In what could be billed as the fight for the African elephant, two camps are pulling in different directions over the fate of the continent’s foremost pachyderm.
One camp, led by Kenya and made up of Benin, Burkina Faso, Liberia, Niger and Togo, wants tighter controls to curb illicit killing of the mammal for tusks while the other — comprised of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia – wants looser restrictions.
Countries are expected to submit their proposals to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) for consideration at the 18th meeting of Conference of Parties (CoP18) in Colombo, Sri Lanka from May 23 to June.
The Kenyan group proposes the transfer of Southern Africa elephants from appendix II to appendix I of Cites. This would make any future “one-off” ivory sales by the Southern Africa nations extremely difficult.
Appendix I, of species threatened with extinction allows trade in exceptional circumstances.
Appendix II includes species not threatened with extinction and trade has strict regulation to avoid utilisation incompatible with survival.
Appendix III is for species that any country identifies as being subject to regulation within its jurisdiction to prevent or restrict exploitation and it requires the co-operation of other countries to control international trade.
To counter this call, Zambia is proposing its elephant population be moved from appendix I to II to allow future sales of government-owned ivory stockpiles.
It wants to use ivory sales money for community projects and conservation. Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa want to sell off stockpiles of raw ivory.
Zimbabwe dismisses the Kenya-led proposal to move its elephants to appendix I as lacking justification for placing healthy populations in Zimbabwe with other range states of Southern Africa in the same category as populations in West, Central and East Africa.
“African elephant conservation will benefit from appreciating that contexts are different with different measures applied in different states at various scales. Appendix I is not a panacea for threat reduction,’’ said Zimbabwe.
African range countries in 2010 agreed on the African Elephant Action Plan to tackle poaching while also targeting transit countries and markets like China.
The Southern Africa countries propose trade in hides, trade in hair and trade in leather goods for commercial or non-commercial purposes for Botswana, Namibia and South Africa and for non-commercial purposes for Zimbabwe.
The region is also calling for trade in individually marked and certified ivory incorporated in finished jewellery for non-commercial purposes for Namibia and ivory carvings for non-commercial purposes for Zimbabwe.
The countries also want trade in registered raw ivory (for Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, whole tusks and pieces) subject to only registered government-owned stocks excluding seized ivory and tusks of unknown origin.
International trade in elephant ivory was banned in 1990. Britain, China and the US have today banned ivory sales.
Hong Kong in 2014 promised to phase out the elephant tusks trade by 2021. Thailand, Laos and Vietnam are big ivory markets. Europe is the biggest exporter of legal ivory.
Environmental lobby WildAid chief executive Peter Knights said relaxing of ivory trade restrictions could lead to a massive increase in the killing of elephants as past Cites one-off sales have failed to stem the demand for tusks.
Cites allowed Japan and China in 1999 and 2008 respectively, to buy tusks in experimental sales that enabled traffickers to ply their trade because of the difficulty of distinguishing legal ivory from the one poached.
In other proposals, Namibia wants Cites to transfer its rhino population from appendix I to II to allow trade only in live animals and hunting trophies. Eswatini has proposal for international trade in rhino horns for commercial purposes.
It is estimated that 20,000 southern white rhino in Africa remain threatened by poaching for horns. Poaching has escalated enormously in recent years in South Africa which is home to around 90 per cent of the southern white rhino population.
It is estimated Namibia currently has 1,946 rhinos. Poaching of black rhinos and white rhinos in Namibia jumped from zero in 2006 to 30 in 2014 and tripled to 90 one year later. The majority of rhinos poached in Namibia between 2014 and 2016 were black rhinos.
“The geographical shift in poaching to Namibia over the past two years is worrying,” said the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Meanwhile, Israel wants to list on appendix II the woolly mammoth, which was roughly the same size as modern African elephant. Woolly mammoth went extinct about 11,700 years ago.
It will be the first time an extinct species is listed as protected under Cites.
Israel’s move is in response to the growing trade in mammoth ivory which is popular as a legal alternative to elephant tusks in carvings. To get around the elephant ivory ban, traders sometimes mix the two ivories.
“They are often intermingled in shipment and retail displays. To the untrained eye it is difficult to distinguish between them,” said global animals conservation lobby Humane Society International’s senior specialist for wildlife programme and policy Iris Ho.
Currently there is no international regulatory regime to track and monitor commercial trade in mammoth ivory.
Fifty-seven proposals to amend species lists have been submitted by 90 countries for consideration at the CoP18.
Cites has received 140 documents that propose new measures with policies on international trade in wild fauna and flora.
The CoP18 agenda includes global trade in timber, white rhino, saiga antelope and giraffe. It could affect the protection status of 18 fish species, birds, 51 reptiles, 17 mammals, 457 amphibians, 20 invertebrates and 407 plants.
Proposals on reptiles include four from the meeting’s host country alongside US, that want the tiger spiders native to Sri Lanka and India listed.
“Decisions taken at CoP18 will alter conservation and international trade management, have direct impacts on biodiversity, livelihoods of rural communities and national economies,” said Cites secretary general Ivonne Higuero.
Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal are proposing to transfer the black-crowned crane bird from appendix II to I, to prohibit international trade in the species. Black-crowned crane has been on appendix II since 1985.
“The justification for classification is due to habitat loss and trapping for domestication or illegal international trade,” said submission documents to Cites prepared by the three countries.
Black crowned cranes are legally protected in Africa but some countries lack resources to control illegal hunters.
Malawi wants its national tree the widdringtonia whytei or Mulanje cedar listed on appendix II. The tree is a decay- and termite-resistant species.
Parties have until mid-March to submit their proposals.