Namibia’s live elephant exports: Why the secrecy?

Nov 17, 2021 | Commentary

By Adam Cruise and Keith Lindsay

The much-reported impending export of Namibia’s wild elephants has been declared by the Namibian Government to be correct and well within the bounds of international wildlife trade regulations. Yet the process, particularly as it relates to the export to destinations outside Africa, has been inexplicably shrouded in secrecy.

Ever since the Namibian Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism (MEFT) announced the auction of 170 elephants a little under a year ago, there has been no official release of information on who bought the elephants and where they will be going. This reticence persists, despite the declaration by both the Namibian government and the Secretariat of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) that the export of elephants beyond their natural range is in line with Treaty provisions. However, if such a trade is indeed entirely legal and above board, what possible reasons can justify the ongoing concealment and lack of transparency?

Clandestine Timeline

On the 2nd December 2020, the MEFT announced the auction of 170 ‘high value’ wild elephants to be captured from four commercial farming areas in the north of the country in a printed advertisement in the state-run newspaper the New Era. Drought and high levels of human-elephant conflict were given as a justification of the auction, which was deemed necessary to ‘reduce’ the elephant populations. The publication noted that the live elephants could be sold to destinations within Namibia or exported outside its borders; in the latter case, the buyers should adhere to certain national and international regulations, such as correct quarantining, disease testing and obtaining CITES export and import permits. There was no distinction made between ‘exports’ to countries classed as in situ (within the natural range of African elephants) or ex situ (outside their natural range).

Almost immediately there was an international outcry. Sixty wildlife organisations, scientists and veterinarians wrote an open letter to the Namibian government expressing concern that ‘the proposed sales will not achieve the stated objectives of controlling populations or reducing human-elephant conflict.’ They also pointed out that ‘the capture and relocation of elephants could have extremely deleterious impacts on the health and welfare of the individuals concerned, the stability of their wider societies, and the health of the ecosystems of which they are an integral part.’

Finally, they stated that if the elephants were to be exported outside Africa, Namibia would be in breach of the spirit and intent of international wildlife trade regulations. Namibia’s elephants are protected under a CITES Appendix II listing with an annotation that the elephants may be exported for in situ conservation programs only. Thus, any export to ex situ destinations should be off limits. However, it appears that Namibia intends to exploit a ‘get-out’ clause in the annotation that would appear to allow them to legally export the elephants outside of Africa.

Namibia has done the same in the past. In 2012 and 2013, the country exported 24 elephants to Mexico and Cuba respectively, by using an exception in the Appendix II annotation that defaults to Appendix I rules for ‘All other specimens…’. Although intended to cover exports of certain carved ivory items, the wording of this clause has been quietly allowed to apply to live exports under Appendix I, which specifies that destinations in non-African countries are acceptable as long as the use is ‘strictly for non-commercial purposes’. Zoos, for example, are deemed educational and therefore non-commercial, according to a common, previously unchallenged, interpretation of this CITES stipulation.  

However, in spite of the outcry over this interpretation, and the public’s legitimate need to know the full intentions of the Namibian government, there was still a complete lack of comment on the possibility the elephants could be exported outside Africa.

In May and June 2021, a ground-based investigation was undertaken to assess the feasibility and impacts of removing elephants from the four commercial farming areas earmarked for the capture. It found that due to years of drought, persecution, trophy hunting and human expansion that the population of elephants from two of the four areas are in a precarious condition and could be on the verge of collapse. These two areas in the north-western Kunene Region, fall within an arid area of mountains, bushlands and dunes famed for its unique and relatively isolated population of desert-adapted elephants. The investigation concluded that the removal of just a few individuals could have catastrophic consequences for the future survival of these elephants.

In the meantime, Namibia’s interpretation of CITES regulations had been placed under review at the CITES Standing Committee by the CITES Animals Committee. The former is set to deliberate and announce its findings in March 2022. Conservation NGOs, including partners within Namibia, have pointed out that while clarification of the annotation clause is ‘under review’, any action predicated on its basis ought to be suspended until the Standing Committee completes its findings.

In August 2021, Namibia’s MEFT finally made a public announcement. The Government said it had sold 57 of the intended 170 elephants, 42 of which were to be exported ‘outside of Namibia’. There was still no clear statement on whether that meant to in situ or ex situ countries. The same announcement mentioned that three of the five bidders were successful, but again there was no disclosure of the identities of those bidders.

Then on 8th September 2021, the CITES Secretariat issued a biased, unsolicited statement, which all but fully endorsed Namibia’s interpretation of the annotation and, in doing so, attempted to bypass the mandate of the Standing Committee to discuss the issue on behalf of CITES Parties. In response to objections from member Parties and NGOs, the Secretariat had to tone down its statement on the 17th of September, but this updated version still maintained its lack of impartiality on the issue.

Since then there has been no further communication from either the CITES Secretariat or the Namibian MEFT. There are currently credible rumours circluating that the captures have already begun and that they have all taken place in the area of the fragile desert-adapted elephant population. There is also credible speculation that the destinations are zoos in the United Arab Emirates and the United States. However, without any formal announcement from the authorities in either Namibia or the importing countries, the speculation remains just that…speculation. Governmental Parties to the CITES Treaty and concerned members of the public in Africa and around the world simply have no idea what is going on with these iconic animals.  


One overriding question surrounds all this secrecy, especially if such a transaction is ostensibly deemed legal: Are the Namibian authorities engaged in some form of surreptitious, underhanded activity? The silence could also be down to the fact that the elephants have been captured from the dwindling population of desert-adapted elephants and the Government wants to avoid or delay the inevitable global public outcry. This justifiable international response would be an embarrassment to Namibia, and to the importing country or countries, whoever they may be. That chorus of disapproval would, of course, happen in any case, but it would be made all the worse under a prevailing atmosphere of perceived chicanery.

This whole affair reflects badly on Namibia, a country that has touted itself as a global exemplar of best conservation practice. The importing country, too, will have to face a similarly disapproving public glare. Ultimately however, whatever level of bad publicity is delivered on the governments involved, it will be nothing compared to what the captured elephants, and the disturbed population left behind, will have to endure.

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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