Elephant Conservation - A Continental Imperative

Anton Crone / Published October 07, 2016 09:43 AM

Africans are lambasting the EU for voting against a proposal to protect elephants. But perhaps they can learn something from the EU by working together.

The proposal to list all African elephants in Appendix I was rejected at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Johannesburg this week. An Appendix I listing would have effectively banned international trade in ivory as well as trophy hunting of elephants. Put forward by the African Elephant Coalition, its 29 members are primarily African countries suffering severe elephant losses through poaching.

The USA and China voted against the proposal despite earlier commitments to close global domestic ivory markets. Joining them were Russia, Korea, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Norway. But the clincher was the EU. Voting not as individual countries but as a block, the EU’s 28 votes were pivotal in denying the two thirds majority needed to put all African elephants in Appendix I. The overall vote was 62 in favour, 44 against and 12 abstained.

Among the African countries that voted against the proposal were South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe who have relatively healthy elephant populations listed in Appendix II (with an annotation that prevents any trade in ivory). South Africa puts their elephant population at 27 000, Namibia at 22 711, and Zimbabwe at 82 000+.

These countries aim to keep elephant hunting on the cards and ultimately find a mechanism to trade their vast stockpiles of ivory, as they did with the endorsement of CITES in 1999 and 2008; these one off sales are believed to have fueled the recent poaching crisis by raising demand.

The CITES result comes in the wake of the first comprehensive African elephant census ever conducted. The Great Elephant Census (GEC) conducted aerial counts in 18 countries tallying a total of 352,271 African savanna elephants in 93% of the species’ range. This equates to a 30% decline in African savanna elephants over the past 7 years - a loss of about 144 000.

Most significant was the number of dead elephants counted. Statistically a carcass ratio greater than 8% indicates a defining population. The carcass ratio calculated for the entire GEC was 11.9% +-0.2%.

Publicity over the GEC findings, and distribution of the data, has been widespread and potentially influential in persuading elephant range states and other nations to raise the protection of elephants to the highest degree. On the heels of the survey, a International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) conference in Hawaii saw an overwhelming majority of members (91%) vote in favour of closing domestic ivory markets. The sense was that the IUCN vote would sway CITES when it came to domestic and international ivory trade.

A resolution recommending the closure of global domestic ivory markets was indeed adopted at CITES. Proposals from Namibia and Zimbabwe, which would have relaxed rules for international trade, were soundly defeated. It seemed logical that closing all channels for international ivory trade would be next. But logic did not prevail.

Nations opposing the up-listing argued that it would be a setback for their respective sustainable utilization policies, which has allowed them to invest in conservation. South Africa’s Minister of Environmental Affairs, Dr. Edna Molewa hailed the decision as “a victory for scientific, evidence-based decision making.”

The EU echoed South Africa stating that the respective nation’s elephant populations did not meet the criteria for up-listing, chiefly that (i) the size of the wild population is small, (ii) the area of distribution is restricted and (iii) there is an observed, inferred, or projected marked decline in the population size in the wild.

“The EU was desperate not to offend the host country,” said Robert Hepworth, former Chair of the CITES Standing Committee and Senior Advisor to David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation. “They ignored a million strong petition, a resolution from the European Parliament, the views of a large majority of African Range states, and even the brave intervention of South Africa’s neighbor, Botswana. Surely Botswana has a lot more to risk than the EU in its relations with large neighbors.”

Botswana’s vote in favour of the proposal was the other surprise. They are home to the single largest population of African elephants in the world (at least 130,000) and their anti-poaching operations are impressive, largely because their defense force is involved. Many expected Botswana to align itself with South Africa and Namibia who argue that their elephant populations are growing because of successful conservation efforts, funded in part by ivory sales in the past.

“Although Botswana has previously supported limited trade, we recognize we can no longer support the sale of ivory. We cannot deal with this issue in a vacuum,” said Botswana Minister of the Environment, Wildlife and Tourism, Tshekedi Khama. “There is concerning evidence that elephant poaching is moving south. The criminal networks that facilitate much of this trade are highly organised and fluid, operating over several regions in the continent. Therefore no population should be considered secure. Put simply, a threat to elephants anywhere is a threat to elephants everywhere.”

Many lambaste the EU decision because they are not elephant range states. But their decision seemed to be based on statistics, economics, and politics i.e. appeasing South Africa.

It appears they do not appreciate the impact the southern African nation’s stance can have on the rest of Africa’s elephants. Southern African elephants might be thriving, but the rest of Africas elephants are suffering. While southern African conservation initiatives might be better funded (partly from hunting and trade in ivory) and therefore better able to protect their herds, most of Africa’s range states are not so well equipped, organised or motivated.

Poaching will continue and likely escalate in these regions because their elephants are easier targets than southern Africa’s, and, as the targets dwindle, so the poaching will undoubtably move south. The elephants certainly are.

“Botswana has a lot of elephants because they’re persecuted in the countries around them,” says leader of the Great Elephant Census Mike Chase who suspects that nearly half of Botswana’s elephants are essentially refugees in an ecosystem that cannot fully support them. “South eastern Angola and south western Zambia have the highest rate of poaching on the continent right now.” With 8 elephants per square kilometer, Botswana’s ecosystem cannot sustain this number.

“Elephants have sought their last sanctuary in the Kalahari desert. We’ve had many die from Anthrax; we’re in the middle of a long term drought, the lowest rainfall we've had in nearly 60 years.There’s a higher mortality now because of their high numbers. We need to release this compression but we can’t until the poaching crisis has subsided and they have the freedom to go back into Zambia and Angola.” Chase adds that south east Angola can support at least 50 000 elephants.

He is understandably despondent about the CITES decision but welcomes the steps that have been taken in regards to domestic trade and hopes the next CITES convention in 2019 will take firmer steps towards protecting elephants. Hoping to repeat the GEC in three years, Chase says, “The GEC provides us with the baseline and the reference point to gauge the future success or failure of elephant conservation.”

The data provided by the census is valuable, and judging by the EU and South Africa’s statements about relying on sound statistics, a follow up census might convince them to offer all of Africa’s elephants the highest protection possible.

However, there is concern that economic and political factors will remain the most influential factors at CITES, not conservation. CITES is after all a trade convention. It might fulfill its mandate by adhering to criteria based on local national statistics, but elephant poaching is a continent wide issue.

The GEC’s is the first set of data to make continental elephant statistics clear. Apply CITES criteria to the entire continent and (i) the size of the wild population is small, (ii) the area of distribution is restricted and (iii) there is an observed, inferred, or projected marked decline in the population size in the wild.

When it comes to elephant conservation African range states need to take a holistic view. Working as individual states or in small alliances is small thinking. It puts politics at the forefront and drives wedges between nations to the detriment of Africa’s wildlife. Like the EU, by working together they might appreciate their dependence on one another and find consensus on a way forward. If they don’t the prospect for elephants in all Africa’s range states is bleak.


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Anton Crone
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Anton Crone
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Joined Apr 01, 2012
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