Why CoP17 must resist total ivory trade ban

THE 17th Conference of the Parties (CoP17) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wildlife fauna and flora (CITES) began in Johannesburg, South Africa, this week. CITES was signed in 1975 and represents 181 Parties with the aim of protecting 35,000 animal species.

However, over the years, global focus has shifted to the large mammals among them rhino and elephants. It is now estimated that about 25,000 elephants are killed by poachers every year. Without strict conservation methods, the jumbos face localised extinction by 2025.

It was this fear which led to the international ban of trade in elephant tusks in 1989 in an effort to save the species from extinction. It was argued that trade in ivory encouraged their slaughter, whether legal or illegal.

But at CoP17, going on in Johannesburg from September 24 to October 5, three Southern African nations of South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe face a dilemma of a different nature from much of the world, which is that of overpopulation of the elephant.

The total ban of trade in ivory means these nations cannot officially destock the growing elephant population to sustainable levels.  On the one hand, the African Coalition on Elephant of 29 states in West, East and Central Africa, where about 100,000 elephants were killed between 2011 and 2013, insists on a total ban of trade in ivory as a way to curb illegal killings. The reasoning is that availability of a market fuels poaching.

Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia have submitted a common proposal to be allowed to cull their elephant herd for auctioning in an open market to generate resources to better manage their elephant populations.

At the moment, they cannot sell even naturally accruing ivory from elephants dying of natural causes. They are required to destroy them, when a sale could provide resources for the living and humans. We believe this is unsustainable.

CITES in South Africa should come up with a position which does not punish nations with effective elephant management programmes. Zimbabwe is one such country where beside limited tourism revenues, elephants have become a major cost to the state and a threat to communities living on the borders of national parks.

The country has an elephant population of close to 80,000. Its official holding capacity is about 30,000. It has 50,000 adult elephants and some 30,000 calves.

The upkeep is staggering. A single adult elephant requires 300kg of food and 200 litres per day. About US$800,000 is needed annually to pump water into drinking pans in the dry season and drought years.

Zimbabwe first signed up to CITES in 1989 on the understanding that local communities would benefit directly from the conservation of wild animals under the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources. A total ban of trade in elephant tusks deprives local people of the benefit of protecting the animals, especially in drought years when they have to fight over scarce water and grazing land.

At national level, about US$2.5 million is required every year to sustain operations by rangers in the national parks where poachers are getting ever more sophisticated, including resorting to poisoning watering pans to kill the animals.

The sensible thing would be for countries with effective conservation programmes to be supported with more resources by the pro-ban lobby, or be allowed to cull older elephants to sell the tusks instead of burning naturally accruing ivory stockpiles.

Selling the animals to raise more resources is another option to be considered.

A live baby elephant can sell for as much as US$30,000, generating a lot of revenue which can be used to build schools, drill boreholes, maintain game park fences and repair roads in the communities. We believe that a total ban is vindictive on countries with limited conservation resources.

CoP17 in South Africa should consider controlled harvesting of elephants for sale in an open market. It should be possible to tag the animals so that sources are traceable to keep poachers out. Tagging should allow for monitoring of populations per country to see which ones are violating their allotted annual quotas.

We believe a wholesale ban of trade in ivory is retrogressive and does not support the cause of wealthy conservationists who do not have to pay for the upkeep of the animals and never come into direct conflict with them.

It moreover demotivates countries which invest a lot of money in preserving animals at the expense of their people.

It is a model whose priorities and sense of balance are upside down.

As droughts get more frequent and resources become scarce, a total ban can only prove counterproductive because it will lead to self-help hunting and killing of animals by local communities, putting governments in a dilemma where they must choose between protecting animals or humans.