By Mduduzi Mathuthu
JOHANNESBURG-NAMIBIA, Zimbabwe and South Africa – backed by Zambia – scored a partial victory at the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) meeting in Johannesburg this week when they blocked attempts to upgrade elephants to an “Appendix I” listing – which bans all trade.
After suffering several reversals, including a rejection of their proposal to be allowed to sell off stockpiles accrued from natural deaths and poaching seizures to fund projects in communities close to elephants, the Southern African nations used some brinkmanship to secure the big prize – keeping their elephants listed in Appendix II.
At the start of the two-week conference, Namibia and Zimbabwe had also seen their proposal to keep discussions open about the possibility of a future international trade in ivory vehemently resisted.
Observers believe Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa did not expect to unpick the ban on the ivory trade at this summit, but wanted to keep the debate open, in the hope of future success.
The uplisting of elephants to Appendix 1, supported by some 29 African countries and surprisingly Botswana, would have meant all forms of elephant trade were banned, including trophy hunting which is the lifeblood of conservation financing in Southern Africa.
Ahead of a vote on the levels of protection to be accorded to elephants on Monday, Namibia – led by Tourism Minister Pohamba Shifeta – raised the stakes by threatening to pull out of the Cites process entirely.
“It is completely fallacious that legal ivory trade covers illegal trade,” he said.
The threat, which would have potentially seen Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and South Africa withdraw from voluntary supervision by Cites of their elephants – over a third of the world’s population – convinced some voting blocs to push back.
The European Union, with 28 votes at Cites, also opposed the upgrade to Appendix 1, arguing that elephants did not meet the criteria for an Appendix 1 listing – which is reserved for animals that are in steep decline and approaching extinction. By contrast, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana – the only exceptions in the world whose elephants are currently listed in Appendix II – have seen their elephant populations remain stable or growing.
Namibia said its elephant population had doubled to 20,000 in the last 15 years. Zimbabwe said its elephants were now topping 83,000 while South Africa’s elephants are holding steady at 27,000.
The countries forcefully argued to be allowed to continue issuing lucrative hunting quotas, proceeds of which are used to fund conservation and development projects.
South Africa’s Environment Minister, Edna Molewa, said rural communities must benefit from elephants if they are to tolerate the damage caused to crops and the lives sometimes lost.
“We dare not ignore their voices,” she told the conference. “Trophy hunting is the best return on investment [in elephant protection] with the least impact.”
Charles Jonga, from the Campfire Programme, a rural development group in Zimbabwe, told the Cites summit: “The people in my community say: ‘These elephants they eat our crops, they damage our houses, what benefit do we get?’ If they get benefits, they will protect and not poach.”
More than 140,000 of Africa’s savannah elephants were killed for their ivory between 2007 and 2014, wiping out almost a third of their population, and one elephant is still being killed by poachers every 15 minutes on average. The price of ivory has soared threefold since 2009, leading conservationists to fear the survival of the species is at risk.
In acrimonious debates at the conference, Southern African nations said they should not be penalised for the conservation failures of central, east and west African nations where most of the poaching occurred.
And speaking after the conference, Molelwa said: “This decision is a victory for scientific, evidence-based decision-making and also a victory for African science.”
The Cites treaty, signed by 182 countries and the European Union, protects about 5,600 animals and 30,000 plant species from over-exploitation through commercial trade.
International trade in ivory has been banned since 1989, but legal domestic markets have continued in some countries around the world, and Cites has twice allowed sales of African ivory stockpiles to Japan and China, in 1999 and 2008.
Meanwhile, Swaziland saw its proposal to sell its rhino horn stockpiles rejected by the conference.