Four southern African countries – Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe – often call attention to their thriving national elephant populations compared to other African nations. These countries have used this assertion to successfully lobby the international community to ease trade bans on elephant products such as ivory. Yet, our study has revealed that the majority of Africa’s elephants cannot be clearly ascribed as the ‘national property’ of any one country. Elephants constantly move across one or more national borders, sometimes to neighbouring countries where poaching of elephants is at its worst.
The shared nature of Africa’s elephants
The world’s ecosystems and their biodiversity are unconstrained by narrow political borders. Instead, their extent may cover landscapes shared by many countries, and both conservationists and national governments are increasingly recognizing that effective responses to human influence and climate change impacts requires coordinated management and protection of nature beyond national borders.
Transboundary cooperation can bring substantial conservation benefits. While some multilateral environmental agreements have explicitly incorporated transboundary commitments into their frameworks, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the global organization that regulates the trade of endangered species, instead continues to focus on the sovereignty of individual nations in regulating trade of wildlife.
The case of elephants is a perfect example. African and Asian elephant species are highly mobile and widely distributed mammals. They play crucial ecological and economic roles in savanna and forest landscapes on regional and continental scales, exemplifying the need for approaches to conservation that transcend geopolitical frontiers.
The spectre of split-listing
But the inward-looking approach being taken by Parties to the CITES agreement is embodied by the continued ‘split-listing’ of African elephants between countries affording two levels of protection—Appendix I (no international commercial trade) and Appendix II (regulated trade).
The countries currently holding Appendix II status of African elephants are the four above-mentioned countries in southern Africa. Their contention is that they are managing and protecting ‘their’ elephants effectively and they should be allowed to sell to international buyers the products derived from elephants that have died naturally or in the course of management for protection of agricultural crops or natural habitat in protected areas. These products include ivory, for which there has been enormous demand in European and Asian markets.
In the 1970s-80s and more recently since roughly 2005, there have been surges in demand in these markets which have outstripped any legal supply and have led to poaching, with catastrophic consequences for elephant populations across the continent.
The four Appendix II countries have so far been relatively free of high poaching levels, although this has started to change in recent years, and they claim that they need to sell ivory so that they can invest the proceeds in rural community development and anti-poaching enforcement. With little evidence to support these claims of benefit distribution, they also seem to believe that their actions will not affect the elephant populations of other countries; or perhaps they simply don’t care. But the illegal supply chains for ivory markets are part of the same criminal enterprises that operate in the realm of drugs, guns and human trafficking, and they have little respect for national boundaries.
Ecological reality check
And nor do elephants. Using data from the African Elephant Status Report 2016, the study showed that 76% of elephants are found in populations spread across one or more national borders. This blurring of strictly national populations makes a split-listing of elephants between two CITES levels of protection inconsistent with ecological reality and conservation best practice.
For example, the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA-TFCA) that straddles five countries in southern Africa, accommodates half of Africa’s elephants. This 440,000-square-kilometer landscape is the largest remaining wilderness area on the continent, with the largest free-ranging elephant population in the world, estimated at 216,000 individuals. Here elephants are able to roam over a contiguous landscape across the international borders of Angola (Appendix I), Botswana (Appendix II), a 30 km-wide strip of Namibia (Appendix II), Zambia (Appendix I), and Zimbabwe (Appendix II). Basically, this means an elephant roaming in Botswana in the evening is very often found in Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe or Angola by morning.
This multinational distribution means that it is effectively impossible to determine if individual elephants ‘belong’ to an Appendix II country (Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana) or one of the countries already on Appendix I (Angola and Zambia).
All African elephants under the same protection
CITES criteria should therefore be applied to the continental species population as a whole rather than artificially, and incorrectly defined national populations.
African elephants remain under serious threat through the ivory trade. Between 2007 and 2014, Africa’s savanna elephant numbers declined by at least 30%, representing a net loss of 144,000 elephants – more than those which currently exist in insular national populations.
However, at the 17th CITES Conference of Parties (CoP17), in September–October 2016, influential countries including the European Union prevented acceptance of a proposal, supported by the majority of elephant range states, that would have unified all African elephants under Appendix I. If the bloc of 28 EU Member States had voted for acceptance of the Appendix I listing proposal, it would have passed.
In May this year, the 18th Conference of the Parties will take place in Sri Lanka. Once again CITES Parties have an opportunity to revoke the senseless split-listing and place all African elephants under the same protection, for as long as CITES Parties compartmentalise Africa’s elephants into national management units, the international community will fail to recover and manage them as a functional and interconnected whole. It is unavoidably clear that isolationist policies and politically motivated compromises are not helping save elephants.