Will moves by China and the US to ban the import and export of ivory help end illegal poaching of elephants in the last frontier – the sub-Saharan African range-land which arguably is still home to the largest elephant population in the world?
There are no easy answers to this.
This highlighted growing pressure on the two countries to join global efforts to stop the trade in threatened species.
But the question on the lips of wildlife conservationists is: “Will this goodwill gesture help address poaching in Africa? Will it end the current elephant poaching crisis and consign the tragedy of ivory trade to history?
Environment, Water and Climate Minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri feels strongly that the ban on ivory will hit the country’s conservation efforts hardest, particularly now when the government is facing funding problems.
She says the ban by the US on spot hunting and another on airlines for ivory products has hurt the country’s revenue base.
She says Zimbabwe has accumulated more than 90 tonnes of elephant tusks which it cannot sell due to the international ban on trade in ivory.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 2007 imposed a nine-year moratorium on the sale of ivory in a bid to protect elephants and rhinoceros, which were facing extinction.
This has deprived local communities from benefiting from the ivory trade proceeds. Minister Muchinguri-Kashiri says poaching activity has spiked as a result of the human wildlife conflict.
She says the ban will worsen poaching.
“The market will shrink and if these two economic giants genuinely enforce the ban, it will go a long way in reducing poaching.”
“We really welcome the move, but more countries in Asia and Europe must ban ivory trade totally to discourage the poaching of elephants which are now threatened,” Mawire says. “If other countries do not comply also, the killing of elephants will continue. Yes, it’s a good step but other countries in Asia particularly need to ban ivory trade as well.”
China and the US recently agreed to impose almost total bans on the import and export of ivory as part of an attempt to curb the illegal poaching of elephants. The two countries announced this in a White House statement at the end of a visit by Xi Jinping, the Chinese president.
“The United States and China commit to enact nearly complete bans on ivory import and export, including significant and timely restrictions on the import of ivory as hunting trophies, and to take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory,” it said.
Tusk Trust, a wildlife organisation, reports that 100 000 elephants were killed in the past three years, leaving a population of about 400 000 — half what it was more than two-and-half decades ago.
Wildlife campaigners say China and the US are the two biggest markets for ivory. They accuse the two countries of fuelling trade in ivory something which has led to an elephant poaching crisis in Africa.
Rampant poaching in the sub-Saharan range has resulted in the deaths of 100 000 elephants from 2011 to 2013, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Tanzania’s elephant population plummeted by 60 percent to 43 330 in the five years ending in 2014, according to the Great Elephant Census, carried out by a coalition of wildlife groups while Mozambique lost half its elephants in the same period, falling to 10 300.
Wildlife campaigners say the statistics “underscore the toxic mix of determined criminal gangs, corrupt government officials and a strong market for smuggled ivory in Asia — particularly in China — which has deepened its economic ties to Africa in recent years.”
A new round cyanide poisonings in Zimbabwe killed 14 elephants in September while 26 more were found poisoned recently at two sites in the Hwange National Park, according to the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.
Two years ago, cyanide poisoning decimated about 300 elephants in Hwange as poachers placed salt laced with cyanide near wildlife watering holes.
This has had ripple effects on the ecosystem, killing other animals too, including predators feeding off the elephant carcasses.
Most wildlife campaigners in Zimbabwe say cyanide poisoning is a disturbing phenomenon. They say its too early to say whether the ban will have any meaningful impact.
“The rate at which elephants are being killed in Zimbabwe is truly disturbing,” says Johnny Rodrigues, chairman for Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force.
The wildlife campaigner claims that up to 76 were found poisoned with cyanide in various conservation parks dotted around the country in recent weeks.
“The problem with the cyanide poisoning is that other animals are dying as well. Two vultures were found poisoned after eating the carcass of one of the elephants and an eland was found snared,” he says.
“The most disappointing thing is that when a local Zimbabwean kills an animal for food for his family, he is sentenced to between five and 15 years in prison, but when a wealthy foreign hunter comes in and shoots an animal, he gets away with it. What message are we giving the people?”
Others remain pessimistic, saying it will be difficult to stop poaching which has become internationalised and sophisticated.
Caroline Washaya-Moyo, spokesperson for the parks and wildlife authority, could not readily comment on the moves by the US and China to ban ivory trade. She says she is yet to get more details on the announcement by China and the US.
Zimbabwe has one of Africa’s biggest surviving elephant populations and Hwange National Park is home to half of the country’s estimated 100 000 elephants that are thought to live in this protected area, west of the country.
The country has an elephant population of about 100 000 against a carrying capacity of 40 000.
Some observers say China and US should support Zimbabwe and strengthen the country’s capacity to conserve the remaining elephant population using modern technologies to cope with sophisticated poachers.
However, others say, without adequate mechanisms to curb graft and enhance accountability and transparency in the handling of resources, it will be difficult for Zimbabwe to get funding.
Poaching in the Eastern and Central Africa regions has severely depleted elephant populations and conservationists say the African elephant is so much under threat from habitat loss, conflict with humans and illegal poaching and hunting that on present trends it could die out within 50 years.
In 2011, at least 17 000 African elephants were killed for their tusks according to Cites, the international body that focuses on endangered species. While China and the US have received praise for reducing poaching and helping elephant populations recover with the ban, some wildlife campaigners still accuse the two countries of fuelling the annual slaughter of thousands of elephants outside their borders.
They disagree that the ban by the US and China will help halt the killings of African elephants which are under threat from disappearing.