By Gini Cowell
In the months leading up to every CITES conference there is usually mounting pressure from conservationists, activists, officials and individuals to implement a full ban on trade in products of species at threat of exploitation and destruction. This year it is the same. Kenya is one of the countries actively leading the drive to place all African Elephants back on Appendix I (elephant populations in four countries still remain on Appendix II) and add giraffes as a listed species under CITES, among other legislative appeals.
The 18th Conference of the Parties is planned to be held in Colombo, Sri Lanka and has, understandably, been postponed to October which gives more time in the decision making and for the public’s voice to be heard. Endangered species of wild fauna and flora are depending on stronger protective measures either through implementation of stricter controls on certain trades in wildlife products or by banning certain trades entirely. The latter often leads to contentious debate and there has been enormous and widespread public demand for stricter controls of trade, especially pertaining to species at high risk of precipitous decline in population. The outcome of the last CITES conference was deeply disappointing for those who were pushing to have all African Elephants upgraded to the ‘Appendix I’ protective status. Presently African elephant populations in all remaining range states are on Appendix I except for in Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa and Botswana – some of the same countries who have been unitedly opposed to a complete ban during past conferences and maintain this stance today. The majority of African countries have their elephant populations listed on Appendix I and are against trade, so why is it an issue? In a nutshell, elephants vulnerable to ivory trade and therefore poaching anywhere imperil elephants everywhere. Even if one local population of elephants is appearing to thrive, there is another population elsewhere fighting for survival. Any conservation approach, in my opinion, must include the species as a whole. As an example, Botswana has the largest elephant population in Africa and Southern Africa claim to have an overall healthy population of elephants but this is not a uniform trend throughout all other elephant range states sadly. A multitude of enormous illegal ivory seizures including a 9 ton shipment said to be the largest in a long time from this year alone indicate a sobering, undeniable fact: elephants are still dying for their ivory on a frightening scale.
The pro-trade bloc of Southern African countries consistently state that because the southern part of the continent represents about 60% of Africa’s elephant population and that their elephant numbers are well managed, it makes sense to allow them to sell registered elephant ivory to profit conservation of the species. Let’s talk about that briefly. I am curious to know whether there has been a recorded instance of successfully sustained legal trade in ivory in recent history, because to my knowledge there is not. A prime example which suggests the absolute opposite is that from 1977 until 1989 all African Elephants were listed on CITES Appendix II, during this same time period a horrific poaching epidemic of catastrophic proportions took place, costing the lives of thousands of elephants and causing the overall African Elephant population to fall from more than one million to a staggering estimate of less than 600,000. In October 1989 after prolonged debate it was finally agreed that the African Elephant would be up-listed to Appendix I which effectively banned all trade in ivory. Many across the world regarded this single legislative action, combined with huge awareness of the plight of Elephants, to have brought poaching to a near halt not long afterwards and allowed remaining populations to recover slowly. Between 1997 and 2008 CITES downlisted some elephant populations back onto Appendix II and sanctioned the sales of large quantities of ivory from government stockpiles in some countries in what was referred to as “one off” sales, within the immediate following years this decision saw thousands of African Elephants killed – a 30% decline in African savanna elephants and a 60% decline in African forest elephants. The traumatic effects of which are still very visible today.
Even the smallest loophole has been shown to incentivize a surge in trafficking and buying of illegal ivory and it is widely believed that these so called one off sales, most especially the 2008 sale of around 110 tons of ivory, were significant contributing factors to the poaching crisis which has devastated the elephant populations of East Africa and elsewhere in the following years since. So again, how do you sustain any kind of trade when the demand completely overshadows the supply? Recent studies on this have revealed that there are not enough elephants in the wild today to sustainably meet the demands of ivory consumers without forcing the species into extinction. Additionally let’s not forget what decades of research on elephants has taught us because it cannot be ignored and must surely go hand in hand with any decisions related to the conservation of this species – though certain populations may be much bigger and steadier than others, elephants are a slow reproductive species and they are extremely sensitive to intrusive human disturbance. Such high losses within a population and among families of elephants has shown clear signs of complete devastation to the intricate societies of this sentient species.
I for one hope that history won’t repeat itself with another consequential decision that would trigger the further slaughter of wild elephant populations. After all, “No Trade, No Market” and vice versa. Ultimately, the future of more than one entire species is at stake and will be affected by the decisions made at CITES CoP18 and many, including myself, hope for an outcome which places the best interests of wildlife first and foremost. Kenya was the first country to destroy their ivory stockpiles in 1989, sending a powerful message that the heinous, commercial and bloody trade in ivory would not be tolerated but instead be treated as the crime that it is.
Hopefully this year Kenya will again, together with a number of fellow African countries, inspire the world at large to stand firm on their commitment to safeguarding a future for elephants and other wildlife species. African Elephants are one of the most intelligent, unique and socially advanced species on the planet. There should be no debate necessary and no uncertainty whatsoever when it comes to securing a future for the world’s remaining elephants.