Don Pinnock, Daily Maverick | October 12, 2021
Elephants, like humans, are highly social, sentient animals. Flushing babies out of panicked herds with trucks and choppers for captivity in zoos and entertainment parks or crating them individually for long-haul transport to non-African countries is cruel. It’s also highly detrimental to their welfare.
So when the Parties to the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) resolved in 2019 that it was unacceptable to remove wild elephants from their natural habitat, conservationists celebrated. It had been a long battle.
No less than 87 CITES Parties had voted to restrict trade in elephants to only in-situ conservation programmes or secure areas in the wild within the species’ natural and historical range. Wild elephants, it was asserted, could no longer be shipped to zoos and circuses, barring exceptional circumstances or emergency situations.
The dust settled, Covid trans-border restrictions tamped it down and elephant sales fell out of the news. But the desire to profit from elephants did not leave the field. There were some who were poring over the small-print, particularly Namibia and Zimbabwe.
In December 2020, Namibia published a tender for the sale of 170 wild elephants from the north of the country. It said the elephant population had grown from about 7,500 in 1995 to 24,000 in 2019 (a hotly contested claim) and said the sale was a way to reduce overpopulation and the resulting human-animal conflicts.
In Zimbabwe, Kenyan film-maker and environmental investigator Karl Ammann got a tip-off that there were plans afoot to put together a Hwange elephant capture team with the help of a Chinese link-man.
Namibia had previously unilaterally decreed some live elephants it wanted to trade as Appendix 1, which should confer the highest level of protection. This was based on its interpretation of an addendum to the CITES annotation that says that if Namibia doesn’t comply with the conditions listed in the annotation, the “specimen” in question should be upgraded to Appendix 1. Paradoxically, the in-situ restriction doesn’t apply to Appendix 1 elephants.
This interpretation is highly controversial and sets a dangerous precedent for the future protection from trade of wild elephants.
Conservationists were confident that the 2019 CITES ruling would block these sales, but, on 8 September, the organisation posted an advisory on its website that appeared to offer exporting countries the go-ahead to export on what it called a “special Appendix 2 conditionality”.
The advisory appeared to go against the 2019 in-situ CITES ruling and it was not a call the secretariat was legally entitled to make. According to Georgina Lamb, CEO of the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation: “The secretariat’s intervention is highly irregular and has potentially troublesome consequences. It appears to give a green light to these contentious exports and to pre-empt the authority of the CITES Standing Committee by offering an opinion on a legal matter that is still undecided by the Parties.”
The Franz Weber Foundation agreed that the secretariat appeared to have overstepped its mandate. Its job, it said, was to “ensure the operational functioning of the Convention and not to substitute the Parties’ judgement on how the Convention is applied”.
It reminded the secretariat that Namibia’s interpretation of the CITES regulations was under review with the CITES Standing Committee. Any exports of elephants, therefore, ought to be shelved until the committee issued its findings in 2022.
According to the CITES advisory, live specimens from the Namibian African elephant population could be traded “for in-situ conservation programmes” so long as it wasn’t detrimental to the survival of that species and that the recipient country was suitably equipped to house and care for the animals. It also said export could take place as long as it was “not primarily commercial”.
There are two big holes in that. First, “in situ” means “in place”, which must surely preclude trade to elsewhere. The second problem is the word “primarily”. A zoo, for example, could claim it’s primarily a conservation organisation but it is undoubtedly a commercial operation.
Botswana’s Southern Times noted the effect of the advisory: “CITES has given Namibia the thumbs up to commercially trade live elephants, potentially opening the door for other southern African countries to do the same. Countries like Zimbabwe have in recent years faced a backlash for commercially exporting elephants and CITES’s approval of Namibia’s proposed sale of jumbos could make things easier for other countries in the region.”
Namibia’s plans for the sale became public in August when it announced it had accepted three of five bidders for the sale of 57 elephants, 42 of which were to be exported.The statement did not say who the importers were. In 2013, Namibia exported 24 elephants to Mexico and Cuba through the use of its Appendix 1 interpretation.
The Franz Weber Foundation warned these captures and exports would likely endanger some of Namibia’s elephant populations and were unlikely to benefit local communities. The foundation, as well as other NGOs, including Born Free, the Humane Society International and Pro Wildlife, have appealed to Namibian authorities to urgently halt these exports and have asked the CITES Secretariat to withdraw any statement that appears to endorse Namibia’s intentions.
They noted that captures would also take place within the country’s unique desert-adapted elephant population, already threatened by years of drought, habitat loss and trophy hunting.
The imminent capture of elephants in Zimbabwe was denied by the government. A spokesperson for Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority said accusations were “speculative” and “baseless”.
Commenting during the 31st meeting of the CITES Animal Committee in June, the Zimbabwean delegate Rosaline Mandisodza, chief ecologist at ZimParks, denied there were export plans: “We are no longer trading outside of range. We are guided by the animals committee and the secretariat.”
But the Pro-Elephant Network, a worldwide association of elephant specialists, said it continued to receive intelligence that its concerns were legitimate and it sent a letter to Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa, the CITES Secretariat and the Chinese Conservation Department calling for the immediate suspension of capture plans.
It added that, according to the CITES trade database, between 2012 and 2019, Zimbabwe had exported 140 juvenile elephants to captive facilities in China, and another four to the United Arab Emirates.
CITES seemed to have realised it had opened the loophole too wide and, on 17 September, tried to walk back its earlier statement with a replacement even more convoluted than the first (which was deleted).
Its updated statement, however, failed to clarify that the secretariat was not endorsing the exports as seemingly implied in the first statement. The secretariat’s statements appear to give Namibia and Zimbabwe the potential cover to move forward with exports.
According to Dr Mark Jones, head of policy for the Born Free Foundation: “What Namibia proposes – using a dubious interpretation of the listing rules to create a loophole that suits their purpose – risks driving a coach and horses through the underlying principles of the convention and the authority of decisions agreed by the Parties.”
Lynn Johnson of Nature Needs More was disgusted by the mess. “Given all the loopholes, the non-binding agreements and the fact that after 45 years of operation it isn’t yet mandatory for CITES signatories to have an enforcement authority, it’s time for the CITES convention to get a significant overhaul… CITES is failing to protect endangered species and is failing to ensure that all trade is legal. Given the scale of biodiversity loss as a result of trade, this is no longer acceptable and CITES needs to be modernised.”
In an appeal to world leaders at the G20 in Rome last month, former CITES Secretary-General John Scanlon seemed to agree. The CITES framework for regulating trade and combating wildlife crime, he said, was inadequate and posed a risk to public health.
At the time of writing, there was no evidence that either Namibia or Zimbabwe were halting arrangements to export elephants out of their natural habitats and to the rest of the world.