Mixed results for African elephants at the world wildlife trade conference in Panama

Nov 22, 2022 | CITES CoP19, Commentary, News, Related articles

By Adam Cruise & Keith Lindsay

PANAMA CITY: During the 19th Conference of the Parties (CoP19) in Panama of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the plight of African elephants has once again been prominent on the agenda.

The 170 nations (called Parties) present at CoP19, which runs from the 14th to 25th of November, will decide whether measures must be adopted to afford endangered species of plants and animals stronger or weaker protection from exploitation for international trade.

Adoption of proposals is decided through voting in which a two-thirds majority must be achieved in order to effect an outcome.

When it comes to elephants, both species in Africa have shown a continent-wide decline that meet the criteria for stronger protection. The criteria are informed by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of biological species. In its assessment published in 2021, the Red List has categorised savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana) as ‘Endangered’ and forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) as ‘Critically Endangered’ – an upgrade from the previous from ‘Vulnerable’ ranking – with declines of over 60% and 80% over the past few decades respectively.

The ivory trade

Despite the clear evidence of declining elephant populations, fuelled heavily by the demand for ivory on an international scale, some countries like Zimbabwe are still pushing for the re-opening of a legal international trade in ivory. Zimbabwe submitted a proposal to relax its current restrictions. The proposal was supported by  Zimbabwe’s southern African neighbours and a few other Parties.

This argument, however, was refuted by some West African range states, who presented a counter-proposal for stronger protection. These countries are part of the African Elephant Coalition (AEC), a pan-African grouping of 30 African countries representing the majority of elephant range states.

The international commercial trade in ivory remains prohibited, for now. In most African countries, elephants are listed on a CITES Appendix I, meaning such trade has been banned. However, four southern African countries – Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe – have had their elephant populations on a less restrictive listing (Appendix II), which allows the possibility that they could, in principle, sell off their considerable ivory stockpiles on the international market.

Such sales have been done before – in 1998 and 2008 – when the four nations sold around 150 tons of ivory to Japan and China. It triggered a poaching avalanche that saw rapid declines of elephant populations all over the continent. The AEC-supported proposal, therefore, was deliberately designed to put all elephants on Appendix I in order to prevent any such future sales.

Both proposals were rejected by the Parties at CoP19. The continuation of the status-quo –while seemingly a compromise on a geo-political level – keeps the door open on the ivory trade, encouraging demand, and thus will do little to impede the decline of African elephants.

Live elephant export moratorium

The export of live wild-caught elephants outside of Africa was another contentious issue here in Panama.

Despite the restrictions on exports of African elephants outside of Africa, adopted at the previous CoP18 in Geneva in 2019, Namibia exploited statutory ambiguities of the CITES regulations to export elephants to the United Arab Emirates in early 2022. At this CoP, Benin, Burkina Faso, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Liberia, Niger, Senegal and Togo put forward a document on the trade in live elephants to tackle this ambiguity.

The European Union, however, suggested prolonging the discussion for a further three years to the next CoP, calling for dialogue meetings between proponents and opponents of live trade, which would mean that continued exports could continue for another three years, and possibly beyond, further reducing the numbers of the already decreasing population.

Yet, pressure from the aforesaid African range states, other Parties and observers managed to thwart the EU suggestion and its support from the pro-trade, mainly southern African, Parties. A moratorium on all further exports was secured with immediate effect. The EU CITES delegate head, Jorge Rodriguez Romero, confirmed that the moratorium will remain until the next CoP in 2025.

This remains a temporary measure, at least until a legal framework is decided. For now, Namibia, or any other African country, may not export elephants beyond their natural and historical range.

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.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. This license allows re-users to copy and distribute the material in any medium or format in unadapted form only, and only so long as attribution is given to the creator.

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