In a packed conference room yesterday, the CITES membership voted to continue to protect the African elephant and limit future trade in elephant ivory, but voting failed to move all remaining elephant populations to CITES Appendix I. Three proposals were introduced at CoP17 concerning trade in elephant products. Proposals #14 and #15 were introduced by Namibia and Zimbabwe, respectively, asking to exempt their countries from existing CITES restrictions on trade in ivory stockpiles and live elephants. Numerous countries, including Kenya and Gabon, spoke against these exemptions, insisting that elephants are in crisis, and that allowing any trade in ivory would create a market in which legally held ivory could not be distinguished from poached ivory. There is precedent for this concern. When ivory sales were allowed in 2008 there was a surge in elephant poaching, with a flood of illegal ivory hitting the market. Several delegates spoke to the role of organized crime in elephant poaching, and the loss of over 1000 wildlife officers that have been killed by poachers.
Proposal #16 was sponsored by 13 African countries, and would have moved African elephants in four countries – South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana – from Appendix II to Appendix I. It would have prohibited all trade in ivory, and prevented future amendments to allow ivory sales in individual countries. (All other range states already have Appendix I listing for their elephants.) Numerous African countries opposed the proposal, including three of the four countries it would affect (Botswana boldly broke ranks to support the Appendix I listing). These dissenting countries called for regional rather than international regulation, and claimed that their own elephant populations are not threatened. South Africa also stated that the elephant trophy hunting they allow generates funds for better conservation of many species. Nearly all conservation organizations had campaigned for the implementation of Proposal #16, with an end to ivory sales and elephant trophy hunting. This issue is certain to be raised again at CoP18 to be held in 2019, let’s hope elephant populations can hold steady until then. Many here are not optimistic…
Jennifer Schmidt, PhD
Director of Science & Research
The Shark Research Institute