Sifelani Tsiko-Agric, Environment & Innovations Editor
Zimbabwe is leading a jumbo-sized offensive to ratchet up pressure on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) – the international body that monitors endangered species to lift restrictive measures on the trade in raw ivory and allow once-off sale for its guarded stockpiles to fund the conservation of its growing and threatening elephant population.
In the build-up to the African Elephant Summit pencilled to be held in Hwange from May 23 to 26, Zimbabwe is already mounting pressure on CITES and galvanising 14 African elephant rangeland countries to press the watchdog which continues to prohibit trade in raw ivory.
The country wants to use the summit to build consensus around wildlife management, take stock of successes and failures and monetise huge stockpiles of ivory which have piled up as a result of the negative impact of the ban on international trade in elephant by-products.
And recently, Zimbabwe opened its vaults containing some 136 tonnes of ivory and rhino horn as it launched its diplomatic offensive to elicit the support of the European Union to sell off US$600 million worth of ivory it has accumulated due to the global ban on the sale of tusks.
“The burden of managing a stockpile that we cannot derive economic value, or plough back into the communities and conservation of the same species is quite a great pain to us,” Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (Zimparks) director-general Mr Fulton Mangwanya told EU ambassadors to Harare who toured the vaults.
“We kindly request the support of the EU for Zimbabwe to be allowed a once off sale of our national ivory stock.”
Zimbabwe took a tough decision to invite ambassadors from the United States, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, Australia, France, United Kingdom and the European Union as well as Japan and China to view the stockpiles to show its unhappiness over the instrumentalisation of raw ivory for political purposes at major CITES Conference of Parties (COP) gatherings.”
The country was pushing to compel western countries to support its call to dispose of its more than 136 tonnes of ivory and rhino horns worth over US$600 million to fund conservation programmes.
For several decades, Africa has remained divided at all CITES gatherings. Zimbabwe wants the continent to rally together and speak with one voice on matters that pertains to its conservation agenda, sustainable conservation and trade in wildlife products.
Zimbabwe wants to build the momentum of a rising chorus of unified African voices to press the global wildlife body to allow African elephant rangeland countries to dispose of their huge ivory stockpiles to fund sustainable conservation programmes.
The country argues strongly that a “one-off sale” of the cache, seized from smugglers and poachers, and harvested from carcasses found in the country’s national parks, would raise US$600 million to support wildlife management operations.
It also wants a renewed push for Africa to speak with one voice and promote a common African position on sustainable and legal trade in wildlife products at most major CITES gatherings.
The Elephant Summit to be hosted by Zimbabwe is expected to set the tone for common position of African elephant rangeland countries at the forthcoming CITES 19th Conference of Parties (COP 19), scheduled for November 2022 in Panama, Central America.
Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality Industry Minister Mangaliso Ndlovu expressed his deep unhappiness over the banning of ivory sales and the continued restrictions by CITES to sell wild elephants caught in parks which are struggling to manage their overloaded parks.
“We are clear that we are not going to CITES to beg them. We are going to CITES to present our strong position, a position which we are willing to defend, even if it means being outside CITES,” he said recently.
“We are there in CITES to share our success stories for the benefit of those countries who want to also experience the successes in the conservation that we have experienced, not to be lectured on how we conserve our wildlife.”
Zimbabwe has a booming elephant population that was estimated to be growing at a rate of between five and eight percent.
Wildlife experts say this was unsustainable and would lead to a rise in animal fatalities.
“All possibilities of us selling our excess live elephants to those who want to populate their areas have been cut under CITES,” said Ndlovu.
“They have introduced an amendment to the current CITES provisions, which says we can only sell to appropriate and acceptable destinations, literally meaning we can only sell to the African countries most of whom have these elephants in abundance.”
Zimbabwe is keen to unlock the value of the stockpile and use all proceeds to implement its National Elephant Management Plan, which covers conservation measures and initiatives aimed at enhancing protection of elephants inside protected areas.
“Since the elephants rely on habitat components beyond the protected area, we need to make a lot of investments to support local communities that are bearing the brunt of living with dangerous wildlife for wildlife to remain a viable land use option through the community lenses as they have the power to support elephant conservation outside protected areas, including movement corridors or converting such landscapes into more fragmented and unviable habitat for wildlife,” said Mr Mangwanya.
