Elephant Holocaust: Africa’s giants are losing ground faster than ever

Jun 18, 2019 | Commentary

By Adam Cruise – PhD candidate: Stellenbosch University, South Africa

Elephant populations continue to decline alarmingly due to rampant poaching, the continuation of the ivory trade and unregulated trophy hunting

In 2016, a continent-wide census revealed that in just seven years one third of Africa’s elephants had been wiped out. This was largely due to rampant poaching driven by the global desire for ivory, habitat loss as human encroachment into natural wilderness expanded, the trade in live elephants for global zoos and circuses, and the continuation of unregulated trophy hunting. Left unchecked it could be less than a decade before African elephants are extinct in the wild.

The census was a wake-up call for the global community. Suddenly, there were urgent moves by governments to halt the slaughter. The United States of America followed closely by China, the two largest consumers of ivory, installed near-total domestic bans on the sales of ivory, while Kenya led dozens of other nations across the world in destroying their national ivory stockpiles. The United States also initiated bans on trophy hunting elephants in countries like Zimbabwe and Tanzania where hunting remained unchecked, unsustainable and provided little benefit to local communities. Botswana placed its own ban on hunting elephants and other endangered wildlife for the same reasons.

On the international front, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) had already initiated a 10-year moratorium on the international trade in ivory. Thanks to campaigns as well as objections from the majority of African range states, the moratorium was put in place directly after CITES’s catastrophic decision to permit the sales of national ivory stockpiles to China and Japan from four southern African countries.

Elephants in most African countries are listed by CITES under Appendix I. This is the highest form of protection in the Convention, meaning that elephants and their parts may not be commercially traded since the species is deemed to be threatened with extinction. However, four southern African countries – Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe – convinced CITES in 1997 that their elephant populations were growing and consequently had them down-listed to Appendix II. This meant these four countries were permitted to sell off their ivory stockpiles. This occurred twice – in 1999 when 60 tons went to Japan; and 2008 when 102 tons of ivory was sold to China and Japan, a move that triggered a huge demand for ivory that, in turn, caused the mass slaughter of elephants across the continent. Despite the disastrous results of the sales, elephants in these countries remain on Appendix II to this day.

Unfortunately, CITES did not go far enough. The organisation missed a perfect opportunity to give all Africa’s elephants full protection when the 183 member countries met at the 17th Conference of the Parties (CoP17) in Johannesburg in late 2016. Failure to do so came in spite of a much-publicised change of heart from Botswana, one of the four countries responsible for the disastrous sales of stockpiled ivory. The country’s environmental minister, Tshekedi Khama, gave an impassioned plea to the world’s assembled delegates to vote for the strengthening of the protection of southern Africa’s elephants by placing them all on Appendix I. Sadly, his appeal fell on deaf ears. The 28-member strong European Union bloc prevented the up-listing when they unbelievably voted against it, leaving the door open for the southern African countries to exploit elephants in the future.

Three years on, and with the moratorium over, this is precisely what has happened.

A turn for the worst

Even with the United States and China banning the domestic sales, the European Union continues to trade in ivory and remains the largest exporter of antique ivory. Exports go mainly to East Asia, with Japan now taking over from China as the largest consumer country in the region. The continued legal trade, and the parallel illegal trafficking in ivory, fueling the demand means that elephant poaching persists unabated across Africa and there are clear signs that the scourge is moving into southern Africa, previously regarded as an elephant stronghold.

In South Africa, poaching of elephants for their tusks have shown a marked increase. In 2014, the first two elephants were poached after fourteen years of no poaching. Since then there has been a worrying spike. In 2015 there were 10 times the number of poached elephants, a figure that doubled in 2016. Last year, a total 72 elephants had been killed for their tusks and the trend sets to continue in 2019 and beyond.

According to the latest report by the Monitoring of Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) the increase in poaching, if sustained, could make South Africa a more prominent exit point for illegal ivory moving East. The warning seems to already have taken effect. A number of seizures of ivory recently at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg shows that South Africa is fast becoming a major transit hub for illegal exports of ivory to Asia. Furthermore, it seems that enforcement and controls in South Africa are not sufficient at present to stop the trafficking.

Things in Botswana are worse. Last year saw a change of presidents, and a radical change in policy. The new President, Mokgweetsi Masisi, lifted the ban on trophy hunting imposed by his predecessor, Ian Khama. Masisi even plans to cull hundreds of elephants for pet food.

President Masisi recently hosted a conference in the northern Botswana town of Kasane that brought together heads of state and environment ministers from Angola, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. At the conference, the Botswana president gave elephant-foot stools to his fellow heads of state, a symbol of support for consumptive use. This is a horrific conservation doctrine that endorses the exploitation of elephants in the form of trophy hunting or trade in ivory, skins and elephant meat.

