By Mduduzi Mathuthu
JOHANNESBURG–THREE Southern African countries find themselves in a state of flux this week after their proposals on a path to legal ivory trade faced heavy opposition at a key international convention on wildlife protection.
The triennial Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Johannesburg, South Africa, is at its most fractious yet and a top official has warned that lack of unity could result in some countries boycotting the processes of the United Nations body.
As the two-week conference got underway last week, Namibia – supported by neighbours Zimbabwe and South Africa – tabled a motion to keep discussions on the resumption of international sales of ivory open.
Under discussion for eight years, the so-called Decision Making Mechanism (DMM) was intended to work out a way for legitimate ivory sales to resume at some point in the future.
The idea had its origins in a bitterly divided meeting of the CITES in The Hague in 2007. As a compromise, a one-off sale of ivory stockpiles was allowed to China and Japan in 2008.
The parties agreed that they would then refrain from proposing any new sales until at least 2017. As part of that deal, it was agreed that the DMM would be used to craft an effective way of allowing legitimate sales of ivory at some point in the future.
But little progress has been made over the past eight years and the issue came to a head at the meeting in Johannesburg, where it was revealed that the population of the world’s largest land animal – mostly found in Southern Africa – had declined by 30,000 to just over 400,000 in six years.
CITES, currently in force in 183 countries worldwide, blames rampant poaching for the losses. Most of the ivory finds its way to Asia where it is used in the making of piano keys, billiard balls and other expressions of exotic wealth
Ranged against a vociferous and well-funded international NGO lobby, supported by the United States and at least 20 other African countries, Namibia’s proposal was emphatically thrown out.
The final vote saw 20 parties vote in favour of leaving the door open for future international commercial trade in ivory while 76 voted against. There were 13 absentions.
Before the conference closes on October 5, debate is expected on a proposal by some countries including Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Uganda – now backed by Botswana – to list all African elephants in Appendix 1, which is the highest protection offered to animals facing extinction.
This would impose a total ban on trade of ivory, including trophy hunting.
Currently, elephants have an Appendix I status across most of Africa. The exceptions are South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe where elephants are more populous. In these countries, elephants’ Appendix II status means that non-commercial trade for hunting purposes is allowed. Live animals can also be traded to “appropriate and acceptable destinations.”
While the defeat of the DMM would have riled the Southern African countries, the up-listing of their elephants to Appendix 1 would shake the CITES to its foundations.
CITES officials, keen to find a compromise and maintain unity, worry that countries that object to Appendix I status could move to reject the Convention’s elephant-related provisions.
“There are 90 days for any country to enter a reservation against that decision, that listing to Appendix I.
If they enter a reservation, the Convention doesn’t apply to them for the particular species,” CITES executive secretary John Scanlon said.
He warned that the Southern African countries, who are increasingly irritated at having to be dictated to by countries and NGOs who do not bear the burden of looking after elephants, could potentially pull out of CITES.
“If multiple countries reject the elephant-related provisions, they can trade with each other outside the terms set up by CITES,” said Scanlon.
“This raises concerns for the Convention: It would leave elephants in southern Africa more open to potential trade-related threats, including the trade in ivory.”
The elephant populations of Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana transferred to Appendix II in 1997, allowing for the export of 49,437.5kg ivory to Japan in 1999.
South Africa’s population transferred to Appendix II in 2000, and a one-off trade in registered stockpiles of 60 tons of ivory from Botswana, Namibia and South Africa was approved at CoP12.
The African Elephant Status Report, completed for four meetings of the CITES standing committee and released on Sunday, estimated losses in Southern Africa were almost 30,000. The estimated number of elephants in areas surveyed in the past 10 years in Africa is 415,428.
The decline is blamed mainly on the surge in poaching for ivory that began around 2006, the worst that Africa has experienced since the 1970s and 1980s. Losses in Tanzania account for the major share of this decline.
Pohamba Shifeta, Namibia’s Minister of Environmental Affairs, said that if the Namibian government sold its stockpiles of ivory, it could raise US$100 million (R1.4 billion), which he said would be put back into conservation for wildlife conservancies and water supply.
Namibia has been a conservation success after seeing its elephant population grow from 7,500 animals in 1995 to around 23,000 currently.
South Africa has an estimated 15,000 elephants while Botswana is home to the most elephants of any country in Africa, with a population that fluctuates between 150,000 and 200,000 as the elephants cross into bordering countries.
Zimbabwe’s elephant population is estimated at 83,000, but officials say the country’s parks have a carrying capacity of just 30,000 animals.
Zimbabwe’s Environment, Water and Climate Minister Oppah Muchinguri, attending the conference, says preventing Southern African countries from trading their ivory internationally will harm conservation efforts as the value of elephants would be reduced to just the meat.
Like Namibia, she says Zimbabwe objects to being dictated to on how to exploit its natural resources.
“We have our sovereign right and we know best what to do, how to utilise our natural resources.
We should not be punished, we should be rewarded,” she says, referring to Zimbabwe’s fairly successful conservation programme that has kept the elephant population at roughly the same levels.
Sabri Zain, director of policy for the organisation Traffic, worries that deepening differences between CITES parties are a distraction from the real issue with elephants.
“The real focus of this meeting should be what’s happening on the ground to improve anti-poaching efforts and help reduce demand for ivory in consumer countries,” he said.
“If all the countries in the conference place energy on addressing those huge issues, I think we will accomplish much more for the conservation of elephants than just debating if it should be on one list or another.”