The Elephants of Southern Africa Back in the Spotlight
28 March 2000
by Tinashe Madava
Three years after downlisting the African elephant from Appendix I to 2 to allow limited and
controlled trade in ivory and elephant hides, animal rights groups and African elephant range states
with huge elephant populations, are again fighting it out in a sequel to the 1997 Harare lOth
Conference of Parties meeting.
As delegates and observers to the 11 th Conference of Parties (CoP 11) to the Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meet in Gigiri, Kenya this April, countries with
huge elephant populations, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, are bidding to be
allowed to sell their stockpiled ivory annually.
CITES is an international treaty drawn up in 1973 to protect wildlife against overexploitation and to
prevent international trade in species of fauna and flora threatened with extinction. The main issues
are similar to 1997 when the parties met in Harare. Supporters of the downlisting say they have such
big elephant populations that the niammals are now a danger to human life and the environment as
well as their own survival. They say that elephants should be sustainably utili sed to benefit the
con1illunities they share the habitat with.
The southern African states that were allowed to sell limited stocks of ivory in 1997 say that if
allowed to sell more ivory , they will only sell to countries approved by CITES. The buyers are not
allowed to re-export the ivory. The grouping has allowed sales to countries that can properly register,
control and monitor the importing and use of elephant tusks.
After being allowed to make experimental sales to approved Japanese buyers last year, Botswana,
Namibia and Zimbabwe, recently made cash payments to rural communities on whose land the ivory
was harvested. Some communities used the money to improve their infrastructure. Omay in
Zimbabwe's Zambezi valley, used the money to build a clinic which is set to improve health delivery
for the villagers.
Animal rights activists claim, without substantial evidence, that lifting the ban on selling ivory caused
an increase in elephant poaching. They accuse the southern African countries of slack policing of
game areas and weak trade regtllations.
The South African government is set to propose to the CITES in April that South Africa's population
of 12000 elephants be downlisted from Appendix 1 to 2, a move which will enable the country to sell
about 30 tonnes of ivory stocks, to a single buyer under the supervision of the CITES secretariat.
Downlisting the elephant would also allow trade in elephant hides and other leather goods as well as
the sale of live elephants to conservation areas outside the country.
According to the Mail and Guardian, a recent report by the Endangered Species Protection Unit
(ESPU) raises serious doubt about South Africa's ability to honour its CITES obligations. The report
says "the South African permit system and control at border posts from a practical law enforcement
perspective" sounds warning bells about the capability of the authorities to control illegal trade at the
country's 91 entry and exit points.
Environmental Affairs and Tourism, revealed that tlotswana, Nan11bla and 21mbabwe had agreed to
support South Africa's bid to sell an experimental quota of stockpiled ivory from the Kruger N ational
Park to a single buyer.
In turn, South Africa will support these countries' bid to sell almual quotas of stockpiled ivory
gat11ered fi.orn elephants t11at die from natural causes.
Botswana has asked to be allowed to sell 12 tonnes a year, Namibia two and Zimbabwe 10 tonnes.
The four sout11em African elephant ral1ge states say that they need more economic benefits from
expanding populations of the world's largest land manunal.
According to CITES officials, the four southern African countries' request to sell off their ivory
stocks, Japan and Norway's bid to revive the con1llercial trade in grey and minke whales and Cuba's
request to sell its stock shells from the hawksbill sea turtle and harvest it annually, are the issues
topping the agenda of this year's Conference of Parties where changes are made to t11e Convention.