Masisi claims Botswana has too many elephants but a recent scientific aerial survey of northern Botswana – where the country’s elephants are concentrated – show that there is a sharp increase in poaching and an overall population decline of 15%. This would be exacerbated if hunting and culling were introduced.

After its welcome about-turn in 2016, Botswana unfortunately now rejoins Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe in their unashamed exploitation of elephants for profit. The four countries have jointly put in a proposal for the next CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP18) for another large-scale sale of their national ivory stockpiles. The move has prompted neighbouring Zambia to issue a proposal of its own. Zambia now also seeks to down-list elephants to Appendix II in an effort to relax the regulations in exporting its ivory stockpile and other elephant parts. 

Namibia and Zimbabwe’s trade in live elephants

Both Namibia and Zimbabwe have stepped up their efforts to sell off live wild elephants in recent years.

In May this year, six elephants were shipped from Namibia to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country rife with elephant poaching. According to the Namibian government, this is being conducted as a “trial run to guarantee that future exports are conducted smoothly.” The country recently announced plans to sell 28 live elephants, unconvincingly citing drought as a reason. Namibia has already exported elephants to zoos in Cuba and Mexico respectively.

Last year, the country wanted to export elephants to a zoo in Dubai but were unable to thanks to a public outcry. Dubai eventually acquired the elephants from Zimbabwe, a country that has no qualms in selling off dozens of live wild-caught elephants amid a global condemnation. In the past five years, Zimbabwe has sold over 100 baby elephants for the total price of around 3-million US Dollars. Apart from the four elephants that went to Dubai, all the other elephants went to China, a country that ironically has banned the sale of elephant ivory but not live elephants.

In Zimbabwe, baby elephants are darted from a helicopter and their mothers chased off by the helicopter dive-bombing the herd. Ground crews rush in with tractors and trucks to bundle the 30 or so unconscious calves into trailers before the frantic mothers come back. The babies are then crowded into a tiny enclosure where they are prepared for air transport before being flown to a variety of zoos and safari parks across China. Many elephants still require their mother’s milk. Most have become malnourished and sick, and some have died.

There is another batch of 35 baby elephants in the holding pen ready to be flown to China in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park.

Southern Africa’s domestic ivory markets

South Africa has a thriving legal market in ivory. During the course of February and March 2019, the author conducted an investigation into this market.

Trade in raw ivory in South Africa is prohibited but, like the European Union, the trade in ‘antique’ ivory is permitted. Retailers in South Africa who sell antique ivory items must be registered to sell them. A buyer needs a permit to buy and to possess ivory. The investigation revealed that at no time did any retailers have, and most were unaware, of any paperwork necessary to sell ivory. Every transaction is done without any documentation pertaining to age, origin and permits for any item. This means that the ivory could be passed off as antique but is in fact be from elephants killed recently.

Most ivory is bought from antique wholesalers, normally Nigerian or Zimbabwean dealers, and some of it can be purchased online, again without any documentation or permits. Technically, one could buy small amounts of ivory and take it out of the country with little to zero chance of detection. Judging by the volume on display at various shops this is a prosperous business, with most of the buyers being Asian and European visitors. 

A Dutch buyer said that the “South African customs authorities are clueless about the regulations and won’t even know the difference between bone and ivory.” He said that he had been taking pieces to Europe for re-sale for thirty years and has never had a problem.

While Botswana has no market (yet), Namibia and Zimbabwe have a flourishing domestic ivory market. Both countries have been given permission by CITES to sell carved or worked ivory within their borders, only raw tusks are not permitted for sale. Unlike South Africa, these carvings do not need to be ‘antique’ and can legally be derived from recently killed elephants. With the Chinese investing heavily in both countries, there are concerns that this trade may be used as a cover to launder illegal ivory out via South Africa to the East.

Elephants desperately need help

The future of African elephants was supposed to culminate at the next Conference of the Parties (CoP18), to be held in Geneva, Switzerland in August 2019.

The African Elephant Coalition (AEC), a powerful grouping of 32 African countries that represent two-thirds of the African elephant range. This group is the genuine voice of elephants in Africa, who are not only calling for the full protection of all African elephants to be placed on Appendix I, but also for national stockpile reduction and destruction, and the termination of the live trade of elephants. The AEC Council of the Elders have recently called on Japan and the EU to close their domestic markets,

But they need help. Only with a global public protest against the organized mass slaughter of elephants, will the Parties at CITES be convinced that Africa’s gentle giants need protection.

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