Southern Africa angered by ban on elephant trade

Saturday August 31 2019
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Elephants roam through trees and low bush at the Pilanesberg National Park, South Africa. PHOTO | GIANLUIGI GUERCIA | AFP


African elephants caught from the wild will no longer be allowed to leave the continent, except under special exemptions, following the coming into effect earlier in the week of a near-total ban on trade in live African elephants.

The Parties at the 18th Conference of the Parties (CoP 18) of Cites (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) which closed Wednesday in Geneva, voted Tuesday to finally end this trend, that saw Africa’s elephants shipped to zoos and circuses overseas. At the meeting, bids to reopen trade in ivory were also rejected.

But even as the decision was hailed by some as a huge advance that would improve the wellbeing of African elephants dramatically, it was received with fury and described as haughty by African elephant rangelands that have largely benefited from the sale of the animals and their ivory.

Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana, all states that have in the recent past benefited from an existing trade fiat under international law to earn millions of foreign currency, protested the new resolution calling for exceptions.

They said they were the ones that understood the problems they faced with their elephants and should be left to do what they wished with them.

Our Resource Our Choice


According to officials, elephants had become a ‘problem animal’ that had overpopulated their national parks and led to human-wildlife conflict outside parks.

Zimbabwe, the most vocal of them termed the new development a ploy to deny them much-needed cash that would have been ploughed back into conservation.

He said that Zimbabwe, Botswana Namibia and other southern African countries would meet for consultations following the Cites meeting.

“We cannot continue to be hamstrung and told what to do with our resources,” Tinashe Farawo, spokesman for Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority said.

“We cannot continue to allow powerful countries and NGOs to set the agenda when the elephants are ours,” he said, disputing there was any conservation concern.

“We have too many of them so selling them should not be a problem for anyone. Why should we continue to impoverish our people when we have the resource?”

Bulawayo, a Zimbabwean publication also quoted the Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa as having blasted Cites as “an organisation of people who ate their animals versus those who have their animals and finished them all, but they have the nerve of coming to tell us what to do with ours.”

He added, “Our position is that those skins, tusks should be sold and we get money for conservation. As it is, our elephants are more than 80,000 but the area we prepared can only accommodate 56,000 meaning we have an excess of elephants but we are told we must not sell. The other day, we were told not to sell and we said to hell.”

Exceptional circumstances

According to the Cites decision, “(Henceforth), for elephants to be taken from within the species natural and historical range in Africa, will take exceptional circumstances, where, in consultation with the Animals Committee at Cites, through its Chair with support of the Secretariat, and in consultation with the IUCN African Elephants Specialist Group, considerations for transfer to locations outside their natural habitats will be required to provide demonstrable in-situ conservation benefits, or in the case of temporary transfers in emergency situations.”

While the US voted against the resolution, the EU, which had initially voiced its rejection to the proposal to ban trade by the African Elephant Coalition (AEC) — a group of 32 African elephant range states, came around on Tuesday, and against expectations, reversed its original rejection of the proposal to ban trade in live elephants, in a revote.

The resolution was passed by a vote of 87 in favour, 29 against while 25 abstained.

A resolution that took many hours of behind-the-scenes intense negotiation, between the EU and AEC, and in which it was settled that in the ‘spirit of diplomacy and co-operation’, AEC which had sought a total ban would agree to concede to a minor addition to the text — that elephants may be exported beyond their natural range only “… in exceptional circumstances.”

Diplomacy at Cites involves making compromises, but in this case it was the powerful EU bloc that conceded the most ground following widespread public opinion that weighed heavily in determining the result.