivory, Namibia will consider CITES restrictions on its ability to trade ivory and elephant parts, including an existing nine-year freeze on ivory trade proposals, “as pro non scripto”—as if they had not been written.

In 2008, CITES parties agreed to a one-time sale of ivory from southern Africa to China and Japan on condition that no country propose selling ivory again for at least nine years. In its proposal this year, Zimbabwe argues that no country can negotiate away its right to negotiate, and Namibia says CITES has failed to uphold an important element of that 2008 compromise agreement. CITES parties promised to establish a framework for selling ivory in the future, Namibia asserts, a so-called ivory trade decision-making mechanism (DMM) in CITES parlance.

The Diamond Model

In a third proposal up for consideration during the CITES meeting, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa insist on creating a DMM “for a process of future trade in elephant ivory.”

Martin has had a hand in that too. In 2011 he was part of a consultancy chosen to advise CITES on how to create a DMM framework for selling ivory. In a report issued in May 2012, his group proposed a centralized ivory selling organization modeled after the one-time De Beers diamond monopoly.

De Beers once controlled the entire global market in raw diamonds, selling them via a single London location to select buyers around the world. In Martin’s DMM ivory proposal, governments rather than a single corporate interest would operate as stakeholders, and the central selling entity would report to CITES parties.

But an ivory selling organization has failed to garner approval by the parties, particularly, critics say, because an ivory ban is in place.

For Martin, elephant and rhino trade policies should be set by countries where the animals live. He is an advisor to South African rhino rancher John Hume, who is suing South Africa to lift a national moratorium on rhino horn trading as a first step toward lifting an international ban on rhino horn trade too.

“Wildlife is being treated as a global commons,” Martin says. “Activists in the West say wildlife belongs to everybody. The hell it does! It belongs to the people on whose land it occurs. The people who pay for it!”

It is said that elephants never forget, and if that is true, then this year’s battle in South Africa will be familiar—only the combatants will be older, and elephant populations across Africa, far weaker.