Elephant ivory trade under scrutiny at upcoming wildlife conference

The fate of the elephant hangs in the balance this weekend as the international body that regulates trade in endangered species gathers in South Africa.

African countries, conservation groups divided on best way to manage elephant populations

The fate of elephants in Africa hangs in the balance at the annual Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in Johannesburg. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

The fate of the elephant hangs in the balance this weekend as the international body that regulates trade in endangered species gathers in South Africa. 

The 17th meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) kicks off in Johannesburg on Saturday and runs until Oct. 5. 

This meeting of 183 member countries comes against the backdrop of a surge in elephant and rhino poaching in recent years in Africa, which has raised the emotional, ecological and economic stakes in this round of big-animal diplomacy.

A key focus of the meeting will be a number of divisive proposals about the ivory trade and elephant protection.

On the one hand, a coalition of 29 African countries led by Kenya is proposing CITES completely ban the ivory trade across the African continent and classify all elephants under the most highly protected category.

On the other side, three southern African nations — Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe — want elephant protection rules relaxed to allow a global ivory trade.

An elephant walks during sunset in Amboseli National park in Kenya. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

Animal classification 

Since 1989, a global ivory trade ban — imposed in response to a wave of poaching — means that nobody can sell ivory across international borders. But that doesn't mean elephants are totally protected. 

Some countries, including China, still allow domestic ivory trade, which contributes to illegal poaching and smuggling.

In most African countries, elephants are listed under Appendix I, reserved for species regarded as highly endangered or threatened with extinction. Trade in such species or their byproducts for commercial purposes is banned. 

But in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia, elephants are listed under Appendix II, which allows some tightly-controlled domestic trade, such as the buying and selling of live animals and legal trophy hunting.

The African Elephant Coalition, made up of 29 countries, wants all elephants classified under Appendix I, bringing any and all ivory trade to a halt.

They also want to destroy existing ivory stockpiles. 

The southern African countries, with the exception of Botswana, plan to fight the proposal to reclassify elephants. Namibia and Zimbabwe are further calling for an end to the international trade ban so they can sell off their ivory stockpiles.

Selling ivory for conservation 

While it may seem like the southern countries are pushing an anti-elephant agenda, both sides argue their polices are pro-conservation. 

The number of Africa's savannah elephants dropped by about 30 per cent from 2007 to 2014 — to 352,000 — because of poaching, according to a UN recent study. But the population destruction is not spread evenly across the continent, and southern counties with more robust elephant populations believe they should not be treated the same way as other nations hit hard by elephant poaching,

South Africa Environment Minister Edna Molewa told Reuters her country supports the motion to sell off stockpiles because ivory sales are needed to pay for the ecological and social costs of large elephant populations.

"If you look at the communities that are bearing the brunt of living with these animals, their ecological systems are degraded and they lose food security and grazing lands," she said.

In 2008, when CITES allowed a one-off sale of 102 tonnes of elephant ivory from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe to China and Japan, those countries raised $15.4 million for elephant conservation.

What's more, trade proponents argue, putting a price on elephants lets people see them as a natural resource worth protecting.

A group of elephants, believed to have been killed by poachers, lie dead at a watering hole in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park, in October 2015. Zimbabwe wants to sell its stockpile of elephant ivory in order to fund conservation efforts. (Reuters)

But opponents are concerned that if CITES allows ivory to be traded — even from stockpiles and as a one-off event — it would send a signal that it is socially acceptable, which could spur demand and further poaching.

A June 2016 study by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research backs that idea. 

It noted an estimated 71 per cent increase in ivory smuggling out of Africa since the 2008 sale, and couldn't find any other explanation, natural or otherwise, for the dramatic spike. 

"These data suggest the widely documented recent increase in elephant poaching likely originated with the legal sale," the study concludes.

'A smoke screen for an illegal trade'

Conservation groups, meanwhile, are divided on the best way to proceed. 

The World Wildlife Fund has argued that classifying all elephants as Appendix I will just cause southern countries to pull out of the convention and resume unregulated trade.

Some regulation, it argues, is better than none.

"Far from increasing the level of protection, up-listing opens up a loophole window where countries who want to trade can effectively opt out of the treaty as far as elephants are concerned," spokesman Colman O'Criodain told the BBC.

A Kenya Wildlife Service ranger stacks elephant tusks, part of an estimated 105 tonnes of confiscated ivory that were later set ablaze on a pyre at Nairobi National Park near Nairobi, Kenya, April 20, 2016. Kenya wants all ivory stockpiles destroyed. (Thomas Mukoya/Reuters)

Frank Pope, operations manager at Save the Elephants, a Kenya-based group, told the Associated Press that elephant populations will suffer if African countries don't unite to oppose the ivory trade.

"If one of the nations that wants to sell ivory decides to sell ivory and manages to put that onto the market, that creates a smoke screen for an illegal trade to flourish across the whole of the rest of the continent," he said.


  • An earlier version of this story said CITES was a United Nations body. CITES is an international agreement to protect endangered plants and animals.
    Sep 23, 2016 8:45 PM ET

With files from Reuters and Associated Press