CITES: Victory at Last – Elephants!

22 March 2010, Doha, Qatar: The vexing dilemma of our times, human needs versus that of nature ruled the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) today when a battle ensued between Parties for and against the downlisting of the African elephant as proposed by Tanzania and Zambia. Both countries argued that human-elephant conflict was on the increase and that the needs of the people should take priority. Elephants came out on top when both proposals were rejected.

The proposals aimed for the one-off sale of both countries ivory stockpile and which if successful would have signaled to poachers and criminal syndicates in Africa to increase poaching. For Tanzania this sale meant $20 million (USA), which amounts to 1% of their annual tourism revenue. “We wanted to use the money for conservation and community development. People are living with elephants and suffering a lot,” the head of delegation for Tanzania later told the press.

This argument was shared by Zambia who felt that they have a sovereign right to sell their stockpile. South Africa supported both proposals and said during the debate: “Are we going to watch people being killed, crops destroyed? Our conscience tells us we should do the right thing and support the proposal.” But Ghana accused Zambia of using this angle as a facade saying: “We all know that communities do not benefit from the sale of ivory – we therefore do not support the downlisting.”

Records indicate that poaching of elephants in Africa is spiraling out of control to feed the increasing demand for ivory in China, the biggest importer of illegal ivory, and thus threatening the long term survival of this iconic species. African elephant populations have more than halved in the last 40 years to 500 000 animals.

The general consensus amongst those against the proposals was that though the African states acknowledged and even shared the problems and concerns around the human-animal conflict issues, CITES dealt strictly with trade of endangered species and therefore was not the correct forum for this complex issue.

Kenya, and other members of the African Elephant Coalition, expressed bitter disappointment that elephants, which have dominated CITES for years were still being discussed. Since a nine year moratorium in trade of ivory was agreed upon in 2007, albeit defective since it applied only to the countries previously allowed one-off sales, they argued that 23 African countries had in good spirit accepted this. They urged the moratorium to be upheld. 

In response to the proposals being defeated, the head of Tanzania’s delegation said: “If there is a chance to open the debate in the plenary then we will play or last card. We feel we should fight to the last minute.”

Fundisile Mketeni, Deputy Director General of Biodiversity and Conservation Department of Environmental Affairs, South Africa, said: “We are disappointed because we subscribe to sustainable use and feel that the proposals were in the best interest of conservation and genuine.” South Africa felt that countries should be rewarded for good conservation efforts. But that both Tanzania and Zambia are amongst the largest sources of, and transit countries for Africa’s illegal ivory did not bode their proposals well from the start.

World renowned elephant conservationist and biologist, Dr Iain Douglas-Hamilton, said that elephants needed to be conserved because they afford African countries valuable eco-tourist interests. He added: “Elephants are sentient beings whose lives should not be taken carelessly or greedily. We should respect other life forms – elephants are one of the most wonderful creatures we share this planet with.”

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