Editorial Comment: CITES must follow science on elephant trade

19 May, 2022 - 00:05 0 Views
Editorial Comment: CITES must follow science on elephant trade Minister Ndlovu

The Herald

Zimbabwe along with most of its regional neighbours, and especially Botswana, faces a severe and growing ecological crisis with far too many elephants for the available range, even though Southern African countries are very generous over how much land is set aside for elephants.

At present the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species bans all trade whatsoever in both species of African elephants and all elephant products, labelling the bush elephant overcrowding Southern African ranges endangered and the forest elephant critically endangered. 

For most African elephants across most of their range this makes sense, and there is a strong African lobby from countries hit by serious poaching joining the groups outside the continent that see total protection as desirable.

But Southern Africa is different. Poaching does exist, but is very low level because of the measures taken by the wildlife services of the affected countries. 

This was not always the case, and colonial armies in the liberation wars and subsequent dissident groups using poaching to fund their rebellions took their toll. 

There are stories of Rhodesian army officers using an entire company in their elephant hunts. But those days are now long gone and the elephant herds are growing dramatically.

At present Zimbabwe can accommodate 45 000 African bush elephants, the species that occurs in our part of the continent, and we have 90 000. 

Fairly soon we can expect to see some serious and accelerating environmental degradation followed by a major ecological collapse. 

We have fairly recent history of this, what wildlife experts still call the Sebungwe disaster, in the 1950s when after half a century of intense protection in the area centred on what are now the Gokwe, Gokwe North and Kariba districts, but incorporating some of the surrounding areas, the elephants ate their way into a near total collapse. 

They had destroyed most of the woodland and eaten the grass, and so they died in very large numbers and a lot of other animals died with them.

The ecological problem arises from the fact that an ordinary elephant cow can have around seven calves over her breeding life. 

There are premature deaths of cows and calves in accidents and the like, but generally speaking a group of cows produce more than the replacement numbers.

Those who believe that “nature” will sort out the ecology forget that the African elephants, and especially the bush elephant, have evolved with just one natural predator, genus Homo now represented by Homo sapiens. 

The next most dangerous predator, the lion, does not go for elephants since they are too large and too dangerous.

This meant that the “balance of nature” was maintained by human hunting. It took a lot of planning and effort for a group of hunter gatherers armed with spears to hunt an elephant, but the reward was high. 

This was why when humans moved into ranges of other elephant species with slower breeding cycles they wiped out the mammoths and other large mammals across Eurasia and North America.

But in Africa, where humans evolved, they were part of the natural order. 

Admittedly, the extreme levels of poaching seen in too much of Africa show human hunting grossly overdone, but this is not the problem in the south of the continent, where there is not enough hunting.

The Sebungwe disaster was a wake-up call and led to the introduction of controlled hunting and culling. No one in the wildlife services, now centred in ZimParks, enjoyed the culling, which saw entire targeted herds taken out to minimise disruption, but no one could see an alternative. 

After independence what was then the radical Campfire programme was introduced. Basically a small group of highly professional and innovative wildlife officers were able to use the political changes to get acceptance of their idea that the smartest way to handle wildlife and other biological resources was to “trust the people”. 

And in particular they wanted to trust the people who had to live with and near wildlife, accept the damage that this wildlife caused and take ownership of the conservation of that wildlife for the benefit of the communities. 

One of the main income sources was controlled hunting, with the numbers of each species to be hunted to be set by the best expert advice available, and that advice coming from ZimParks was very good. 

Elephant were the highest value animals, by a decent margin, and trophy hunting and a very tightly controlled ivory market provided some serious revenue that could go into protection of wildlife and give the communities next to the wildlife some decent income. 

Poachers were now thieves, not people tolerated for killing dangerous animals.

All that ended as CITES, pressed by non-African groups and countries like Kenya with severe poaching, continually tightened up on bans on trade in ivory and hides, making them in the end complete. 

The only legal tusks now traded are from mammoths, still being dug up in places like Siberia or Canada.

Southern Africans are not being unreasonable. 

They have agreed that any legal trade must be tightly controlled, and are quite prepared to use the latest scientific advances that would allow genetic tracking of their legal elephant products and distinguish these from illegal poached ivory from countries that have found it near impossible to control poaching effectively.

CITES experts would monitor everything, check counts and other research and would be used to make legal trade as foolproof as possible. 

This is the first prize, to remain within CITES, see CITES accept scientific fact and amend the rules for those Southern African countries that need to trade and have the populations of elephant that make trade necessary. 

This would require CITES to move from politics to science.

But Zimbabwean Minister of Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality Industry Mangaliso Ndlovu has upped the stakes this week by suggesting that, if there were no other options, Zimbabwe and presumably others in the region could move outside CITES and set up elephant trade, under the same controls of course that would be used in CITES-sanctioned trade.

This would be a drastic option, but unless CITES is willing to follow the science rather than the politics generated by those who learned their wildlife theory from nursery books, we may have no other option. 

We should still maintain the anti-poaching, and have the high-level controls and continue to follow CITES rules where these make scientific sense, as so many do when no one is looking at “cute” animals.

Share This:

Sponsored Links