Elephants walk one step closer to twilight

Easing of CITES trade ban will mean more illegal elephant kills in Africa

Feature story - 15 November, 2002
They were dangerous times for earth's largest land mammals. From the 60s through the 80s, soaring ivory demand led to dramatic declines in elephant populations throughout most of Africa. Fully eighty percent of the ivory traded was from illegally killed elephants. Much needed salvation finally came with the 1990 "ivory ban". But recently, easing of the trade ban is leading more of these gregarious, sociable animals to early graves.

Elephant from the Okavango delta in North Western Botswana.

The international trade ban took the form of listing of all African elephants under Appendix I of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna). By that time Africa's elephant populations had dwindled to half of what they were in 1975. Eastern and central Africa were hardest hit and some countries, like Kenya, lost a staggering 80 percent of their elephants. During the 80s, one hundred thousand elephants were being killed annually.

In countries with strong wildlife management, the 1990 ban led to a decline in illegal killing and some herds have recovered. In the southern African countries the herds are increasing. But in other nations in western, central and eastern Africa, poaching continues to be a problem and populations have declined.

Stockpiles sow controversy

After the ban, African nations accumulated stockpiles of ivory. The tusks come from animals that died naturally or were culled, or from ivory seized from poachers and illegal traders. With this magnificent vehicle of wealth idling in storerooms, some African nations sought to put it into gear. Surely a controlled trade in this stockpiled ivory couldn't hurt anyone, could it?

Yes, is the unfortunate answer. After the international trade ban on ivory was eased by CITES in 1997, poaching immediately increased. And it wasn't only elephants who were falling faster. Up to 50 park wardens and senior officials were killed each year since 1997. Furthermore, the rise in poaching extended to Asian as well as African elephants even though CITES has maintained a complete trade ban on Asian elephants since 1975.

One-off sales

The CITES ban on African elephants was loosened after Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe successfully proposed to transfer their own elephant populations from Appendix I (bans commercial trade in species threatened with extinction) to Appendix II (regulates international trade in threatened species). These countries then had to meet a set of conditions before they could export a specific quantity of registered, legally acquired ivory to Japan in 2000. Which they did.

But the controversial decision to permit ivory sales was quickly followed by an increase in poaching. In Zimbabwe, 31 elephants were illegally killed in just a single two-week period.

CITES 2000 gives a respite from the killing

Elephant controversy reared again at CITES in 2000. The meeting approved a proposal from South Africa to "downlist" their elephant population to Appendix II. South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Botswana also applied for the right to sell a controlled amount of ivory each year; but these countries ultimately withdrew their proposals before the voting took place.

CITES 2002 bad for elephants

By the time the next CITES meeting came in November 2002, aspiring ivory traders were still not ready to give up. This time, the outlook for African elephants dimmed as CITES accepted proposals for one-off sales from Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. The sales will be made in 2004 if certain conditions are met. Proposals from Zambia and Zimbabwe were not accepted.

What does this mean for elephants? With history as our teacher, we can expect the illegal trade to stalk the shadows alongside the legal one.

CITES initiated some tools to address this problem in 2000. It is implementing new long-term international monitoring systems, known as MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) and ETIS (Elephant Trade Information System). However, these programs are in their infancy, and are currently unable to address the rise in poaching as the trade ban is eased.

People pressure

Poaching is not the only threat to elephants. A similarly grave problem is habitat loss through rising human populations in Africa and Asia, fuelling conversion of wild lands.

Current protected areas won't solve the problem; 80 percent of the African elephant's remaining range lies outside protected areas. This pressure of human numbers, along with declining law enforcement budgets, corruption, and continued poaching for bush meat as well as ivory, are all factors that keep illegal elephant killing widespread in some regions.

We are extremely concerned about the outcome of the decisions at the CITES meeting in Chile this year which will allow some limited trade in ivory. It will inevitably lead to an increase in poaching at the same time.

We are urging African states to closely monitor the well being of their elephant populations and guarantee strict law enforcement. They should also undertake every effort to stamp out poaching of elephants.