Guest Column

Critical reflections on elephant conservation, CITES and the benefits of legalising trade of Africa’s white gold

2016-09-22 12:30

Shakir Jeeva, CEO of Kwantu Private Game Reserve

Grahamstown - The 2016 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) conference is only two days away, and today (22 September), on international Elephant Appreciation Day, it is appropriate to take stock of some challenges and developments with regards to elephant conservation and anti-poaching programmes.

One of the most contentious debates at CITES this year will be around legalising trade on ivory - Africa’s white gold.

Three African countries – South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe – are standing in opposition to the United States, the European Union and other African countries such as Kenya and Uganda that are cold-shouldering discussions on legalizing the ivory trade.

Those in favour of legalized trade believe the motion to support the sale of ivory stockpiles will drive prices down.  An increase in the supply of ivory will lower prices and possibly provide less of an incentive to poachers.  Importantly, there is an important advantage: the income from ivory stockpile sales is a possible sustainable source of income which diversifies and supplements state grants and donor funding for conservation and anti-poaching programmes for our gentle giants.

On the other hand, those in support of banning domestic ivory trade believe it will render Africa’s white gold worthless to illegal traders and poachers.  However, there seems to be disagreement among conservationists, monitoring agencies and government as the ability to prove (or disprove) causality between ivory stockpile sales and poaching levels has not yet been realised.  The 2004 article The ivory trade and elephant conservation in a peer-reviewed journal asserted that no evidence is available to support claims that ivory stockpile auctions stimulate ivory demand or elephant poaching. 

At present, there are three factors driving Southern African countries and South Africa in particular to unlock the bounty of its white gold. Firstly, some of these countries have explosive elephant populations and there is an urgent shortage of land and financial resources for conservation. Zimbabwe’s elephant population of 10 000 is three times the level of its holding capacity; Namibia’s elephant population at 22 500 is twice over the limit, and in South Africa the Kruger Park has capacity of sustaining 6 000 animals, but the population is believed to be standing at 12 500.  The Kruger Park elephant population also grows at roughly 5% per annum.

Legalizing trade and special concessions for ivory brings in big money for conservation efforts. In 2008, when CITES granted special permission to Southern African countries to auction off a portion of its SANPARK’s ivory stock pile, R240m was generated through the sale of 102 tons of ivory amassed through natural death of animals or through confiscations of ivory from poachers.

Secondly, the excess of elephant populations is a potential source of wealth for communities with high levels of poverty and inequality but only through careful development, planning and financial resources. In the event where conservation development income from ivory stockpiles, government support, private sector donations align with conservation development leadership, we are much closer to turning the dream of new mega-reserves and transfrontier park into reality. In particular, I believe that energies and visions should be focussed on establishing new mega reserves in the Eastern Cape perhaps near the Wild Coast.  Government is keen to establish and unlock a new tourism economy for communities here after the completion of the N2 Wild Coast Toll Road. It makes sense to address this region’s deep poverty and inequality gap with mega-nature reserves. In doing so, we can simultaneously address the challenge of over populated national parks. We should dream big about new reserves in South Africa – our current ones simply can’t sustain wildlife capacity.

Thirdly, there is a need to urgently expand and strengthen anti-poaching efforts.   The elephant poaching crisis is following a path from East and Central Africa to Southern African countries.  Africa’s stronghold country for elephant populations Botswana and even in South Africa our very own Kruger National Park has experienced criminal activities and environmental crimes through incidents of elephant deaths as a result of ivory poaching this year.  In particular, Botswana remains deeply vulnerable. Elephants Without Borders detected a shift in roaming patterns of elephants in Southern Africa over a 10 year period.  It is believed that poaching activities in Angola and Zambia has driven elephants to Botswana.    Dr. Mike Chase from Elephants Without Border argues that elephants have cognitive abilities to understand where they are threatened and where they are safe. 

Last month the Great Elephant Census was released at the World Conservation Congress (WCC) in Hawaii.  The landmark initiative led by Elephants Without Borders spanned over three years, involved 90 scientists and covered 18 African countries in a megalithic aerial census survey project.  

The findings of the Census painted a bleak picture. Between 2007 and 2014, African elephant numbers have plunged with 30%.  During this period, we as a continent have lost 144 000 elephants in just seven years, and the elephant mortality rate is 56 per day.   Furthermore, it is estimated that poachers kill African elephants every 15 minutes.

The worst affected countries are Tanzania, Mozambique, Angola and Cameroon.  In Cameroon, the remaining population is below 150 and conservationists predict the possibility of the total extinction of population.

What is deeply problematic is that scientists believe if the current rate of poaching continues, there is a strong possibility that 50% of Africa’s elephant population can be gone and wiped-out of existence in the next ten years according to some scientists and conservationists.

Southern Africa has remained fairly unaffected with low figures of poaching and poaching-related deaths for the period 2006 – 2015.  In the Southern African belt, illegal killings do not exceed natural deaths.   These countries have effectively put resources from ivory stockpile sales to work to aid in support of conservation and anti-poaching initiatives following auctioning events. 

We must carefully consider what the implications for conservation and anti-poaching will be if our request for special sale of ivory stock piles are not approved.  In effect, what then happens is we remove resources for conservation and the fight against poachers to safeguard elephants.  Importantly, it also turns out that the countries with low illegal killings are the countries where elephant populations are thriving.



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