Outcomes for elephants following CITES

Published on the 29th of August, 2019

Following the conclusion of the 18th CITES Conference of the Parties, elephants were in the headlines for most of the right reasons. We have tracked some of the major decisions to impact the species.

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Every four years, member states of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) meet to discuss global protections of, and trade in, wildlife. Discussion revolves around how species are listed: Inclusion of a species on Appendix 1 prohibits any trade in specimens of that species (although there are some exemptions) whereas Appendix II lists species where trade is authorised but controlled.

Given mankind’s rampant consumption of natural resources, there is a natural tension at these meetings between conservationists opposed to any trade and countries wishing to leverage their natural resources for profit. Decisions that adversely affect our fragile planet and the teeth of the world’s largest living land mammal – the elephant – have become a very hot political issue. Against this backdrop, we’ve seen significant wins and losses for elephants at these conferences over the years, from the 1989 ban on the international sale of ivory, long championed by the SWT, to the ‘one off’ sales of ivory in 1999 and 2008, which were deplored by conservationists and are widely held to have led to the subsequent poaching crisis that has ravaged elephant populations as demand for ivory soared.

In the run up to the most recent meeting at the 183-nation summit in Geneva, which concluded at the end of August 2019, elephants continued to be a political hot potato. Zimbabwe had publically sought to be able to sell its stockpiled ivory while media reported that the country was ready to sell another group of captured wild elephants to zoos overseas. Botswana, meanwhile, had lifted its hunting ban and stood shoulder to shoulder with Zimbabwe in their appeal to resume trade in ivory. With so much at stake, the conference offered to seal the fate for elephants, but not necessarily for the better.

Win: Proposal to allow sale of stockpiled elephant ivory overwhelmingly rejected

Submitted by Botswana, the proposal to allow a huge sale of stockpiled ivory was supported by southern African nations and exposed deep divides on elephant conservation. Calling for more legal sales of ivory to fund conservation and community development, it was roundly defeated with 101 votes against, 23 in support and 18 abstentions. Granting a reprieve to elephants, the vote essentially maintains the status quo; keeping in place the existing international ban on ivory sales and prohibiting a repeat of previous ‘one-off sales’ which led to a poaching crisis that wiped out 30% of Africa’s elephants in just seven years.

As a charity that’s spent the past 40 years caring for orphaned elephants and protecting their wild kin, we feel strongly that any legal international trade in ivory would devastate already imperiled elephant populations, serving as a cover for illegal ivory sales and rolling back the headway made by education campaigns in consumer countries. With China’s domestic market for ivory - previously the biggest in the world - curtailed as a result of its ban on the commercial processing and sales of ivory, and strides taken by Hong Kong, US states, UK and Hong Kong (pending), any release of stockpiled ivory would risk accelerating illegal sales in places like Vietnam where illegal markets are thriving and in Japan, where there remains a legal trade for ivory.

Win: Near complete ban on export of wild elephants overseas

In recent years, the fate of wild caught elephants from Zimbabwe, shipped to captive facilities across the world, have led to outrage. It’s a practice the Sheldrick Trust has spoken out against time and time again, knowing the psychological trauma they must suffer in being separated from their natal herds and that their physical and emotional needs cannot be met by any zoo in the world. Yet under CITES law, the shipments (however unethical) were entirely legal. Much, therefore, hinged on a vote at the CITES plenary session which sought to ban the live trade of elephants, the outcome of which was far from assured. In an earlier committee vote, 46 member countries of CITES agreed to ban the export of live elephants to non-elephant rangelands but its approval hinged on a vote at the plenary session where all member states could vote.

In the end, following extensive lobbying from the public and conservationists, the commercial sale of wild-caught African elephants from Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa to captive facilities was banned near-completely as 87 member-states voted in favour of a proposal that will only allow the live trade of wild elephants to their natural and historic range in Africa. In other words elephants cannot be snatched from their families and sent to live in captivity in zoos or safari parks in countries such as the USA and China – both of which have imported wild African elephants to live in captivity in the last few years. The exception: export may be allowed where it will provide considerable conservation benefits to wild elephants, and only after rigorous considerations from the CITES Animal Committee and IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group.

The result of the vote means that we can consign to history those barbaric scenes of multiple young elephants being separated from their families, held in pens and then shipped (always with such secrecy) to zoos overseas where they live out their entire lives in captivity.

Symbolic win: Unregulated international trade in giraffe parts is ended

Over the past twenty years, giraffes have suffered a silent extinction as numbers fell 40% to just 110,000 remaining in the wild. The proposal, which moved all giraffe populations (and nine subspecies) to Appendix II, was passed by 106 votes in favour, and means any trade must be regulated, requiring strict permits and monitoring of population numbers.

However, whether the ban will significantly assist giraffe populations’ remains to be seen; while the law covers trophy hunting and the bushmeat trade, it does not address habitat loss, a major threat to the long term future of giraffe.

Other outcomes included:

· Win: Trade of Southern white rhinoceros from Namibia defeated. The proposal would have allowed the international trade in live Southern white rhinoceros and hunting trophies but did not meet the two thirds majority needed to pass.

· Loss: Proposal to end all trade in elephants defeated. Supported by Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Gabon, Kenya, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic and Togo, the proposal sought to list all elephants in Africa in Appendix I, thereby banning all trade and assigning elephants the highest form of protection available to CITES. The proposal is reflective of continued efforts by a bloc of African nations to end all trade in elephants but failed to achieve the majority needed to uplist protections.

· Win: Efforts by Zambia to move its elephants to Appendix II and therefore trade in raw ivory and hunting trophies, defeated.

· Loss: South Africa quota for black rhino hunting is increased. This allows South Africa to issue hunting licences for 0.5% of of its black rhino population, which based on the current population effectively means an increase from 5 annual rhino hunting licences to 9.

Overall, CITES CoP 18 saw rare victories for elephants and acted as a reminder that when we all stand together, and speak up for elephants, we cannot be ignored.

Our thanks to every individual and organisation that spoke up to support a ban on live trade, to those that have worked behind the scenes at the CITES Conference to get the support needed for key votes and to Kenya; our country has stood firm in proposing and supporting decisions at CITES that respect the welfare of elephants and better ensure the future of the species. While the future of elephants is far from assured, it is currently a little brighter following the conclusion of the Conference.

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Recent CITES decisions were positive for elephants, however they continue to be targeted for their tusks, please considering supporting our efforts to protect them.