CITES should not be a zero-sum game

IN THE past few weeks leading up to the on-going CITES conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, we have tried to highlight the challenges faced by countries like this year’s host, along with Namibia and Zimbabwe, in funding the conservation of the elephant.

More issues were raised in our Southern Times edition of last week. What emerged from various stakeholders globally, and which we feel sort of misses the point, is to treat the subject of trade in elephant tusks and other products as a zero-sum game. The world definitely cannot afford to take an all-or-nothing approach, because then it becomes a game of numbers without regard to the reality of those who live with the animals but are in a minority when it comes to voting.

Susan Lieberman of International Policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society is a good example.

She said while they appreciated the issues raised by Zimbabwe and Namibia over their huge elephant populations, “… it’s rather short-sighted and a bit selfish of them to request to sell their ivory knowing full well that it will further stimulate poaching and trafficking from other populations.”

These are the views of someone who perhaps has never seen a live elephant aside from as a tourist in the safety of a protected vehicle with armed rangers sheltering her. She can’t imagine an angry elephant charging at her in an African village because it needs water, or wants to eat your crops.

Zimbabwe currently has a stockpile of 70 tonnes of ivory valued at $35 million which it can’t dispose of because of the trade ban.

That stockpile must be safe-guarded night and day over the years while people go hungry.

But there is a more discordant voice closer to the region in diamond rich Botswana.

Its leader President Ian Khama has rubbished everything its neighbours are demanding. He wants elephants to be up-listed under CITES’ Appendix 1 which accords them the greatest protection and forbids trade in all their products.

“We shouldn’t think that because we are doing well, we should be selfish,” he was quoted saying. B

y doing well, he was referring to countries such as Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa, which are apparently being penalised for their effective conservation programmes. Botswana shares its views with Kenya in East Africa.

The European Union has adopted a more nuanced line, different from Botswana and the United States of America. Its head of Delegation to Zimbabwe, Phillippe van Damme, said the EU bloc has always supported sustainable trade in ivory which benefits local communities.

The major weakness of the EU position is its focus only on trophy hunting as a method of controlling elephant population. That leaves those who protecting the elephants at the mercy of the rich hunters who do it for sport and choose when and when not to come hunting. This is definitely not satisfactory in our view.

Namibia’s Environment and Tourism Minister Pohamba Shifeta hit it on the head when she said their interests lay on rural communities and that elephants are one of the most valuable assets to “support community conservation programmes”.

He went on: “There is no justification for a blanket closing of all markets. Instead, a differentiation in needed between well-regulated markets such as in Japan, and others that can, for whatever reason, not be regulated sufficiently, and it is Namibia’s sovereign right and responsibility to decide over the use of our natural resources.”

And that is the point we have been making over the past weeks. A blanket ban of trade in elephant tusks and ivory products is cruel, vindictive and counterproductive. It demoralises local communities. It can’t be a remedy to the problems of poaching.

If anything, communities which run the daily gauntlet with elephants over water and food can only feel that poachers are helping them eliminate a menace, and they will be happy to eat the meat left behind after the poachers have lopped off the tusks.

Zimbabwe’s Environment, Water and Climate Minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri up the conservation dilemma faced by the Southern African nations such as Zimbabwe when she warned: “If we do not convince the rural communities to see the value in living with these animals, then there would be no success story to talk about.”

A winner takes all approach will not work. Delegates at the CoP17 must work towards a compromise, and not take lightly the views of those nations whose rural communities live with and protect the elephants from poachers. It makes conservation sense.