Q&A: While Some African Nations Seek Softened Rules on Ivory Trade, Others Aim For Total Ban

As a world wildlife conference approaches, certain nations argue that elephant hunting generates revenue for conservation, while Japan, as a purchaser, says it wants to aid poorer people. But a coalition responds that lucrative ivory sales in some parts of Africa trigger killings of elephants in other regions, and that the trade fuels terrorism.

Publication Date

Q&A: While Some African Nations Seek Softened Rules on Ivory Trade, Others Aim For Total Ban

Photo courtesy of WildlifeDirect

Paula Kahumbu speaks to primary school children during their tour of Amboseli National Park in Kenya  on World Elephant Day 2015.

Publication Date

NAIROBI, KENYA — Two groups of African countries have taken opposing viewpoints on the ivory trade ahead of a world wildlife conference scheduled to begin on Sept. 24 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Delegates at the Conference of Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) are expected to deliberate on a global ban on the ivory trade that expires next year. CITES regulates international trade in species of plants and animals, including their products and derivatives, and 182 member states are party to the convention.

But Zimbabwe and Namibia have proposed that their elephants be removed from the CITES listing so those countries can sell ivory without restrictions. Zimbabwe, in its proposal, argues that it needs to sell ivory so it can fund elephant conservation efforts.

On the other hand, the African Elephant Coalition, a consortium of 29 countries, wants to toughen restrictions on the ivory trade. The coalition wants elephants in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe moved to the highest level of protection, Appendix I, which would ban all ivory trade in those countries. Right now, those countries are on a different CITES list, Appendix II, which does allow some ivory trade.

The coalition argues that these one-off sales trigger a demand for ivory that leads to the killing of elephants in other parts of Africa. About 30,000 elephants are killed for their tusks every year in Africa. That’s one elephant every 15 minutes, according to Tusk, a conservation organization. About 70 percent of the African elephant population has been wiped out in the past 10 years, Tusk research states.

GPJ’s Wairimu Michengi spoke to Paula Kahumbu, the CEO of WildlifeDirect, a conservation nongovernmental organization running a campaign against elephant poaching in Kenya, on what the proposals by CITES countries could mean.

Why is it difficult for African countries to agree on one position in regards to trade in ivory?

Countries such as South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Swaziland believe that wildlife conservation requires them to consume these animals, otherwise they don’t have a mechanism to generate revenue for conservation. So they do culling, they harvest animals, sell game meat in local stores and allow hunting as a form of revenue generation for wildlife conservation.

Then we have countries like Kenya which have said they don’t want to kill animals. We would rather go for non-consumptive utilization ─ for example, photography, film and tourism. That puts us in very different perspectives.

Why do you believe the consumptiven utilization model in countries like South Africa, where the trade of some ivory is legal, is dangerous for elephants in other parts of Africa?

This utilization model might work for South Africa, but it creates a market of wildlife trophies far outside this country. If you are selling an ivory from an elephant that died of old age, for example, you are stimulating a market far much bigger than the country can cater for. And while elephants in South Africa are confined to small protected areas, elephants in other parts of Africa are in the general landscape and are very migratory, hence they are more at risk of being killed by poachers.

expand image
expand slideshow

Photo courtesy of WildlifeDirect

Paula Kahumbu, CEO of WildlifeDirect in Kenya, is pictured with Jabulani, a 19-year-old orphaned elephant in a park in South Africa in Feb 2016. South Africa allows the hunting of wildlife to generate revenue for conservation.

Kenya and other African countries under the African Elephant Coalition are pushing for a total ban of ivory trade. Has the ban currently in place failed to work?

What the African Elephant Coalition wants is that all elephants should be moved from Appendix II to Appendix I. Appendix II listing allows countries like South Africa to come up with a proposal at any time to sell ivory. This privilege has been misused in the past. In 2000, the world agreed during a Conference of Parties meeting in Nairobi that there would be no more sales of ivory, but in 2002, South Africa decided to sell a quota of its ivory to Japan. They did another sale to China and Japan in 2008. This triggered the crisis we are seeing today. The Chinese market was much bigger and more excited about ivory than anybody had imagined. The sale of ivory led to huge amounts of trafficking of illegal ivory into the legal market. A proposal to sell ivory alone sends a signal to the markets, and people start speculating. Prices of ivory jump, and people start killing elephants and stocking ivory in anticipation of a future sale.

Additionally, the fact that some elephants are in Appendix I and others Appendix II is confusing to everybody. So we are saying, let’s put all elephants in Appendix I and stop trade in ivory completely.

What do Namibia and Zimbabwe’s proposals to sell ivory mean for elephants in other parts of Africa?

Since other countries are bound by CITES rules, Namibia and Zimbabwe can only sell ivory to each other. However, they also want Japan to [pull out of CITES] so they can sell their ivory to Japan. This will create a problem, because once you have a legal market, any ivory can be laundered into it. When you find an ivory in a shop, you won’t know whether it is legal or illegal. Japan has already emerged as a country that has huge loopholes when it comes to regulating trade in ivory. Tons of illegal ivory are shipped into Japan every year. The only way to stop illegal ivory from entering the market is to actually kill the market.

What message does the proposal from Namibia and Zimbabwe send to the world?

They are sending a message to consumers throughout the world that it is OK to own ivory. In fact, if a country like Japan says it wants to buy ivory, they are not saying they want to engage in illegal activities. They are saying they want to help Zimbabwe because it is a poor country. So when you are in a shop buying ivory, you might think that you are doing a good thing for Africa, which is not the case. They are removing the stigma attached to ivory.

We need to be very clear in our messaging that ivory trade involves killing animals, criminal cartels, guns and shooting. Conflicts have been fueled by the sale of ivory.

There are reports that money from ivory sales is funding terrorism and civil wars in Africa. Is there any truth to these reports?

Ivory has always been used to fuel conflict and fund terror groups. We know that ivory trade is funding Joseph Kony and his disgusting adventures in the Central African Republic. We know that children are being abducted to go and kill elephants and carry ivory. We know that ivory is being exchanged with guns which are killing a lot of people not only in [Democratic Republic of] Congo but also in South Sudan.

What is the likely outcome of the upcoming CITES conference? Do you think the African Elephant Coalition will succeed in their push for a total ban on ivory business?

My prediction is that the status quo will be maintained. We will get what we want, that is, the ban will continue to be in place, but moving all elephants to Appendix I might not happen. But I could be wrong; it depends on how emotional things get at the CITES conference.