By Adam Cruise

This article was originally published by the Conservation Action Trust. 

South Africa, along with Namibia and Zimbabwe, will not be joining 29 other African nations in calling for a total ban on ivory sales – in fact, they are about to do the opposite.

In a proposal to be submitted at the 17th Conference of the Parties (CoP17) of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) to be held in September-October in Johannesburg, South Africa, the three nations are pushing instead to establish a process for an international trade in ivory – demanding minimal regulation of trade with limited safeguards for the continent's beleaguered elephants.

In contrast, and in an effort to afford elephants the highest protection under international law, the coalition of 29 African countries, a body that represents over 70% of the 37 African elephant range states, will be presenting a comprehensive suite of five proposals at CoP17.

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Demand from China pushed the price of ivory from $120 per kilogram in 2002 to $2,100 per kilogram in 2014. Image: Freeland/Siwaporn T


A call to arms – the Montreux Manifesto

At a meeting in Montreux, Switzerland, from 24 to 26 June, the 29 concerned African countries, united as the African Elephant Coalition (AEC), have issued a manifesto asking the rest of Africa, and world, to join them in saving Africa’s elephants.

“The Montreux Manifesto shows that our message is clear,” says Bourama Niagaté from Mali, a member of the Council of the Elders for the Coalition. “We need to all pull together for the sake of Africa’s elephants.”

Among other things, the AEC countries are proposing that all African elephant populations and their range States fall under the CITES Appendix I listing, which effectively bans any commercial trade in elephant products.

About half the continental population was lost in the decade before the Appendix I listing in 1989, and a dramatic spike occurred again after a "one-off" ivory sale in 2008 to China and Japan. The sale was the second since Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe were granted a special Appendix II listing in 1997 followed by South Africa in 2000; the first “one-off” sale took place in 1999 before monitoring systems had been established.

Vera Weber, president of the Swiss-based Fondation Franz Weber, a partner organisation of the AEC, which facilitated the meeting points out that, "CITES saved African elephants from certain extinction 27 years ago by listing them on Appendix I. It ended the poaching crisis and elephant populations began to recover, until their protection under CITES was weakened, causing poaching to escalate again."

A recently report published by National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts reveals there was a 71% increase in illegal ivory smuggling out of Africa since 2008. The "one-time legal sale of ivory stocks in 2008 was designed as an experiment," the report states, adding that its global impact had not been properly evaluated beforehand and concludes: "We find that international announcement of the legal ivory sale in 2008 corresponds with an abrupt increase in illegal ivory production."

"The one-off sales were opposed by most African nations," says Patrick Ormondi, Co-Chair of the AEC, “It was granted. It hasn’t worked. So now we have an opportunity to do it the other way round."

Even Southern Africa, the long-viewed bastion of African elephants, is witnessing a steady rise in poaching with notable hotspots in northern Zimbabwe, and the surrounding area of Namibia's Zambezi Region that includes southern Zambia and south-eastern Angola. These countries are now facing a renewed threat from criminal syndicates.

South Africa too has seen an exponential increase in elephant poaching, especially in the Kruger Park. Until 2014 there had not been a single poaching incident for a decade. In that year there were suddenly two poaching-related deaths. This increased to 22 elephants last year. Already in 2016, according to Kruger's Chief Ranger, Nicholus Funda, "the numbers have been steadily increasing." 

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Ivory seized from poachers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In Asia, this pair of tusks is worth $1,000 a pound. Image: Jonathan Hutson/ ENOUGH Project, Flickr


A divided continent

Yet despite the overwhelming evidence supporting a total ban with an Appendix I listing, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia will be submitting their counter-proposals for deliberation at CoP17 effectively calling on the CITES Standing Committee to permit unrestricted commercial exports of ivory.

"A divided message will spell doom for Africa’s elephants," warns Patricia Awori the Secretariat of the AEC, who "longs for a time when all Africans unite to save its elephant heritage for future posterity."

Awori fears that the opposing proposals submitted by South Africa and its near-neighbours in Johannesburg in September could block an uplisting of African elephants, and open the door for more disastrous one-off sales.

"For too long the Southern African tail has been wagging the African dog," says Dr. Keith Lindsay, a technical expert for the AEC, "It’s time to restore the natural order."

"Ours is a clear and simple message," says Awori, "A vote for Appendix I is a vote for Africa’s elephants."