Will CITES Help or Hurt Already Struggling Elephants?

Aug 6, 2019 | News

By Elly Pepper – NRDC

According to the African Elephant Status Report (2016), Africa’s elephant population has seen the worst declines in 25 years, with approximately 111,000 elephants lost between 2006 and 2015. While reported poaching levels are slightly down, it continues to threaten the survival of African elephants, with more elephants continuing to die from poaching than from natural causes.  Poaching rates in 2017 were up in the two African regions which account for most elephants: Central and Southern Africa. What’s more, the volume of illegally traded ivory around the world between 2011 and 2016 was the highest level it has been in nearly three decades.

Clearly, elephants are still in dire straits.

But will the 18th meeting of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES CoP18), which will occur this month in Geneva, Switzerland, help elephants, maintain the status quo, or strip them of some protections? We’ll see soon enough.

When CITES banned international commercial trade in African elephants by listing them on Appendix I in 1989, CITES had to acquiesce to the demands of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, to continue allowing trade by keeping elephants on Appendix II. As a result, with permission from CITES, these countries sold ivory to Japan and China in 1999 and 2009, leading to 100,000 elephants being poached between 2020-2012 and a poaching crisis from which we’ve yet to recover.  The lesson: ivory sales – even if controlled strictly – don’t decrease demand by flooding the market, but instead increase demand and poaching.

Unfortunately, some countries still fight to resume the ivory trade at almost every CITES meeting and this one is no exception. Indeed, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe have submitted a proposal that would enable them to reenter the ivory trade (though, at this point, the only viable market would be Japan). And Zambia submitted a proposal to downlist its elephant population from Appendix I to Appendix II to trade in elephant trophies, hides and leather goods. Fortunately, there is one species proposal – from Benin, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Liberia, Niger, and Togo – that would increase protections for elephants by transferring the populations of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe from Appendix II to Appendix I. We’ll be supporting that and fighting back against the proposals to reopen trade.

We’ll also continue to encourage CITES Parties to enact domestic ivory bans. At the last CoP in 2016 in Johannesburg, South Africa, the CITES Parties passed a resolution (Res. Conf. 10.10 (CoP17)) that encourages countries to ban their domestic ivory markets. While this has spurred many countries like the U.S., China, the UK, and France to do so (see p. 5-7), others such as Japan and the European Union have used it as an excuse to refrain from banning their domestic ivory markets. That’s because when it was being drafted, these same Parties insisted that the resolution only ask countries to ban their ivory markets if they “contribut[e] to poaching or illegal trade.” Of course, this is bogus given that any legal ivory market facilitates a parallel illegal ivory market and, thus, “contribute[s] to poaching or illegal trade.” Thankfully, the Parties will vote on a document at CoP18 to correct this blunder.

While NRDC will be working hard at CITES to encourage countries to make conservation-minded decisions, the case of elephants highlights an important question: is CITES really working? The IPBES Report, published earlier this year, warned up to one million species face extinction due to human activities, including wildlife trade. Therefore, shouldn’t CITES be listing huge numbers of species instead of fighting over the same ones repeatedly and, possibly, repealing protections? If it can’t do that, perhaps it needs to change because we are amidst a biodiversity crisis and elephants aren’t the only ones that stand to lose if we can’t get this right.


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