EU backtracks: Once again, it supports the export of baby elephants out of Africa

Nov 4, 2022 | CITES CoP19, Commentary, Related articles

By Adam Cruise, Keith Lindsay and Anna Zangger

Three years ago, at the 18th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES CoP18) in Geneva in 2019, the European Union, in agreement with most African elephant range states, committed to a strict restriction of the live trade of elephants. This led to a decisive vote by the CITES Parties to limit the trade from some of the key exporting African countries to in situ conservation programmes or secure areas in the wild and within the species’ natural and historical range. In other words, wild African elephants could not be exported out of Africa.

However, judging from its proposal to the 19th Conference of the Parties (CoP19), which will take place in Panama City from 14th to 26th November 2022, the EU has backtracked on its commitments to protect elephants and has chosen to favour a minority of African countries who want to maintain this cruel activity and profit from the ex situ trade in live, mostly baby elephants.

Cruel uprooting of baby elephants from their African home range

Between 2010 and 2022, almost 220 live free-roaming African elephants were captured in the wild in Zimbabwe, Namibia, Eswatini and Tanzania and exported to zoos around the world. Images and videos of juvenile elephants and fragments of family herds being darted from the air, corralled into holding compounds and forcibly bundled into crates before being flown to enclosures in China, the United States, Cuba, Mexico, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates drew global condemnation. Some of the elephants died at their woefully inadequate captive destinations, while others were killed or severely injured during capture and transport, leaving disrupted and traumatised family groups behind. One poignant image from the UAE shows family groups huddled under scattered man-made umbrellas, seeking shade from the unbearable heat.

Due to a web of obfuscation surrounding the timing and listing of African elephants under different categories under CITES, both Zimbabwe and then Namibia have subsequently been able to continue their exports. The two countries have moved more than 50 individuals out of Africa between 2019 and 2022, according to the CITES Trade Database and investigative news reports. Consequently, a proposal has been put forward by Benin, Burkina Faso, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Liberia, Niger, Senegal and Togo to CoP19 with a view to resolving the confusion, calling for ‘a clear and common legal framework’ to immediately prevent any further exports of elephants out of Africa.

The EU risks being branded as baby elephant snatchers – again  

At variance with the above proposal by these eight elephant range nations (who are members of a broader grouping, the African Elephant Coalition of more than 30 African states) and  apparently bowing to pressure from southern African countries, the EU has submitted a counter-proposal demanding that any decision to clarify the matter be postponed and subjected to closed-door deliberations until CoP20, likely to take place in 2025.

The EU’s delaying of action to close the live trade is bewildering, given that it has effectively reversed its own position that supported the ban on elephant exports.

The EU reversal undermines the opinion of the majority of African elephant range states. It appears to be simply down to the belief that creating a clear legal framework is too lengthy a process to be concluded by the CoP later this month. That excuse has been rubbished by Vera Weber, President of Fondation Franz Weber, an organisation that has been campaigning for stronger protection of African elephants since 1975. “The proposal by Benin et all offers a clear, simple and quickly implementable solution,” she says. “The decision can be taken now.” Weber argues that delaying the debate on this issue on which a clear mandate was given at CoP18 in Geneva in 2019 will permit the export of elephants out of Africa for another three years – or more, thus ensuring that baby elephants will continue to be snatched from their mothers’ sides and transported to zoos outside Africa.

Legal quagmire on the capture and export out of Africa of live elephants must be resolved

It is urgent that the legal quagmire at CITES regarding the capture and export out of Africa of live elephants is resolved without delay.

Currently, live wild-caught African elephants are subject to three different sets of rules under CITES, depending on their country of origin. Most countries are covered by Appendix I rules under Article III of CITES. Zimbabwe lists its elephants on Appendix II and exports under the corresponding Article IV rules; while Namibia – also on Appendix II – exports under Annex III rules, using an ‘exception’ clause in its Appendix II annotation that was not intended to cover live trade.

It is important to note too that elephants are a migratory species. Their transboundary nature, especially in the region of north-eastern Namibia, northern Botswana, southwestern Zambia, south-eastern Angola and north-western Zimbabwe, makes it possible that the legal framework applicable to any given elephant might change several times in the course of its annual, or even daily, movements.

Many elephant biologists and conservationists – as well as the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group – have stated that exports of African elephant to captive facilities outside of Africa have no benefit for the in situ conservation of the species. And, as noted above, the CITES CoP18 agreed that the only recipients that should be regarded as ‘appropriate and acceptable’ for African elephants caught from the wild are African destinations.

African elephants are highly social animals who fare very poorly in captivity. Evidence from elephant biology demonstrates that no captive facility is currently able to meet the physical, behavioural, social and environmental needs of wild-caught elephants. For this reason, the only justifiable option for ‘appropriate and acceptable destinations’ that are ‘suitably equipped to house and care for’ African elephants are locations within the species’ natural and historical range.

Even the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums (EAZA) have come out against exports post-CoP18. On the 15th of September 2022, the organisation issued a strongly worded statement announcing the termination of the membership of Al Ain Zoo in the United Arab Emirates after it was found the latest exports of 22 elephants from Namibia to the UAE zoo breached EAZA Codes and Standards and that it was “neither desirable nor necessary”.

EU’s role as a champion of international biodiversity now in question

The EU is the self-proclaimed global leader in the campaign to protect international biodiversity. With this mantle and a climate crisis looming large, EU Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen and Executive Vice President, Frans Timmermans, are both determined that CITES CoP19, as well as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CoP15) in Montreal in December 2022, are successful and that the EU achieves its ambitious biodiversity targets.

Shielding threatened African elephants from the vagaries of international trade is a fundamental element of protecting international biodiversity. Only a unified framework at the meeting in Panama this month will accord with the majority view of the CITES Parties and conclusively end the continued export from Africa of live, wild-caught elephants.

We therefore urge the EU to do the right thing: Withdraw its proposal to delay the process – effectively kicking the issue into the long grass – and support the proposal by African countries to keep African elephants in the wild in Africa.

Adam Cruise is an award-winning investigative environmental journalist, academic and author. He has a PhD in Philosophy specialising in environmental ethics.

Keith Lindsay is a conservation biologist and environmental consultant with over 40 years of experience in Africa and Asia.

Anna Zangger is the international campaign leader at Fondation Franz Weber. She is responsible for several international campaigns including the protection of endangered species from international trade. 

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