The human-wildlife conflict is escalating and Zimbabwe is expected to use data on this problem to make a separate appeal in Panama for permission to sell some of its elephants to address this issue.
More than 200 people have died from elephant attacks over the past five years in Zimbabwe.
An estimated 40 percent of the cases involved elephants encroaching on human habitats in search of water.
This year alone, 60 people were trampled by elephants according to Zimparks – in what critics say showed a conservation success story that has led to increased conflict with humans, but is hardly supported by CITES.
African countries have remained divided on major trade related issues.
For instance, proposals by SADC countries to have the ban on ivory trade lifted have been strangely opposed by a group of mainly East African countries calling for a total ban on the ivory trade to save elephants from imminent extinction.
The divisions have led to a ban on the open, legal trade in elephant ivory and rhino horn and the imposition of a battery of measures to control domestic ivory markets – mostly in Asia and other parts of the world.
Dr Alistair Pole, a veteran African Wildlife Foundation research and conservation management argues that the CITES – the international treaty that regulates the trade in wildlife products which dates back to 1975 – was deeply flawed and biased against the interest of Africa.
“CITES treaty is deeply flawed,” he said. “CITES was created to facilitate and manage trade in endangered species but it has now become a political organisation and Africa is the biggest loser.
“Some of the systems it uses have not changed over time. Decisions made at CITES are the outcome of a system of global votes. The share of votes must vary depending on the share of say elephant (wildlife) resources.
“Africa needs to have a common position. The continent must unite and rally behind its own interest. Africa must speak with one voice. We have to have Africans voting for African solutions.”
Most African protected areas need about US$200 per hectare to maintain and protect wildlife species in their game parks.
Many in southern Africa are struggling to maintain the parks due to lack of adequate resources and manpower. Southern African nations including Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia have for years been battling the global wildlife trade regulator to grant them rights to sell ivory acquired through natural deaths, confiscations and culling.
The countries are home to the world’s largest elephant population.
Southern Africa is home to half of Africa’s elephants and Zimbabwe’s population of more than 100 000 against a carrying capacity of 45 000, is only second to that of Botswana in the world.
Neighbouring Botswana has the world’s largest elephant population with more than 130 000.
Together, Zimbabwe and Botswana have nearly 50 percent of the world’s elephants.
The booming elephants are destroying the trees and shrubs that are vital for them and other wildlife.
Western countries, supported by many other animal rights groups, have been on a global drive to shut down all Asian ivory markets, as well as pushing the US and European countries to impose a total ban on ivory trade.
For decades, debate over sale of ivory from African elephants has focused on the benefits that income from ivory sales may bring to conservation and to local communities living side-by-side with these large and potentially dangerous animals versus concerns that such sales may encourage poaching.
The fight has mainly been between those countries that have sizable populations of elephants and want to ensure sustainable use and those countries that have already decimated their elephant populations.
Most Southern African countries which include Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania and South Africa have always supported the proposal to review the ban on trade in ivory.
Conservationists estimate that after Botswana and Zimbabwe, the country with the third highest number of elephants is Namibia at 24 000, Zambia 27 000, South Africa 24 000 and Angola 3 400.
Angola’s herd declined sharply from 70 000 – its pre-war figure (1975) as elephants migrated to Botswana at the height of that country’s civil war.
Sadc countries often stand nearly alone in opposing the destruction of illegal ivory stockpiles and a total ban on ivory trade among a slew of measures widely believed to combat poaching.
Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa benefited from their stockpiles in 2008 when Cites approved a once-off ivory sale to China and Japan.
Other sales in these countries took place in 1999 and 2008 and earned some US$20 million for elephant conservation and community development programmes in and around the elephant range areas.
Zimbabwe and some Sadc countries are concerned about the negative consequences of a ban in trophy hunting, ivory trade and destruction of stockpiles.
And Zimbabwe’s attempt to draw renewed attention to injustices that come with CITES restrictions should be supported to ease the unhappiness of countries which are paying a heavy price for their successful conservation stories.
CITES restrictions undermine wildlife conservation and expose local communities that live adjacent to the parks to risks of injury and death.