At the start of October, representatives from 183 countries gathered in South Africa for one of the largest and most influential global conservation gatherings, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES).
A major topic at this year’s convention was the current status of the African Elephant population, and the global ivory trade that has fuelled the decline of the animal. With numerous elephant conservation programmes spread around Southern Africa, African Impact has an invested interest in the outcomes of the conference.
The debate surrounding this topic encompasses a wide range of viewpoints and complexities, and naturally, the conclusions from this year’s convention were mixed for all parties involved. While many countries wished to grant the African elephant full protection (and therefore propose a complete ban on all trade in ivory), many others argued for elephant culling and fought for their right to utilize the economic benefits of the trade.
By the end of the conference, the proposal to move the elephant from Appendix II to Appendix I, to provide them with extra protection, failed. As well as this, the proposal to close legal ivory markets and for all countries to destroy ivory stockpiles also failed.
Many commentators, understandably, regard the convention to have been a complete failure for elephant conservation. After all, elephant populations have decreased by up to 30% in the last 7 years alone. However, with the disputes as far–reaching as they are, it will take decades for all parties involved to agree upon, and enact, the necessary procedures to stabilise numbers. The demand for ivory as a status symbol in large parts of Asia, as well as the human-elephant conflict in Africa, has existed for centuries, and we cannot expect any resolution to be achieved over the 10 days of CITES17.
Hope is not lost, though. If we review all outcomes from CITES in an objective manner, and actually set ourselves realistic targets, we can then draw noticeable progress from the conference.
CITES now officially recommends that countries with legal domestic ivory markets start closing them down, and guidelines for the management (including disposal) of ivory stockpiles are now being developed. Both of these are significant indicators that the discussion is moving in the right direction, and it seems almost inevitable that within a matter of years these ‘recommendations’ and ‘guidelines’ will eventually evolve into international legislation.
Of course, even if these international laws are created, the black market will most likely continue to find a way to supply the demand from Asia, which is higher than ever before. However, even with the expansion of the Chinese middle class, it is hoped that enough of these ‘nouveau’ status-symbol-seekers will eventually be convinced against owning ivory by the deterrent of their national judicial system. Ideally, in years to come, the stigma attached to ivory will not be of wealth and power, but a physical representation of criminal undertaking.
Until this ‘utopia’ is achieved, there are a number of initiatives non-political organisations are involved with to hopefully slow the decline of the species. These include increasing the scope of anti-poaching measures, as well as alleviating human-elephant conflict by managing the spaces that elephants roam in, and minimising any proximity to settlements.
We at African Impact are also doing our part, by partnering with an organization in Namibia who work to provide safe habitats for elephants, and also by working closely in Zambia with communities affected by human-elephant conflict. In Livingstone, where this program is based, our research volunteers monitor the local elephant species, conduct research and work with community members to encourage an environment where elephants and humans can live safely side-by-side.
Recently, the group unearthed brand new information when they discovered a whole herd of elephants regularly swimming over the Zambezi River to and from Zimbabwe throughout the seasons; proving that the elephants’ range is much larger then people originally thought. With more information like this we can gain a greater understanding of the animal, and consequently tweak on-the-ground conservation techniques to strengthen their efficiency.
Through programs like this, and an increase in exposure over the last few years, there are promising signs that the elephant crisis is garnering more attention and funding. With significant improvements to the effectiveness of anti-poaching techniques, authorities are catching and detaining more poachers than before. The problem, however, is that they are being replaced at a faster rate than they can be caught. Until a majority vote can be passed in CITES to ban all elephant killing, and the respective governments of the Asian ivory markets cooperate whole-heartedly, demand for ivory will continue to rise. Until then, the rest of the world can only continue to do everything it can to alleviate pressure on the ground and, like all these things, hope that we haven’t left it all too late by the time political measures are actually enacted.