South Africa and Kenya will hold talks with other African countries to find a common position on ivory trade ahead of the 17th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Johannesburg in September-October.
Kenya, as part of a group of 27 African countries that make up the African Elephant Coalition, has submitted a five-package proposal for consideration in September that will include destroying of stockpiles and seeking a total ban on ivory trade. But South Africa, along with most of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries, favors trade.
SADC members Zimbabwe and Namibia have also submitted proposals for an “unqualified” trade in ivory, insisting that “a controlled marketing system would allow the government to raise money to combat illicit poaching and for conservation programs.”
Africa has seen a calamitous decline in its elephant populations—between 15,000 and 30,000 a year—from poaching and ivory trafficking, but he two opposing blocs, East and southern Africa, have been at loggerheads as to how best to handle the crisis.
Kenya recently burned 105 tons of stockpiled ivory—the largest destruction of ivory in Africa’s history and seven times the size of any ivory stockpile destroyed so far. The action was intended to send a strong message that ivory trade must be banned in order to save elephants from the catastrophic effects of poaching experienced during the past decade.
But speaking in January this year at the 66th meeting of the CITES Standing Committee in Geneva Switzerland, South Africa’s CITES representative, Thea Carroll, stated that “South Africa is concerned about the negative consequences of destroying stockpiles.”
She said South Africa’s position is that by “destroying ivory it will increase its scarcity and thus drive up prices, which, in turn, will encourage more poaching and illegal trade.”
To Trade or Not to Trade?
All populations of African elephants were listed on CITES Appendix I in 1989, effectively banning international trade in ivory. But the protection was weakened in 1997 and 2000 when elephant populations of four countries—Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe—were down-listed to Appendix II to allow one-off sales of ivory stockpiles to Japan in 1999 and to Japan and China in 2008.
The sales did not slow poaching, however. Rather, they stimulated a renewed illegal trade in ivory and elephant poaching in response to increasing demand, particularly after the second sale.
“Clearly, all previous experiments to permit a legal, controlled trade in ivory have failed,” says Daniela Freyer, co-founder of Pro Wildlife, a wildlife advocacy group. “We can turn the tide if we close the legal markets that enable laundering of ivory from poached elephants or leaked from stockpiles.”
Namibia and Zimbabwe are set to gain million of dollars of revenue if they’re allowed to sell their stockpiles again. Their elephants, along with South Africa’s and Botswana’s, remain listed under Appendix II (with restrictions). Botswana is the only country of the four that no longer favors trade.
Zimbabwe, in its proposal, seeks to amend the present Appendix II without restrictions in order to achieve an unqualified sale in ivory.
But Richard Leakey, head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, told The Guardian that Zimbabwe could not use elephants and a legal trade to solve its economic woes. “It’s perennially broke, but the ivory is not going to get them out of their economic hole,” he said.
CITES’s permission for the sale came under the condition that funds must be “used exclusively for elephant conservation and community conservation and development programmes within or adjacent to the elephant range.” But several reports have shown that most of the money had not been accounted for.
Seeking a Consensus
South Africa and Kenya are both members of the Lusaka Agreement Task Force, an organization designed to bring together eastern and southern African countries in cooperative activities against the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products. It means the two countries are obliged to seek consensus in combating the illegal ivory trade.
Speaking with CITES General-Secretary John Scanlon at the United Nations Environment Assembly in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, last week, South Africa’s Environment Minister Edna Molewa declared that South Africa will be having frank discussions with Kenya on the ivory trade.
“We all have a role to play at CoP17,” she said, “and that role is to unite in an effort to conserve our species.”
Responding to a question that many African elephant range states in East and central African fear that South Africa will let them down in September by proposing a legal trade in ivory, Molewa said that it was important to “engage in a meeting of minds so that we don’t arrive in Johannesburg with divergent views.”
She reports that the two countries have altready met and have “agreed to further meetings before September to find solutions.”
Pundits believe that the proposals to move all African elephants to Appendix I will come out the stronger of the two camps. “We will get a swinging majority vote,” Kenya’s Leakey declared confidently.
Many of the 182 CITES-registered countries that are not part of the large African Eelephant Coalition caucus, notably the USA, Israel, India, and all 28 European Union member states have voiced support for the view that given the unprecedented poaching levels of African elephants, it would be grossly unproductive and dangerous to even open a discussion about authorizing trade in ivory.
But Scanlon indicated that divergent views on ivory trade will definitely be on the table in Johannesburg. “The commentary on the ivory trade is already well under way,” he said. “This is shaping up to be one of the most important in the convention’s 43-year history.”
South Africa’s role as the host nation may explain its willingness to negotiate, says Rosalind Reeve, senior advisor for Fondation Franz Weber and David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, NGOs that fund and support projects protecting endangered species. “It’s a big deal being a host country, and South Africa wants the meeting to be called a success.”
Reeve suspects that South Africa will adopt the role of mediator in an attempt to get Kenya to drop its proposal for a total ban and would then intercede with Namibia and Zimbabwe to temper their proposal for unqualified ivory trading.
“The fight would be a more technical one over the fine print of the working documents at the meeting,” she says. That could still mean a limited trade in ivory.
Adam Cruise is a senior contributor for the Conservation Action Trust, which promotes reporting on conservation and environmental issues. Follow him on Twitter.