Namibia’s live elephant sales: a pragmatic assessment

Feb 3, 2021 | Commentary

By Dr Adam Cruise & Dr Keith Lindsay

There has been a considerable media frenzy surrounding the auction of 170 live elephants by the Namibian government. While such a move raises serious concerns about the motives, legality and welfare of this auction, much of the media commentary, however, has been based on unsubstantiated and misleading accusations that do not address these concerns adequately.

The global outcry came directly from a single government-sponsored advertisement carried by the Namibian state-owned newspaper New Era in early December last year. The advertisement offered 170 elephants out for tender to anyone in Namibia or abroad.

The Namibian government cited a rise in human-elephant related encounters compounded by drought as its justification to remove the elephants. The elephants earmarked for sale were from four specific areas scattered across northern districts of the country – mostly where cattle farming and other agricultural practices overlapped with natural elephant habitat. Little further detail was provided in terms of potential buyers or likely destinations for the elephants, nor was there any information on how the elephants would be selected. But, most fundamentally, there was no clear explanation of the supposed damage caused by these particular elephants, such that their removal would actually mitigate human-elephant conflict against the backdrop of drought. In the absence of any additional facts, speculation proliferated.  

Global Outcry

Live elephant sales in southern Africa have previously – and justifiably – caused much global condemnation. Zimbabwe has snatched around 144 juvenile wild elephants from its largest National Park, Hwange, since 2012 and sold them to zoos in China; Swaziland sold 11 to a group of American zoos in 2003 and an additional 18 in 2016; and Namibia itself has previously sold 24 elephants to Mexico and Cuba in 2012 and 2013 respectively. The lack of conservation value, welfare and other concerns surrounding these sales prompted Parties at the 18th Conference of the parties (CoP18) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to forbid further exports of live elephants from sub-Saharan Africa from 2019. A key concern for the majority of countries at CoP18 was clearly the suffering of elephants in the barren living conditions of foreign zoos and safari parks, in stark constrast to the richness of their natural range. This international ban on moving live wild elephants beyond their natural range is obviously what has caught the attention of the world in the face of this current auction.

And yet, the ensuing media outcry has bypassed questions of the real motives, the legality of the sales and the welfare concerns. Instead the focus has been on other issues of perceived wrongs of the Namibian government and its conservation practices, much of which has had little relevance to this sale or scant basis in substantiated evidence. These misleading side-issues include disputes of over elephant population figures, transboundary migrations of elephants, and charges of corruption in farming, mining and fracking enterprises. The unfortunate consequence of all these distractions is they divert attention from the real concerns and questions surrounding these sales.

Chasing windmills

One of the common themes running through the current spate of media news items is that the transboundary nature of Namibia’s elephants – that they migrate to neighbouring countries – means they are not Namibia’s to sell. While the largest concentration of Namibia’s elephants are indeed part of a transboundary population that includes the narrow strip of Kavango Region and portions of four other countries, the areas earmarked for auction are, for the most part, not included in this collective range. Instead, they are located in Kunene and Erongo, to the south and west of Etosha National Park, on the margins of Khaudom National Park, and in the Grootfontein area to the west of Kavango.

Another common theme is that such sales are irresponsible, given disuputes over official figures that are said to mask a decline in Namibia’s elephants. There is, however, no clear evidence of a drop in Namibia’s elephant numbers; stability or a slight increase is more likely, although – unhelpfully – no recent survey results have been released by the government. In any case, the sale of 170 elephants will not impact a population that was reliably estimated at over 15,000 individuals in the past decade.

Then there is the allegation of government manipulation and corruption. It has been suggested that these tenders could be an attempt to retain the rural vote because ‘none of them like elephants’. Other claims assert they are bribes for clearing of land for powerful cattle farming groups or oil and fracking companies. Again, no substantive evidence of this malpractice has come to light.

The Real Issues

Unfortunately, harping on the above unsubstantiated claims not only removes credibility from the global media’s coverage of the situation, dilutes legitimate comments that have been made by concerned observer groups, and provides space for the government to dismiss the entire set of arguments, but it fails to address the real questions surrounding this auction.

The first key point is that the government has justified the sales as a means to mitigate human-elephant conflict that is plaguing rural communities. In areas where elephants roam freely and yet may overlap with human agricultural interests, conflict over land use is likely to result. This process has been occurring throughout Africa for many decades, where human encroachment into elephant habitat has steadily eroded their natural and historical range. The question is: will the removal of some elephants in a handful of commercial farming areas do much of anything to mitigate such conflict? Not really. The search for and testing of methods to promote the coexistence of elephants and humans in shared landscapes has been quietly underway in many areas across the continent, not least in Namibia and its neighbours. And it has come up with a suite of positive approaches that both allow elephants living space and promote conservation-compatible agricultural development. There is no longer any excuse to simply remove a few ‘problem elephants’ and imagine that such a temporary fix provides a satisfactory solution to either elephants or people.

Most importantly, the Namibian government said that some of the 170 elephants will be sold abroad. However, it is unclear whether the sales will go to other elephant range countries in Africa, or to countries beyond their natural range. The former is common practice for many rewilding, translocation and restocking schemes for protected parks and habitats throughout Africa. The latter, if true, is likely to be in transgression of the letter, and notably, the spirit of the decision taken at CITES CoP18. While there is no information yet available on any plans to sell these elephants beyond their natural range, the central concern with this auction is the need to closely monitor where these elephants will go.   

Ultimately, it is in the interests of Namibia and the global community that the media keep their crosshairs fixed squarely on the Namibian government and their true intentions for selling these elephants. But until we know exactly why they are being sold, and where these elephants are going, we should refrain from pulling the trigger of a scatter-gun.

Adam Cruise is an investigative wildlife journalist with a PhD in environmental and animal ethics from Stellenbosch University, South Africa.

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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