Battle lines drawn on the future of elephants

This week, 183 countries attending the CITES Congress of the Parties (CoP) meeting in Panama will consider more than 100 proposals on the trade and protection of wild animals and plants. Elephants are the order of the day and sparks are sure to fly.

In 1980, the African elephant population was estimated at 1.3 million. Following a census in 2015, only 415,428 remained. African Elephant Status Report calculated an overall decline of 68% over the past 30 years, with a catastrophic drop of 86% for forest elephants.

protection status

Five countries (Burkina Faso, Equatorial Guinea, Mali, Senegal and Syria) will propose listing all African elephants on Appendix 1 — the highest protection. This is a direct challenge to Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe where, under special derogation, their elephants have been listed on Appendix 2 and traded.

The proposal notes that African elephants are not nationally owned and that 76% are found in transboundary populations. These include the populations of Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Therefore, elephant conservation can only be effectively addressed at the continental level.

The current split-listing, they say, has caused legal anomalies, with signing parties adopting different interpretations. This has caused inconsistencies and confusion in how CITES is applied to African elephants. Listing would provide this common framework for all elephants and the basis for coordinated and unified protection for elephants across the continent.

Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe will submit a counter-proposal to ensure trade in ivory from government stocks. They will argue, as they have at valuable CoPs, that CITES has downplayed “the size of the southern African elephant population and its conservation needs compared to other parts of Africa.”

Arguments against this are that previous one-off sales have boosted demand for ivory in China and other Asian markets, exacerbating elephant poaching and ivory trafficking. The unique sale in 2008, according to the Max Weber Foundationresulted in “the largest flow of illicit ivory trade outside of Africa”.


On the issue of national ivory stocks, 10 African countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kenya, Liberia, Niger, Senegal and Togo) will propose their total destruction.

Indeed, they say, stocks are growing worldwide, are expensive to maintain and are not sufficiently monitored.

“This presents a serious threat to elephants due to leakage of ivory into the illegal trade, which perpetuates ongoing demand and markets for ivory.” Reports of missing or stolen ivory from stockpiles are commonplace. Their continued presence, the communication says, sends a signal that future ivory sales are anticipated.

“Destroying ivory and moving ivory stockpiles beyond commercial use will help neutralize expectations of future ivory trade and discourage future markets.

Visit daily maverick home page for more news, analysis and investigations

In a separate communication, Kenya will propose the establishment of a fund to compensate for stockpile destruction. A recent study found that ivory believed to be from stockpiles appeared in seizures from 2017 to 2019.

Close markets

The same 10 countries proposing stockpile destruction will also call for the closure of domestic ivory markets. Many countries, according to their proposal, have taken steps to shut down or nearly shut down their ivory markets, including the US, China, Hong Kong, Israel, UK, EU and Singapore. But open ivory markets persist in several countries that continue to threaten elephant conservation.

They portray Japan as an out-of-range ivory market with large stocks and porous controls. The country continues to be a source of illegal ivory exports, undermining market closures by other countries. “Non-range states with open domestic markets should be prioritized for closure, as their markets can only be sustained by importing ivory from elephant range states.”

The 10 African countries will also propose to end the trade in wild-caught elephants. They will express particular concern over their continued export from Zimbabwe and Namibia, which has drawn widespread condemnation. A number of these elephants have been confirmed or are believed to have died in destination countries. Others died during capture and preparation for export.

CITES recognizes that elephants are very social animals and that their removal from their social groups has adverse effects on their physical and social well-being and disrupts breeding herds.

The bigger picture

CITES was created in 1973 and grants varying degrees of protection to more than 35,000 species of wild animals and plants. Currently, 184 countries are Parties to the Convention. The organization is often accused of inefficiency and, although it sets internationally agreed rules for trade, it has no policing function to ensure they are enforced.

The space for wildlife on earth and their numbers are drastically shrinking in the face of the relentless human assault on their bodies and their journeys.

A quarter of the world’s mammals are threatened with extinction, particularly those in the tropics, with the largest mammals being most at risk of extinction. Poaching has led to a dramatic decline in elephant populations, with all species now critically endangered or threatened with extinction. The biomass of wild mammals has declined by 85% since the rise of human civilizations, mainly due to overhunting and habitat loss.

Wild animals represent only 4% of the world’s mammals. Humans represent 34% and our livestock 62%. Scale is best understood through graphs. DM


Previous Biden and Xi sit down for first high-stakes in-person meeting as presidents
Next Cassava stakeholders call for the industrialization of the sector